It’s not just a new, mixed-income residential housing project that’s going up in the Wheatley Courts Choice Neighborhood on the Eastside: The level of pride and success residents have in their community is rising, too, officials said Thursday.

The Choice Neighborhoods Initiative, part of a federal grant program that started in December 2012, is directly and indirectly supporting an array of improvements in and around Wheatley Middle School on the Eastside, including opportunities for infill housing, business upgrades, and an urban farm.

These enhancements are accompanied by other community investments and positive neighborhood news, including near-perfect attendance at the Young Men’s Leadership Academy, and a planned Bibliotech.

These developments were just some of the examples given to highlight progress made by the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative on Thursday at the Antioch Community Sports Complex where more than 70 residents listened to public and private sector partners laud the initiative.

The implementation of the Critical Community Improvements plan is the next major step and residents provided input on the plan’s development by recommending how current and future projects could positively impact each other in the neighborhood.

“Critical Community Improvements are important in a Choice Neighborhood because every neighborhood is different,” said Morris Stribling, chairman of the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) board.

Stripling said the demolition of Wheatley Courts, which he described as unfit for human habitation, was key to demolishing the “vestiges of racism” in San Antonio.

The low-income Wheatley Courts housing project was the scene of crime and gang violence for decades, and a symbol of local racial and economic segregation.

SAHA has used $30 million from the Choice Neighborhood Grant, Bexar County and the City to develop East Meadows, a 215-unit housing community, in place of the Wheatley Courts. Early on in the planning process, residents told community partners that the new housing should look like contemporary housing, rather than the depressing, institutional appearance of Wheatley Courts.

The development firm, McCormack Baron Salazar, will start marketing the East Meadows that features more modern architecture in July. Leasing opportunities will be broken up into phases, the first phase will lease 66 apartments later this summer. The garden home- and townhome-style units will range in size from 675 to 1,500 sq. ft.

“This is more than just about new housing, but having safe, affordable housing so that people can be proud of where they live,” Stribling said. “Everyone in San Antonio should have an opportunity to live like this, and that shouldn’t be contingent on how much money you make.”

Community partners said the rise of East Meadows represents a chance to implement several kinds of improvements in the immediate neighborhood.

East Meadows mixed-income housing is under construction on the site of the former Wheatley Courts housing project site, promising safe, affordable new housing to Eastsiders. Photo by Edmond Ortiz
East Meadows mixed-income housing is under construction on the site of the former Wheatley Courts housing project. Photo by Edmond Ortiz. Credit: Edmond Ortiz for the San Antonio Report

The City will invest $6 million in street upgrades as part of its contribution to the East Meadows project, said Mike Etienne, director of the City’s EastPoint office, which coordinates Choice Neighborhood and Promise Zone initiatives.

Gevers Street and one part of Burleson Street have been completed, with another section of Burleson 70% done.

“We’re working with you to ensure quality of life is fantastic,” Etienne said.

County Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4) said other major benefits are coming to the Eastside, such as the opening of a University Health System clinic. Calvert said local leaders hope to formally name it after the late Dr. Robert Hilliard, a renowned community physician.

Calvert also said Union Pacific has allowed the County to purchase 10 acres of property along its rail line that runs just north of Wheatley Middle School. Those 10 acres will become an urban farm, complete with community involvement and educational opportunities.

St. Phillip's College. Photo by Scott Ball.
St. Philip’s College is located in the Wheatley Courts Choice Neighborhood. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

(Read More: SA Housing Authority Announces Eastside Urban Farm)

The Bexar County Agriculture Extension will move its headquarters to the farm, and San Antonio Master Gardeners is providing a monetary donation so it can open a public events venue there. The venue, Calvert said, could host weddings and other family friendly gatherings, as well as community group meetings.

“This will be a huge image change for this community,” he said.

Calvert also said he is working with State Sen. José Menéndez (D-26) to propose legislation that would allow special taxing districts to appropriately respond to hyperinflation of property values.

People fear their rising property taxes will soon force them and their neighbors out of the area – just when public and private investment is adding critical infrastructure and neighborhood amenities, Calvert said. Aid from those special taxing districts could help affected homeowners stay in their changing neighborhood.

Educational opportunities are another key part of a Choice Neighborhood Initiative. Laura Cole, administrator of the County’s Bibliotech program, briefly talked about plans to bring the all-digital library to the Eastside.

The new Bibliotech will take up 4,200 square feet of space at East Meadows, with an opening targeted for February 2017. It will feature 46 desktop computers, a children’s room, and community meeting space, Cole added.

YMLA, which opened in 2015 as the city’s first all-boys public campus, accommodates students in grades 4-6. The academy has a goal of 80% passage of state-mandated tests over a five-year period.

The 2015-2016 school year exceeded that goal, with 94% of students passing their reading assessment, and 91% passing their math assessment, said Mateen Diop, executive director of technology and information systems for the San Antonio Independent School District. The academy had one of the highest attendance rates in the district.

Young Men's Leadership Academy advertisement along the Martin Luther King, Jr. march route in the Eastside. Courtesy photo.
A billboard for Young Men’s Leadership Academy was placed in plain view of the Martin Luther King, Jr. March route in the Eastside in January to attract applicants. Photo courtesy of SAISD.

“We’re not getting them ready for high school, we’re getting high school ready for them,” Diop said of YMLA students.

Tony Leverett, director of the Eastside Promise Neighborhood, said the academic success at YMLA shows how community investment can benefit a school and its students.

“Our kids want to be in school. We’re providing the teachers with the resources they need,” Leverett said.

Adrian Lopez, SAHA’s community development initiatives director, said Resurgence Collaborative program has done well to involve community members in crime prevention and helping neighborhood residents caught up in the local criminal justice system.

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These partnerships provide a solid foundation for the additional community improvements that residents seek, officials said. Those six strategies include:

  • Completing the urban farm and developing programming that engages the neighborhood;
  • Supporting request for proposal for developers to develop new infill housing to reduce the number of vacant lots;
  • Providing opportunities for up to 27 select eligible property owners to rehabilitate their homes;
  • Matching grants for upgrading facades of businesses owned by people who own their commercial property in the Choice Neighborhood footprint;
  • Encouraging residents, especially veterans, to take advantage of services and higher education at the Good Samaritan Veterans Outreach and Transitional Center;
  • “Beautifying” the neighborhood by planting more than 200 trees, installing public art projects that depict the neighborhood’s heritage, and other physical improvements.

Councilman Alan Warrick II (D2) said he understands there are fears of gentrification on the Eastside, but the Choice Neighborhood Initiative is designed to encourage and empower the same residents to remain in the community for a shot at a better life.

“This isn’t about (displacement). It’s about bringing people back here where they can have a better future,” he added.

Top image: East Meadows, the Wheatley Choice Neighborhood housing development, is under construction on the Eastside.  Photo by Scott Ball.

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Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.