A map of Promise Zone and Choice Neighborhood programs on the Eastside. Map courtesy of EastPoint.
A map of Promise Zone and Choice Neighborhood programs on the Eastside. Map courtesy of EastPoint.

A program designed to improve the lives of families and opportunity for new business in San Antonio’s most neglected neighborhoods is making progress.

The city is investing federal grant monies and seeing signs of advancement in the way of new housing in EastPoint, a four square-mile area on the Eastside, home to the largest concentration of African-American families and small businesses. EastPoint was born from a series of summits held in 2010 about ways to reinvest in the Eastside and has emerged into the spotlight with two different initiatives, Promise Zone and Choice Neighborhood, bringing federal dollars and tools into the area.

The EastPoint Promise Zone is a federal designation through which a variety of resources are available to help create jobs, increase economic activity and public safety, improve educational opportunities, attract private investment, and reduce poverty, provide affordable housing.

“It really takes a village to revitalize a neighborhood,” Mike Etienne told the City Council in a B session meeting Wednesday. Etienne, the city’s EastPoint director, briefed the council on the program’s status.

San Antonio is the only city to receive the Promise Zone 10-year federal designation, supported now by three major federal revitalization grants. San Antonio is the only city to land two of the grants: a $23.70 million Promise Neighborhood grant, and a $29.75 million Choice Neighborhood grant. The third grant, from the Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation program, totals $920,000 and was more recently awarded by the U.S. Department of Justice.

“Since the Promise Zone designation, we have received $32 million in additional federal funds,” Etienne said.

Mike Etienne, director of EastPoint/Promise Zone briefs Mayor Ivy Taylor and the City Council on the positive impacts that various reinvestment efforts have made so far in San Antonio's Eastside. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.
Mike Etienne, director of EastPoint/Promise Zone briefs Mayor Ivy Taylor and the City Council on the positive impacts that various reinvestment efforts have made so far in San Antonio’s Eastside. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

EastPoint is working with 19 local private ventures, non-profits, educational institutions, city and Bexar County agencies and even the Spurs to revitalize this historically neglected part of the city.

According to Etienne, 13% of Choice Neighborhood grant money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has been spent on neighborhood improvements. The overhaul of the Wheatley Courts housing development is a signature project there. The razing of the 1940s-era, 248 unit complex was just completed.

Plans for a new Wheatley Courts development call for 417 mixed-income apartments, including senior housing built out in three phases. Construction crews are scheduled to work on the site from this April to the end of 2017, with the first residents due to move in next January. San Antonio Water System (SAWS) and CPS Energy are among the public local entities committing funds toward the redevelopment of Wheatley Courts.

New infill housing and renovations is another EastPoint’s revitalization objective.

“We’re looking to acquire vacant lots and houses to build over 50 infill homes, which will be sold at 120% of the (Area Median Income), which works out to $70,000 for a family of four,” Etienne explained.

EastPoint is also looking at rehabilitating more than 20 currently occupied homes. All homes will be built to design guidelines.

“We must have homes that fit the character of the community,” Etienne said. He added that the program will led new homebuyers here with down payment and closing cost assistance.

Catalytic projects make up another component of the EastPoint program in the way of redevelopment. One such project, the Alamo Beer Company brewery will have its grand opening on March 6. Terramark Urban Homes recently finished building 12 town homes in the Cherry Street Modern development. All of the town homes were sold before completion.

Property development and management firm Herman and Kittle is taking on a $39 million project in the redevelopment of the Merchant’s Ice House building at 1205 E. Houston St. Construction will begin this summer on a 262-unit apartment complex.

The NRP Group and the Zachry Group will start construction this fall on the Crockett Street Urban Lofts, a $42.8 million, 268-unit complex.

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EastPoint will also see the addition of a three-story, 50-square-foot college preparatory building at the IDEA Carver Academy‘s campus on East Commerce Street as a success story in the making. The addition will house sixth through 12th grades.

The University of the Incarnate Word has established the Bowden Eye Care and Health Institute on East Commerce Street. Additionally, state Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon (D-San Antonio) has filed a bill to renovate the G.J. Sutton state building on Center Street. If renovated and enhanced, the 181,000-square-foot building could office more than 700 state employees, Etienne said.

State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon has proposed legislation that, if approved, would support the renovation of the G.J. Sutton state building at 321 Center St., a new development that could office hundreds of state employees. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.
The G.J. Sutton state building at 321 Center St., a new development could office hundreds of state employees here. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

Etienne said 50% of the Promise Neighborhood grant has been spent to bolster Eastside educational initiatives, aimed at all primary school-aged students who attend Tynan Early Childhood Center, Bowden, Pershing and Washington Elementary Schools, Wheatley Middle and Sam Houston High Schools.

Specifically, this grant is funding the launch of the first all-boys public campus in the San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) later this year, a truancy court at Pfeiffer Elementary, and the opening of an early college high school at St. Philip’s College.

SAISD is converting Wheatley Middle School into a full service community school, complete with adult education, a Communities in School program, a music production program, and an information desk shared between SAWS and CPS Energy.

Etienne said science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) curriculum is being implemented at all school levels. He added that Sam Houston’s graduation has increased in the last few years from 41% to 81%.

“We cannot have a great neighborhood without great schools,” he added.

Councilmember Alan Warrick II (D2), who represents almost all of the Eastside, said he hopes the city and SAISD are able to track newer Sam Houston students immediately after their graduation to see how well or quickly they adapt to higher education and/or the workforce. Etienne said that is a goal, but he and other EastPoint representatives said it’s a difficult task because many community students, especially those from low-income homes, move out of the neighborhood.

Warrick noted the infusion of new businesses and redevelopment efforts taking place in the Dignowity Hill and Government Hill neighborhoods, located on the Eastside but closer to downtown. He said he wonders how to spur a similar level of revitalization further east into the core of the EastPoint/Promise Zone, near the AT&T Center and Freeman Coliseum. Etienne responded that is where the new housing and infrastructure improvements come into play.

Warrick also asked how the EastPoint Promise Zone is being promoted to affected residents. Etienne said the marketing effort involves an official website, www.eastpointSA.gov, a Facebook page and a Twitter profile. There’s also a team of residents called EastPoint Pride, created by the MightyGroup, that helps with neighborhood outreach, communications and direct engagement.

EastPoint created a newsletter, The Point, which is mailed quarterly to every resident in the EastPoint footprint, and In the Zone, a newsletter that updates residents on Promise Zone activities. Additionally, there are public information events including coffees and San Antonio for Growth on the Eastside (SAGE) business breakfasts to help affected merchants and residents to be get better acquainted with revitalization activities. A periodic job fair is part of these efforts. EastPoint representatives told Warrick they surveyed attendees at a recent job fair, noting that most who answered the questions are actually underemployed – working two or more part-time jobs – and overworked, rather than unemployed.

In terms of economic activity, EastPoint is helping to formulate a Promise Zone economic development strategy by having extended 50 store-front grants to businesses, setting up a $2 million “Grow East Side” loan fund that goes as high as $500,000, creating a $740,000 equity fund with SAGE and offering small business loans of up to $250,000 with LiftFundformerly known as Accion Texas.

Although its has many abandoned buildings, remnants of ventures long since passed, the Eastside has its share of new commercial success stories. An Eastside native, Joaquín “Joc” Arch, restored the former historic Grandview Food Center into the Arch Center, a small business incubator for the community. NBTY, a leading manufacturer and distributor of vitamins and nutritional supplements, brought 100 jobs to the area. Atlas Body Shop received a small business grant.

Etienne talked about current and planned projects to enhance Eastside infrastructure. EastPoint will see the fruition of seven 2012 bond projects, totaling $26 million. One significant bond project is the development of a linear park along Menger Creek. The $10.5 million project, funded by city bond money and county funds, will begin construction this August and is expected to take 15 months to complete.

The enhancement of public safety and health on the Eastside will be the overriding goal in the EastPoint Shine Initiative, a 30-day concentration of city services in EastPoint that, Etienne said, should result in a safer, cleaner, healthier community.

This surge in localized city services will last March 2 to 31, and involve intense efforts at cleaning up brush and loose-lying garbage, filling pot holes, community policing, improving home fire prevention measures, impoundment of stray animals and child immunizations. As part of these efforts, the Claude Black Community Center will host a “mini-city hall” where residents can learn more about available city services. There also will be a “paint-a-thon” where volunteers will  help to paint dozens of identified homes in EastPoint that are in need of aesthetic improvement, especially homes belonging to veterans and the elderly.

“This is an effort to work with the community to improve the overall quality of life,” Etienne said.

Other objectives for the rest of 2015 under the EastPoint program include the beginnings of a neighborhood leadership academy, a Promise Zone summit, workshops on home ownership and small businesses, and the greater use of art and artists to help improve the community.

Mayor Ivy Taylor and council members applauded EastPoint’s overall efforts, agreeing there’s a long way to go toward further strengthening civic and commercial ties across the Eastside.

“The success is the result of strong partnerships and collaboration,” said Mayor Taylor. “I think it’s important to learn from this and see how we could apply these lessons to other parts of the city.”

*Featured/top image:A map of Promise Zone and Choice Neighborhood programs on the Eastside. Map courtesy of EastPoint.

Related Stories:

Eastpoint the Focus of Major City Investment

Eastside Welcomes Alamo Brewery Amid Protest and Politics

Coming Soon: Young Men’s Leadership Academy

Excitement on San Antonio’s Eastside

 ‘Promise Zone 101? Clarifies Eastside Promises

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Edmond Ortiz

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