Rendering of the Residences at Mesquite from the intersection of Dawson and Mesquite streets. Rendering courtesy of Logan Fullmer.
Rendering of the "Residences at Mesquite" from the intersection of Dawson and Mesquite streets. Rendering courtesy of Logan Fullmer.

There has been no shortage of debates and discussions concerning annexation and infill development in San Antonio. Annexation expands the city by incorporating new growth, and infill creates new growth within the central city, usually through the development of vacant or under-used parcels of land.

Image by Nicolas Rivard.
An infill and sprawl diagram.  Image by Nicolas Rivard.

To annex or not to annex? To focus on sprawl or infill? To expand suburbs or focus on the urban core?

These are questions many San Antonians have asked themselves, and the topic has become even more relevant as we start to see a fast revitalization of the inner city. As this momentum gains traction, new questions arise: Where are the small-scale developers, and why doesn’t San Antonio have a large community of local developers ready to focus on the urban core?

On Wednesday, Aug. 24, the Incremental Development Alliance – a national non-profit that aims to grow the ranks of small developers – will host a Small-Scale Development Luncheon from noon-1:30 p.m. at Alamo Beer Brewery, located on 202 Lamar St. Registration for the event begins at 11:30 a.m.

Luncheon attendees will learn about the challenges and opportunities regarding infill development in San Antonio, and the Incremental Development Alliance hopes to foster a sense of community for those interested in small-scale development.

Tickets online are $10 and can be purchased here. Tickets at the door cost $12.

The event will feature a lecture by Monte Anderson, who will describe the opportunities, rewards, and challenges of small-scale infill development. 

A Dallas-native, Anderson is co-founder of the Incremental Development Alliance and serves as a senior faculty member for its real estate training courses. In addition, he is president of Options Real Estate, a multi-service real estate company specializing in creating financially sustainable neighborhoods. He has been involved in a range of redevelopment and renovation projects that have helped revitalize neighborhoods and is currently working on a project that will extend the fabric of an existing small town near Dallas to connect schools, parks, and small retail buildings with multigenerational housing.

Ed Cross, CEO of San Antonio Commercial Advisers and a member of the committee that is helping to coordinate the luncheon, said that San Antonio’s urban development community is disproportionately small compared to other cities.

“We don’t have any mechanism in place or existing community to nurture and mentor small urban developers,” Cross said. “Historically, every major developer in the U.S. started at the grassroots level, but then grew into a huge company. It’s been a ‘pull yourself up’ type of business, and we just (don’t) have that in San Antonio.”

Cross took his first dive into the development world at the age of 27, after he helped build a townhouse project in an inner city neighborhood in Houston. He intertwined himself with a group of likeminded people who were attracted to the urban environment.

A well-traveled man, Cross also noticed these efforts in several major U.S. cities, but ever since he moved to San Antonio in 1985, he became aware of the small and nearly inexistent urban development community in the city. Throughout the years, he has been involved in different efforts to increase financial support for affordable housing providers and find ways to grow the local developer community.

In order for groups of entrepreneurs to begin revitalization of the inner city, Cross said, it’s pivotal to have the necessary knowledge, tool kits, and financial and political support.

The infill development luncheon in August will serve as the “appetizer” leading up to a full-day workshop on small-scale real estate development conducted by the Incremental Development Alliance, which will take place at the same venue on Wednesday, Sept. 28 from 8 a.m.-6 p.m.

Early bird tickets cost $179 (until Aug. 31), regular registration tickets cost $209 (until Sept. 23), and walk-in registration tickets are $239 (until Sept. 27). To register and buy tickets, click here.

More details about the workshop will be released soon. To download a sample workshop agenda, click here.

Cross said the workshop has been conducted all over the country and he encourages anyone who is interested in learning more about infill development or looking to break into the market to attend.

“The luncheon is just the beginning,” said Pegy Brimhall, founder and CEO of Rising Barn. She has seen the lack of small-scale developers in San Antonio firsthand and knows how difficult it can be to envision projects in the urban core, let alone get support for them.

Peggy Brimhall.  Photo by Scott Ball.
Rising Barn founder and CEO Pegy Brimhall.  Photo by Scott Ball.

The process is even more complicated when it involves historic neighborhoods. Not only is it expensive to build new construction in an area where logistics are hard to coordinate and building takes longer than places on the outskirts, but it also involves dealing with a tangled yarn of zoning changes, approvals, the Historic and Design Review Commission, neighborhood associations, and more.

Brimhall explained that small-scale developers in San Antonio hardly exist because of those barriers, and added that instead of going to the City and dealing with those regulations, large-scale developers focus on the outskirts of the city, “where the land is cheaper, closer together, and more easily accessible.”

Although the City does have infill development programs and incentive strategies to increase housing projects, and plans to bolster this further by increasing the financial backbone of these efforts through targeted funding in the 2017 City budget, the permitting and design process that small developers have to go through still proves quite daunting and frustrating for many.

(Read more: City’s 2017 Budget Balances Basics and Innovation)

Engaged citizens are challenging the status quo by encouraging rule changes, or amendments, to outdated codes, but their voices can only be heard if likeminded individuals take to the drawing board together and come up with solutions alongside those involved in government and regulation processes.

Brimhall and Cross said the luncheon will be an opportunity to push the conversation forward and inform citizens from all walks of life about how vacancy can be seen as an opportunity for growth, and how “filling a void” in a neighborhood through infill development can create something positive.

“(Infill development) is a more careful, well-studied, and strategic way to go about real estate,” Brimhall said. “Whatever does go up is going to enhance the neighborhood in some way.”

Due to restrictions and barriers, small-scale developers are compelled to maximize their efforts and ensure they provide the right product, Brimhall added.

According to Cross and Brimhall, San Antonio is unique in that it has a large number of landowners who have owned small land parcels for generations. Although they are not in the business of real estate development, Brimhall said it’s not that difficult to jump onboard and, when done right, infill projects can breathe new life into neighborhoods that are in dire need of revitalization.

Although real estate development does involve “a series of processes that you need to organize and manage,” Brimhall said plenty of opportunities exist where certain offices and companies can partner with individuals to create a holistic endeavor, which can also benefit the rise of the local economy in the long run.

“Those land owners who have been here for generations haven’t sold their land to larger development companies,” Brimhall said, “and we want to create an awareness and a knowledge base for these owners so they can learn about the resources, get them to partner up with a professional, and move forward with growing the city.”

At the end of the day, “infill development will work through learning, and not through deal-making,” Brimhall said.

On Oct. 7, the Center City Development and Operations Department will collaborate with the Urban Land Institute (ULI) and Centro San Antonio to host an Infill Development Workshop from 8 a.m.-12 p.m. at the Mays Family Center, located inside the Witte Museum.

The workshop will cover topics such as infill development opportunities, historic tax incentives, foreign investment, affordable housing development, and more. City Manager Sheryl Sculley will open the event and San Antonio Economic Development Foundation (SAEDF) President and CEO Jenna Saucedo-Herrera will introduce a panel discussion moderated by San Antonio Business Journal reporter Katie Burke.

Tickets, which are $35, can be purchased here.

“The (City’s workshop) is an opportunity for the development and real estate community to learn about infill strategies and resources,” Assistant City Manager Lori Houston stated in an email to the Rivard Report. “We will highlight various infill opportunities in the downtown area, discuss challenges to infill development, and look at the various incentive policies and infill programs available to assist projects within our center city.

“Attendees will leave with a fuller understanding of the opportunities and resources available, as well as the right contacts at the City to help make their projects successful.”

Top image: Rendering of the “Residences at Mesquite” from the intersection of Dawson and Mesquite streets.  Rendering courtesy of Logan Fullmer.

Related Stories:

‘Model Project’ for Vacant Eastside Lot Approved, Praised by HDRC

Rising Barn to Diversify San Antonio Housing Options

Infill Development in Dignowity Hill Wins Commission Approval

San Antonio Abuzz With Infill Development Momentum

Developer Agrees to Build One Inner City Home for Every 10 in Suburbia

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Rocío Guenther

Rocío Guenther worked as a bilingual reporter and editorial assistant for the Rivard Report from June 2016 to October 2017. She is originally from Guadalajara, Mexico and holds a bachelor's in English...