The Alazan-Apache Courts, the oldest public housing project in San Antonio.
The Alazán Courts is the oldest still-occupied public housing project in San Antonio. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The San Antonio Housing Authority board has approved a contract that marks a major step forward in plans to redevelop Alazán Courts, an 82-year-old public housing complex on the near West Side.

San Antonio-based Able City, an architectural and design firm, will develop a master plan for the 23-acre site over the next year. SAHA chose the firm Thursday after earlier this year canceling plans to raze the dilapidated apartment complex and partner with developer NRP Group to replace it with mixed-income housing. Some Alazán residents and housing advocates opposed SAHA’s earlier plan, fearing existing residents would be displaced and unable to afford the housing that would replace the original apartments.

The project is estimated to cost $145.3 million, but final costs can’t be calculated until after the master plan is complete. There are 501 units in the complex and the average resident’s yearly income is less than $8,800.

“I want to ensure to the community that we will be inclusive every step of the way,” SAHA Board Chair Ana Margarita “Cha” Guzman said about the new master plan contract. “Able City has a reputation for being very collaborative, and we will use every inch and ounce of their collaboration to work with the tenants [and] the community … to make sure that what is developed is something that will work for all of us.”

The approved amount for the contract was up to $281,750 and it can be renewed for an additional six months if needed. The two finalists for the contract, Able City and Saldana & Associates, gave presentations about themselves to Alazán residents, neighbors, and community advocacy groups such as the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center before the firm was selected.

The consensus out of those meetings was “very close to 100%” that Able City should do the master plan, said Timothy Alcott, SAHA’s chief legal and real estate officer. SAHA’s executive team also gave Able City higher marks.

“We’re honored to do this,” Mario Peña, an Able City principal and partner, told the San Antonio Report. “We find fulfillment in finding projects that are at the intersection of … architecture and planning [and helping] helping the cities and communities that we work in.”

One of the main selling points of Able City’s proposal likely came from the firm’s dedication to community engagement and transparency, Peña said — something that community advocates have said was lacking in previous plans for Alazán.

The core of the master plan will be based on “bringing all parties to the table in a collaborative manner,” he said, noting that even the process in which the plan is formed will include community input.

The high-profile Alazán project has seen its fair share of controversial headlines, but Peña is confident that this approach will produce a plan that both educates and satisfies stakeholders.

“The idea is that there’s a path to move forward with all parties knowing everyone else’s limitations and everyone’s aspirations,” he said.

Graciela Sanchez, executive director of the Esperanza Center, said she is cautiously optimistic that the process will lead to a successful, community-driven project.

“Everybody uses all these catchwords — everybody says ‘transparency,’ everybody says ‘democracy and civic engagement,’ everybody says, ‘We’re going to pay attention to you,'” she said. “But some of us continue to hold on to hope” that those words will be put into action.

Graciela Sanchez, director of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, speaks outside the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) offices in 2020. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Built in 1939, Alazán Courts was the first public housing in the city. SAHA officials had previously said it would be too expensive to renovate the units due to the complex’s cinder block walls and other challenges associated with its age. Last year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation put the complex on its annual list of “America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.” 

Sanchez wants to see the complex preserved rather than partially or totally demolished.

One of Able City’s selling points was that they have someone on staff with expertise in identifying funding mechanisms for the project, Sanchez said.

“If there’s no money, then they’re going to say this is impossible to preserve … so let’s tear it down,” she said. “We didn’t want that to be an excuse.”

In addition to an estimated $70 million of its own money, SAHA is seeking $75 million from the City of San Antonio’s 2022 bond program along with funding from other federal and local sources. The $75 million sought from the bond includes $40 million for new construction and $35 million for utility and street infrastructure.

Under the NRP Group contract, Alazán would have become a 658-unit mixed-income development with rents set to different levels of the area median income (AMI), from market rate to less than 30 percent AMI. Some units would be subsidized by SAHA through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Affairs. NRP Group would have managed the property after it was built.

Without housing tax credits and federal bonds that would have accompanied the NRP Group partnership, SAHA will need to find other funding avenues, which may include some of those same sources.

SAHA’s decision to end its partnership with the NRP Group came weeks after the departure of CEO David Nisivoccia, who left the agency to take a similar post in Denver, and the appointment of Chief Financial Officer Ed Hinojosa Jr. as interim CEO. In July, Hinojosa was named permanent CEO.

“I think there’s always a place for the public-private partnerships, and we are actively working on some right now,” Hinojosa said. “But what is clear to us is that there’s a need for — there’s actually an extreme need for — additional public housing in San Antonio. We have about 40,000 people on our waitlist — waiting for housing — and these are individuals that have extremely low income.

“One approach that we’re taking differently than we’ve done in the past is we’re self-developing,” he said.

Once the contract is finalized with Able City, Hinojosa said, the firm will “begin the community engagement process with the community, with residents and of course with SAHA.”

SAHA wants to undergo a slower redevelopment process, which will require more construction phases and aims to prevent displacement, he said. The previous plan would have required two phases over a total of about six years to demolish and reconstruct the 501 units.

Hinojosa acknowledged that the new approach “will not be as fast.” While units are constructed or renovated, residents can live at the nearby Legacy at Alazán apartments, which will have 40 units available for public housing next year, and other SAHA housing.

“There are people in the community and residents that want Alazán demolished and rebuilt and there are others in the community that want to preserve the units and modernize them,” he said. “Fortunately, the architect [Able City] we’ve chosen has experience in both of those approaches.”

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org