Robert Rivard

A Catholic medical school in the heart of San Antonio’s downtown that would share a campus with a public magnet school for health care careers took a big step forward Monday night. The school would serve, geographically and ecumenically, as the center of a growing downtown medical district by knitting together six different public and private hospitals and clinics.

San Antonio Independent School District trustees voted unanimously at the district’s board meeting Monday to enter into a non-binding agreement with the University of Incarnate Word to lease three acres of the former Fox Tech High School athletic complex as the site for the medical school and a 500-unit parking garage.

Rendering of the proposed medical school. Courtesy of Duende Design Architects/Centro Partnership San Antonio..
Rendering of the proposed medical school. Courtesy of Duende Design Architects/Centro Partnership San Antonio.
SAISD board president Ed Garza
SAISD Board President Ed Garza.

“I believe (UIW President) Dr. (Lou) Agnese wants to bring a letter of intent to his board for consideration in October, so really, the ball is in UIW’s court,” said SAISD Board President Ed Garza following the vote. “But this is pretty exciting, the prospects are good.”

Only a month ago, Brooks City-Base on the city’s Southside appeared to be UIW’s first choice among four possible locations disclosed in June when its board approved a $2.5 million feasibility study. The other locations included a UIW-owned facility on Datapoint Drive near the Medical District that currently houses the Rosenberg School of Optometry and a location near I-35 and Walters.

The availability of vacant downtown property, its proximity to many existing medical facilities, and the initiative of Centro Partnership to broker a deal involving UIW, SAISD, the City of San Antonio and Bexar County turned the Fox Tech option into the preferred location in a very short space of time.

An aerial view of the Fox Tech site as it currently exists. Courtesy of Centro Partnership San Antonio.
An aerial view of the Fox Tech site as it currently exists. Courtesy of Centro Partnership San Antonio.

The UIW medical school would be within easy walking distance of Christus Santa Rosa’s Children’s Hospital of San Antonio, the Baptist Medical Center, University Health System’s Robert B. Green Clinic, and the city’s Metro Health Clinic. The Nix Medical Center and Metropolitan Methodist Hospital also would be minutes away.

For Centro Partnership and its CEO, Pat DiGiovanni, fruition of the deal would represent a major accomplishment for the still-nascent public-private entity whose mission is to promote downtown economic development and attract more people to live and work in the urban core.

Centro Partnership CEO Pat DiGiovanni
Centro Partnership CEO Pat DiGiovanni

“In essence, we’ve acted as a broker, as facilitator, even conducting a little shuttle diplomacy between the two entities to make sure we create a deal that benefits all parties,” DiGiovanni, the former deputy city manager, said. “It hasn’t been a traditional land transaction or economic development deal. This is about advancing the education agenda of both the SAISD and UIW and keeping our focus on the goal to improve education outcomes in the urban core.

“People will return to the urban core when we can give them strong neighborhoods and good schools,” he said. “This is exactly what Centro envisioned when it was created, to help drive private-public collaborations.”

The city and county will have to buy in at a significant level to make the downtown medical school a reality. Bexar County is being asked to contribute $5 million, half the cost of the $10 million parking garage, with UIW providing the other half for a jointly owned private-public facility. One enticement for the county is the parking garage’s adjacency to the country’s $125 million planned redevelopment of San Pedro Creek. Visitors would be able to park less than a block from the Creek Walk.

The City is being asked to contribute $7 million for streets, sidewalks and utilities. Under the current proposed plan, a new street would be cut through the former Fox Tech campus, connecting North Flores and Main Streets to Cameron Street and the proposed redeveloped San Pedro Creek, and at the eastern end of the campus to the proposed Romano Circle (see rendering).

Under the current proposed terms, SAISD would become UIW’s downtown landlord, giving the university a 25-year lease on a three-acre parcel with a 25-year right of renewal. UIW would pay for the construction of the school and pay SAISD $1.5 million in the first two years following the closing. UIW has not disclosed any details about the ultimate cost of the school or if it has any likely donors lined up, but Agnese has built an almost legendary reputation over his 20-year presidency for fundraising and bringing major capital projects to completion. Naming rights for a UIW medical school would probably net UIW millions.

Courtesy rendering of the proposed medical school project site.
The Fox Tech site with the proposed medical school and parking garage. Courtesy of Centro Partnership San Antonio.

Some commercial developers might raise an eyebrow at the $25/sq. ft. valuation that SAISD said an independent appraiser placed on the Fox Tech land, given the infrastructure investment that will be necessary to upgrade the former high school campus.

But a lease deal renders the valuation moot in terms of any potential land sale,. The presence of a UIW medical school and a formal education partnership with the magnet school, which now enrolls about 450 students, likely would attract students from more affluent districts throughout the city. Tony Piazzi, a consultant working with Centro, recently visited the DeBakey High School for Health Professionals in Houston, a highly successful collaboration between the Houston ISD and the Baylor College of Medicine that would serve as model for SAISD in its efforts to create a top-ranked inner city high school.

The proposed deal includes a list of UIW financial incentives for SAISD students and faculty.

The university, which currently enrolls about 50 SAISD students with each incoming freshman class, would increase scholarship support by offering $3,000 annual grants to any SAISD student attending UIW undergraduate programs at its campuses. That additional assistance, coupled with existing scholarship programs, would make UIW more affordable for inner city applicants.

UIW also would establish a $100,000 endowment and add $100,000 annually over the life of the 25-year lease to assist SAISD students seeking advanced degrees in health-related professional schools. UIW also would establish an annual $50,000 fund to assist SAISD teachers interested in pursuing advance degrees or teaching certificates.,0,8027482300510423073&ei=8pcuUpzZI8TC2AXmhIHYAw&ved=0CKUBEPwS
Google map of downtown San Antonio, Fox Tech High School/project areal indicated.

Although there has been no discussion of additional development on the Fox Tech campus, the former athletic fields could easily accommodate at least two other significant buildings, which opens up the possibility of SAISD developing a single downtown central administrative complex  and selling its hodge-podge of Lavaca properties, all of which likely would attract developers interested in building more residential housing in Southtown.

“This is great for the city, great for the downtown, great for our students, and great for UIW’s students,” said SAISD Trustee Debra Guerrero.

SAISD Trustee Debra Guerrero
SAISD Trustee Debra Guerrero

The medical school would be only the second private medical school in the Southwest after Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Its downtown location would hold special appeal to inner city Hispanics, particularly those attending the magnet health care high school, as an easily accessed destination school in a city with a shortage of family practitioners in the urban core. Nationally, experts cite the declining number of family practitioners in major cities as a looming crisis.

UIW intends to open an osteopathic medical school, offering a medical curriculum that emphasizes treating the whole person and not just specific illnesses or symptoms, with a particular focus on the body’s musculoskeletal system. A focus on preventive medicine and teaching patients to adopt healthier lifestyles also differentiates osteopathic medicine from traditional medical school curriculum. Most osteopathic physicians enter primary care fields, such as family practice and pediatrics. The only other osteopathic program in the state is at the University of North Texas in Fort Worth.

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.  

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Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.