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You don’t need to be a lawyer to argue the merits of bringing St. Mary’s University School of Law back to downtown San Antonio. The city’s urban core will soon be energized with thousands more college students with the planned expansion of the University of Texas at San Antonio’s downtown campus. Adding St. Mary’s law school to the mix will only accelerate growth and development in the state’s most historic and inviting center city.
If it happens, several years from now some 770 law school students will find themselves walking the same streets the school’s first students walked nearly one century ago. Law school students first attended classes in the historic Bexar County Courthouse beginning in 1927. St. Mary’s School of Law opened its doors in 1934 at 112 College St., home now to the Omni La Mansión del Rio. Students attended classes downtown for 40 years until a major campus expansion along Culebra on the West Side led to the law school’s move out of the urban core.
Graduates have gone on to distinguished law careers in San Antonio and beyond. One in particular is high profile alum, Martin Phipps of Phipps Deacon Purnell, whose own namesake Phipps Building has been a prominent addition to the Museum Reach. Phipps was the first person to propose the move and has since led the charge. It so happens that the building he developed, best known for its rooftop Paramour Bar, sits on the river across St. Mary’s Street from Central Catholic High School, a feeder prep school to St. Mary’s. It’s a short walk from there to the 7-acre site on Jones Avenue owned by the San Antonio Museum of Art where Phipps and other law school alums hope to site the new school.
Their interest is more than academic. Phipps told me last week that he has pledges from enough successful law school alumni across the country to raise the $20 million that is being offered to SAMA trustees as the principal payment for the undeveloped property, with annual $1 million payments to follow for a number of years.
A nonprofit, Project Legatum, has been formed to raise funds and oversee eventual construction of a $200 million, 350,000-square-foot building to house the law school and other mixed-use tenants. Over time, title to the building would be transferred to the university, Phipps said last week.
That proposed land purchase price is a reflection of how high River North parcels of a certain size along the riverfront are now fetching. The view from the Broadway corridor today is a study in construction, with towers and major projects in all stages of completion.
Yet that sum apparently is not enough to persuade key museum trustees to sell. Phipps received a letter from SAMA on Friday, Dec. 13, declining the offer.
SAMA Director Katie Luber announced her departure in October after eight years to take the same position at the bigger Minneapolis Institute of Art. Before she left, Luber presided over staff cuts, education outreach programs being curtailed, and a sequence of challenging building maintenance issues that totaled several million dollars in necessary repairs.
Taken together, Phipps and others, including Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, who sent museum leadership a letter supporting the land sale and law school move, assumed the time was right for the museum to sell the undeveloped property and put the $20 million cash infusion to work.
Over the years I have heard Luber and other museum supporters consider the property for everything from an outdoor sculpture garden to a restaurant and beer garden to expanded exhibition space. No idea, or the funds to support it, ever seemed to reach fruition.
There are, of course, other parcels available in the urban core, and there is some logic to UTSA President Taylor Eighmy and St. Mary’s University President Thomas Mengler searching for ways to work together.
What’s interesting for downtown advocates is to see how ideas and visions are developing independently as the city’s center becomes a more attractive destination. Certainly the idea of moving the law school back has never been part of any master plan, but it’s the kind of great idea born out of successful development projects now completed.
More than a vibrant downtown is at stake. The law school itself would become a far more attractive option for prospective students if they knew they would be living and studying along the River Walk, close to the state and federal courthouses. The St. Mary’s main campus is an island located along an economically stagnant Westside commercial corridor.
It would be a pity for the law school move to stall because buyer and seller can’t be matched. I’m betting that will not be the case.