Healy-Murphy Park occupies less than one acre on the near-Eastside with a few picnic tables, a swing set, and small basketball court. But this long-neglected pocket park, inhabited only by vagrants, has sparked an intense conversation as changing demographics lead to raised expectations in the neighborhood.
Across the street, the Healy-Murphy Center has served teenagers in crisis for 120 years, operating a non-traditional high school, a child development center, and providing essential services. Pregnant teens and those who already have given birth are given priority admission. It’s a safe place for young girls to come to school with their babies.
One place the at-risk teenage girls cannot go with their babies is across the street to Healy-Murphy Park.
The park itself is bookended by the badly-neglected historic Dullnig-Schneider House on one side and a Salvation Army emergency services center for the homeless on its other side. The center serves homeless men looking for a bed, clothing or a meal who cannot or will not avail themselves of services at the Haven for Hope, which requires continuing sobriety to gain admission. The park is a convenient place to sleep and get sober, smoke, and loiter, where the vagrants are left largely alone by police, despite the fear they project on the young mothers attending school across the street.
Add to this precarious mix a proposal by businesswoman Sherry Chaudhry, owner of the Comfort Suites Alamo/River Walk at 505 Nolan St. one block away, to redevelop the park and the property where the Dullnig-Schneider House now sits into a new budget hotel. Chaudhry has a long-term lease with the City on the historic property and has made no secret of her desire to use it for new development. Her proposed mix of a new hotel, residential properties and retail promises more neighborhood jobs, new economic activity, and a park swept clean of blight and vagrants and converted into private property.
Her plan has attracted neighborhood supporters, but it’s attracted a lot more opponents who also are tired of the City allowing homeless centers to operate loosely amid residential settings, a problematic exception to the unwritten rule in San Antonio. No other residential historic district in the city faces the same challenges.
A few years ago, Chaudhry’s development plans might have sailed through the gates and checkpoints of City government, with muted attention to neighborhood protests. What’s changed is Dignowity Hill. It’s become a destination neighborhood for young professionals buying and fixing up vacant houses and other affordable properties where homes can still be had for as little as $100,000 only one mile from the Alamo. The newcomers have brought with them elevated expectations for urban living, and the political and organizational skills to demand that development, preservation, and public safety protocols followed assiduously in other historic inner city neighborhoods be brought to bear in Dignowity Hill.
Such newfound attention to the city’s redeveloping Eastside, which also happens to be home to Mayor Ivy Taylor, is shifting the balance of power from developers to now include residential property owners. Chaudhry’s plan is not a new one. She first proposed the land purchase to the City in 2008 and informally resubmitted the plan this year. What drew little attention seven years ago, however, had the opposite effect this time around. While some longtime residents and those in the business community see economic development, members of the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association and other community organizations challenged the loss of a public park, and began to ask why present conditions are allowed to exist, preventing its use as a park and placing teen mothers at risk if they venture across the street.
“Something has to change,” DHNA President Donalda “Dee” Smith said. “We’re not waiting another 10 years until another person wants to buy it.”
Chaudhry’s unsolicited offer to buy and close the park – an informal request without any dollar figures at this stage – triggered the City’s process of determining whether or not to move forward with the sale:
“The very first step is to find out if there is neighborhood support,” said Mike Etienne, director of EastPoint and Real Estate Services for the City. “At the moment, we’re not marketing the park for sale. … The City takes community input very seriously. Because of that we are waiting to receive feedback from the neighborhood association.”
Etienne has attended most of the public meetings regarding the project. He said there doesn’t seem to be a clear consensus for or against the hotel proposal. Smith disagrees, pointing a to a lively, well attended meeting hosted by the neighborhood association on Nov. 16 that she said reflected a clear shift for keeping the park and cleaning it up by addressing issues at the adjacent Salvation Army center.
Instead of leaving matters to a vote for or against the Chaudhry plan, Smith said she wants to see an alternative plan presented by the association’s officers.
“What happens when this neighborhood develops and there are residents living near there? We’d be stuck with a hotel when there could have been a park,” said DHNA Vice President Brian Dillard. “It’s just bad to sell off greenspace.”
The strongest common ground between Chaudhry and the neighbors is the shared belief that something needs to change on that block.
“I don’t have to build the hotel and I don’t have to buy that land,” she said. “They’ve got all the time in the world to decide, but (my proposal is) going to be gone in January. … Nobody (else) is building on the Eastside of the freeway.”
Chaudhry, of course, has a business interest in raising up the neighborhood. While there are much easier parts of town to develop than the Eastside, Chaudhry said she wants to be part of positive change in the neighborhood, too.
“Unless there’s a bigger tax base they’re not going to get it.” she said. “Parks are great in our neighborhood— but it depends on what they’re close to and what they attract.”
Right now, it’s a public park in name only, Dillard said. Neighbors and others passing through to downtown probably know the corner of Nolan and Chestnut streets for the Salvation Army’s shelter, which provides emergency shelter for men as long as they’re sober. Lines form at the shelter’s front door early in the evening.
“I would like to see Healy-Murphy (Center) have that park,” Smith suggested. “Just put a fence up to keep out the vagrants. (The Salvation Army) is just too close to children and daycare. It’s just too much and they can’t even use the park. These guys come and try to get a bed in Salvation Army so they just hang out at the park to sober up.”
Smith said a shelter for women and children would be more appropriate.
At planning, zoning, historic, and design commission meetings, you can typically find strong voices on all sides of the economic impact/historic preservation balancing act coming from Dignowity Hill.
This time, Dillard said, “this is the one time we’re pretty united. … The neighborhood wants it to change, but it doesn’t want a hotel.”
Since March 2013, Chaudhry has had a 20-year lease with the City’s Parks and Recreation Department, with a 20-year renewal option, on the vacant Dullnig-Schneider House on the park’s northeast corner. El Centro Del Barrio, a medical clinic, served the local homeless population for 20 years in the home until it moved into the new Haven for Hope facilities on the Westside in 2009.
Chaudhry has not made any improvements to the house, but she has fulfilled her obligations as a tenant to at least maintain the condition of building, according to Xavier D. Urrutia, director of San Antonio Parks and Recreation. Urrutia said Chaudhry is not obligated to improve the property. Her $550 monthly lease fee could be reduced by the City were she to invest in improving the property, he said. To date Chaudhry says she has hired architects and and engineers to look into options for the property.
Chaudhry has been told by engineers that the stone house cannot be moved.
“Beyond the hurdle of purchasing the property – moving the house would be even a bigger hurdle,” Urrutia said. “From initial reports her engineer provided, they did not recommend moving the building. … And the City’s first (concern) is always to keep the building intact where it’s at.”
As with most property leases, there’s language in the contract that would allow the City and the tenant to terminate the contract amicably. “But we have no reason to think that’s something she wants,” Urrutia said. “We’re willing to let (her proposal) play it’s course.”
A few nearby warehouses are used for various commercial purposes and there a couple of small houses on Chestnut Street, which is home mostly to light industrial buildings that followed the arrival of the railroad in the late 19th century. The Red Roof Inn Downtown and Chaudhry’s Comfort Suites are less than a block south on Live Oak Street.
Regardless of the park’s future, an integral challenge the neighborhood faces is how to balance mitigation and accommodation of the pervasive vagrancy on the Eastside.
“The people that are hanging out in the park that are homeless are not necessarily coming from Salvation Army,” said Douglas Watson, executive director of the Healy-Murphy Center. They have rules that require residents to either find day jobs and participate in the community – “they’re the ones walking to catch a bus.”
Across Nolan Street, the Catholic Healy-Murphy Center runs a private, nonprofit high school diploma and GED program, which serves about 188 low-income and at-risk girls. Across Live Oak Street in a large historic building is the Healy-Murphy Child Development Center, where 106 children receive daycare, early childhood education, and pre-K classes. Pregnant students also receive care and services. The combination of services, in collaboration with SAISD and partially funded by the City, allows young mothers to complete their primary education while relieving the burden of childcare during school hours. All of the programs are at capacity, Watson said. The Healy-Murphy Center is a United Way partner agency and is highly regarded in the nonprofit world for its work and its positive community impact.
The center was founded as St. Peter Claver School in 1888 amid Ku Klux Klan violence and Jim Crow laws by Mother Margaret Mary Healy-Murphy of Ireland, as the first Catholic Church and privately-funded school for African-Americans in Texas. It recently underwent a $5.5 million renovation over the course of several years and fundraising efforts are still underway to raise the remaining $150,000 to finish work on the church.
“We are definitely invested in this corner,” Watson said. “We’re not going anywhere.”
Watson said he personally has not discussed Chaudhry’s plans with her.
Chaudhry has big plans for the four-block section just outside the historic Dignowity Hill Historic District. The property is actually included in the Healy-Murphy Historic District, the smallest such overlay in the City. But those plans for the project she calls “East Point Village” are entirely contingent on the cooperation of property owners, she said.
Chaudhry said she was prepared to abandon the plan entirely after a failed attempt in 2008, but she was approached by Rev. W. Raymond Bryant, pastor of the nearby Bethel AME Church, to pursue the project.
“The initiative had to be from the community,” she said. “I didn’t want to be the big, bad developer.”
Chaudhry, doing business as La Villita del Rio Development, applied for and was granted eligibility for more than $1 million in Inner City Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone funding – distributed only if she was able to acquire the land and build the mixed-use “nucleus” of apartments, extended stay rentals, commercial space, and parking.
“There’s not a land owner over there that doesn’t have a bid from me,” she said. “(But) I have nothing under contract at this time.”
The project renderings and presentation were mainly to “show people what could happen in the Eastside,” she said. “I will still do something with the (Dullnig-Schneider) House regardless if they don’t sell me the park. But at the end of the day, it’s not going to do anything for the community.”
Her plan for the house, if she has to leave it on site, is to look into having it renovated into meeting and administrative space for the Comfort Suites.
Some neighbors are brewing up ideas of their own for the historic home.
Longtime resident and community activist Nettie Hinton has suggested that it become a substation for downtown, bike, and park police to use as an inner-city substation. Smith suggested it could be a museum that recognized the work of Mother Healy-Murphy and the historical significance of nearby Ellis Alley, one of the first African-American settlement areas in San Antonio that dates back to the post-Civil War era, when new Texas laws granted ex-slaves the right to own property. Watson recalled an effort led by a former manager at the Salvation Army to start a community garden.
“I think there might be a lot of better ideas than to develop,” Watson said. “What would (a hotel) contribute to the neighborhood?
The neighborhood split comes, Dillard and Smith said, when you talk to residents versus property/business owners. The DHNA hopes to lead a fair process leading to a vote. They have encountered at least two property owners who attempted to purchase memberships (which generally equates to a vote) for each piece of property they owned.
“You’re buying votes?” Dillard asked hypothetically. “If I was rich and I could buy 100 properties, it’s my neighborhood now.”
Chaudhry said she was looking into the DHNA’s bylaws to see if property owners do indeed have the right to more votes if they own more than one plot. Some neighborhood associations across the state have a “one vote per physical address” rule for business members.
“When there is a group of people making a major decision, I’m just hoping that the voice of everybody is really heard,” Chaudhry said.
*Top image: Healy Murphy Park at 210 Nolan Street.