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Passionate supporters and opponents of H-E-B’s request to close and incorporate a block of South Main Avenue into the grocery chain’s private headquarters were unsurprised by the Planning Commission’s unanimous approval of the request Wednesday afternoon.
Nevertheless, several citizens-to-be-heard on both sides offered their professional and personal views to the commission after a presentation of H-E-B’s master plan, traffic impact study and mitigation commitments by Center City Development Office Executive Director Lori Houston and H-E-B Executive Vice President of Real Estate and Facilities Todd Piland.
If the request is approved by City Council on Thursday, H-E-B will purchase the section of S. Main Avenue for about $3.54 million, Houston said, while the multimodal traffic improvements that H-E-B has committed to funding – valued at about $3.8 million – would offset that sum.
“H-E-B will not officially close that street until all traffic improvements are complete,” Houston said.
Though still not finalized, the plans include traffic mitigation recommendations outlined in the city-contracted traffic study released last week. The improvements include a 30-foot wide amenities path for cyclists and pedestrians on S. Flores Street between E. Arsenal Street and E. César Chávez Boulevard; a 17-foot wide bike and pedestrian path on adjacent E. Arsenal Street; removal and additions of traffic signals and stop signs, traffic-calming mechanisms, etc. [Download the full traffic report here.]
During the meeting, King William Association Executive Director Cherise Bell simply stated, “We do not oppose, but we’re not in support of it (the street closure), either,” but the San Antonio Conservation Society board continued to voice its support of the Arsenal restoration.
“We see the opportunity to knit the fabric of the historic Arsenal back together,” said Sue Ann Pemberton, president of the Conservation Society.
Conservation Society member Claudia Guerra disagreed.
“What is being proposed as preservation is the lowest form of preservation … How do you decide what era to go back to?” Guerra said. “(Keeping things) as-is does the least harm.”
Houston assured commissioners that H-E-B’s proposal does not violate any previous community plan, citing the development’s contribution to downtown employment and, eventually, housing stock. The grocery store and additional “complete street” amenities will encourage more people to move into the area, she said. “We feel this is inline with SA2020 and the Lone Star Community Plan.”
The proposed closure of S. Main Avenue between E. Arsenal Street and E. César Chávez Boulevard is part of H-E-B’s $100 million plan to expand its downtown headquarters by 27 acres, hire an additional 1,600 additional employees by 2030 and build a two-story grocery store and gas station on the northeast corner of S. Flores Street and E. César Chávez Boulevard.
Opponents to the closure, often eliciting applause from supporters, cited what they said was a lack of public input and transparency on the part of the City and H-E-B. They said the closure would could negatively impact local businesses and neighborhood connectivity, and they argued the plan deviates from previous plans developed with public input, including like the Lone Star Community Plan (2013), SA2020 causes and the Center City Strategic Neighborhood Plan (2011).
“These citizens feel disenfranchised,” said S. Main resident and leader of the Main Access Coalition Charlotte Luongo of the more than 2,000 San Antonians that have signed a petition to keep the street open. “We feel that this city is no longer a democracy … (and that the closure) has already been agreed upon behind closed doors.”
City and H-E-B officials disagreed.
“There were a number of meetings that we’ve been involved in … over six months,” Piland said, adding that H-E-B representatives have met with individual neighborhood residents as well as neighborhood organizations.
[Read More: “H-E-B Briefs King William Neighbors on Expansion, Proposed Block Closure” from June 6, 2013]
H-E-B and City representatives have both stated that public input won’t end once the street is closed.
“We’ll continue to (gather input) throughout the process,” Houston said.
Architect and urban design professor David Bogle pointed to the Lone Star Community Plan’s call for “high density mixed use” at the sites of the proposed grocery store and current H-E-B employee parking lots.
The proposed grocery store and gas station are “low density, single use,” Bogle said. “The privatization of a street at this location would work against goals established for downtown.”
Bob Wise of imagineSanAntonio made similar observations and presented alternative master plans as published on The Rivard Report Tuesday evening. See his written and graphic articulation here: “H-E-B’s Street Closure Request: Is the Plan not a Plan?”
Piland said that alternatives were considered, but H-E-B’s growth and security needs could not be met without acquiring the block of S. Main Avenue. If H-E-B wanted to hire 50 more local employees at its headquarters today, Piland said, “I couldn’t do it … I don’t have space for them.”
“We have no intention of moving the headquarters,” Piland said after the meeting. “That’s not in question … the question (may become): Where do we grow?”
He cited company headquarters like USAA, Rackspace, Valero, and NuStar – all of which have secure, connected campus grounds — in explaining the company’s plans to restore the original U.S. Army Arsenal footprint and provide alternative, enhanced public access to The Commander’s House.
“Long term, we’re looking at more than $100 million,” he said, referring to H-E-B’s planned staff growth and development of the grocery store, test kitchen, campus offices, mixed use buildings on S. Flores Street and connectivity paths to San Pedro Creek – the latter expected to be finished by 2018.
Don Frost, president of Frost Bank‘s San Antonio operations and Centro San Antonio board chairman, represented Centro with an outline of a statement from Centro CEO Pat DiGiovanni, also published on The Rivard Report Tuesday night: “H-E-B’s Street Closure Request: A Matter of Balance.”
Centro approves of the street closure, but has reservations about including an inherently car-centric gas station in an area of town looking to encourage more mass transit, bike and pedestrian traffic. The need for even more multimodal amenities on surrounding streets was also stressed by Centro:
“While we applaud H-E-B’s commitment to perimeter street improvements, their plans only call for improvements to half of the right-of-way; leaving ‘incomplete’ streets on E. Arsenal and S. Flores Streets. The City’s 2011 Strategic Framework Plan specifically calls for implementation of ‘complete streets’ and speaks to the importance of connectivity to other complete streets.”
Luongo, Bogle and others in opposition don’t expect the City Council to vote their way tomorrow, but expressed optimism that their efforts have galvanized supporters who agree the process was not sufficiently transparent.
“These issues are not going to stop after South Main (Avenue) is sold,” Bogle said after the round of “yay” votes approved the closure. Tomorrow at City Council, “we’ll reiterate the valid concerns of the citizens … and the costs (of this plan) dismissed by the government.”
Supporters and opponents alike expect the Council, after debate and further public comment, to support the comprehensive agreement reached between City staff and H-E-B.
Full disclosure: H-E-B is a sponsor and advertiser on the Rivard Report, and Director Robert Rivard is building a residence on E. Arsenal Street on a lot purchased from H-E-B several years ago.