A dilapidated community of 1950s-era garden apartments near Port San Antonio could soon be added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) on Wednesday approved a request from the Texas Historical Commission to designate 33.5 acres of Billy Mitchell Village and 22 apartment buildings and other structures as a historic landmark, based on its significance to military history and its architecture.  

Located west of General Hudnell Drive, the two-story brick veneer buildings that once housed post-war military families stationed at Kelly and Lackland Air Force bases are undergoing a complete overhaul. The goal of the $62 million acquisition and renovation is to provide 384 housing units by next year, most of them as affordable housing. 

Real estate partnership Port SA Redevelopment, as the current owners of the property, initiated the historic designation process in order to qualify for historic tax credits, said Ellis Mumford-Russell, partner at Post Oak Preservation Solutions, a consulting firm overseeing the application process. 

Valerie Ramirez walks with her 1-year-old daughter, Molly G, to their unit at Billy Mitchell Village. Ramirez said she expects to move her family this month when another unit on the property is renovated and ready for occupancy.
Valerie Ramirez walks with her 1-year-old daughter, Molly G, to their unit at Billy Mitchell Village. Ramirez said she expects to move her family this month when another unit on the property is renovated and ready for occupancy. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

There are more than 150 sites in Bexar County listed on the National Register, including religious and educational institutions, historic homes, the Alamo and places such as the Randolph Field Historic District.

With the HDRC’s recommendation for the Billy Mitchell Village secured, the path to a National Register listing will now take the project to the State Board of Review, an agency affiliated with the historical commission, and then the National Park Service for approval. 

“The National Register is essentially an honorific,” Mumford-Russell said. “It does not create any regulations or sort of authority over the building unless you are going for historic tax credits.” 

But because the developers of the Billy Mitchell project are seeking historic tax credits, which could amount to a 25% break for qualified rehabilitation expenses and 20% from the federal government, the work is subject to review by the state historical commission and the National Park Service, she said. 

If the historic designation is approved, the renovation work must meet the Secretary of the Interior’s standards for rehabilitation guidelines.

“My job is to help negotiate between my client, the design team and the reviewers, and interpret those standards so that we can all be happy, so that we can make a product that’s going to … make really nice apartments while keeping the important features,” Mumford-Russell said. “The big picture is to keep the features of the historic building that tell us how it used to function.”

Though it could be listed on the National Register, the development will provide active housing known as The Preserve at the Port. “It’s not like a museum,” she said. 

Billy Mitchell Village was designed by architect Erwin Gerber for the Department of Defense and built in three phases between 1949 and 1951, according to documents prepared by Post Oak. Named for Army Gen. William Lendrum Mitchell, the community consisted of 1,000 units in 45 Colonial Revival-style apartment buildings arranged in park-like “superblocks” with sidewalks, playgrounds and laundry facilities. At the time, it was called the largest military housing project in the nation’s history.

The development was one of many built across the country as a result of the 1949 Wherry Act, signed into law to help the Air Force and Navy address their housing shortages and retention problems. Wherry allowed for public-private partnerships between the government and private industry to construct military housing. Southwest Homes constructed the 94-acre Billy Mitchell development with Federal Housing Administration.

A local newspaper ad from 1950 describes the apartments as “designed to capture all prevailing breezes” and shows a floor plan for a 3.5-room furnished apartment that rented for $65 a month. Utility costs were extra, with gas and electric averaging about $6 monthly, according to an officer candidate school reunion website from 1958.

The proposed historic district is a subsection of the original development, and includes, in addition to the 22 apartment buildings, 19 carports and laundromats. Excluded from the nomination are several other buildings that the preservationists say have lost historic integrity due to drastic alterations. Two buildings were badly damaged by fire. 

The exterior of the buildings won’t change much during the renovation, Mumford-Russell said. The entry doorways are being restored to what they were based on original photos; the character-defining windows are being fully restored and modified, and the landscaping improved. 

The architecture firm Architexas, which has offices in Dallas, Austin and San Antonio, is leading the design team and also developed the plans for an open-air pavilion and a clubhouse for the property. 

“On the interior, they’re pretty simple apartments so it’s really just keeping the circulation pattern on the interior, the stairs and landing, and some of the general finishes, but we can update the kitchens and the bathrooms,” Mumford-Russell said.

The project is also eligible for federal low-income housing tax credits. Forty percent of the 1, 2, and 3-bedroom units will be offered to people making 60% of the area median income (AMI), and others will be offered at 70-80% AMI, said Joey Guerra, development partner and majority owner of Port SA Redevelopment.

The firm is working with the nonprofit San Antonio Housing Trust as a partner, he said. 

The development, opened to the general public in the 1960s, was plagued by crime before Guerra’s group took over. “Shootings, theft, vandalism [were] a common occurrence here,” he said. “Through our efforts of having on-site patrols, working with the Thompson Neighborhood Association, and working with the people at Port SA, we’ve done an incredible job of cleaning up this area.”

Most of the 60 to 80 residents who lived in the complex before construction began six months ago have moved out, he said, and based on an agreement with the Housing Trust, those who remain have been assured that their rents will not increase until at least 2024. That includes one woman who has lived in the apartments since fleeing New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Guerra is proud of the project. “There’s a lot of social and moral gratification that goes with it,” he said. “I don’t want to sound corny, but … we’re doing a good thing there.”

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.