District Four Councilman Rey Saldaña.
District Four Councilman Rey Saldaña.
Robert Rivard

A Rising Southside: First in a Series

Not so long ago, San Antonio’s Southside had little to celebrate. The downtown skyline, only a few miles away and visible to many residents, seemed like the gateway to some other city to the north.

As the 20th century came to end, Kelly Air Force Base had closed, thousands of federal jobs were lost, and local officials rightfully worried about the future of Brooks Air Force Base. Its mission here, too, would slowly come to an end. Dispirited voters, meanwhile, actually rejected a ballot initiative to reinvest in Kelly’s empty, uninviting expanses as the shock of closure wore off and redevelopment efforts slowly got underway.

The San Antonio River was a river in name only, an uninviting flood control channel south of downtown, disconnected from the nearby neighborhoods and the historic colonial Missions that stood in a state of worsening disrepair. A succession of city and county governments waited for federal funds to bring the moribund river back to life, but the funds somehow never came.

A family admires the recently restored Mission Concepción during a recent Something Monday bike ride. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
A family admires the recently restored Mission Concepción during a recent Something Monday bike ride. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The area school districts were saddled with some of the highest dropout rates and lowest college-bound rates in the metropolitan area. For those who did graduate with higher ambitions, UTSA, the only public four-year university, was a 90-minute bus commute to the far northwest corner of the city.

Then things began to change.

Like manna from heaven, Toyota announced plans to build an $800 million Tundra truck manufacturing plant on 2,600 acres of former ranch land on the Southside, which would later be expanded to produce Tacoma pickups, bringing the plant’s value to $1.1 billion. A network of supplier companies brought more jobs in addition to the 2,391 workers at the factory. With only a very small share of the Texas truck market, Toyota was placing a big bet on the growing Hispanic market and the appeal to Texans of buying a truck made by Texans.

Even before the announcement, a new aerospace industry had taken root at Port San Antonio, as Kelly was renamed. While Kelly southwest location makes it more synonymous with the city’s Westside in the minds of many, its very much part of a new economy whose momentum is all Southside. Boeing, Chromalloy, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Pratt & Whitney, Gore Design and a host of smaller employers established operations there beginning in the late 1990s. While Port San Antonio is primarily an aerospace and industrial complex, it’s also developed into a center of workforce development. An innovative $5 million program with the Alamo Colleges led to the expansion of the St. Philip’s College Southwest Campus adjacent to the East Kelly Railport, where graduating students are moving straight into skilled jobs.

Students and workers at Lockheed Martin’s Kelly Aviation Center at Port San Antonio. Photo courtesy of Alamo Colleges.
Students and workers at Lockheed Martin’s Kelly Aviation Center at Port San Antonio. Photo courtesy of Alamo Colleges.

Port San Antonio still has a wealth of land and buildings available for tenants, and the ability to forge strategic partnerships by bringing in other interested stakeholders invested in Southside redevelopment.

Bruce Miller, president and CEO of Port San Antonio.
Bruce Miller, president and CEO of Port San Antonio.

“The legacy of this property has touched countless lives. Over generations, the good jobs it provided as Kelly Air Force Base to a large civilian workforce transformed the entire community,” said Bruce Miller, President and CEO of Port San Antonio. “The base throughout the 20th century was synonymous with the rise to a big Hispanic middle class. We see our work today through the same lens: Creating a platform for building futures–the futures of businesses we support and, in turn, the futures of the people who find good jobs here.”

Brooks AFB, San Antonio’s first technology and innovation center, became Brooks City-Base, which today employs nearly as many skilled workers as were there at the height of Air Force operations.

Newly appointed CEO Leo Gomez, formerly with the San Antonio Spurs, and the Brooks board have shifted the original focus from developing a science and technology center and instead are “listening to the market,” pursuing development of a master planned, mixed-use community.

Leo Gomez, president and chief executive officer of Brooks City-Base.
Leo Gomez,
president and chief executive officer of Brooks City-Base.

“I believe the explosive growth we’ve seen on the Southside, on and around Brooks City-Base in particular, is just the tip of the iceberg,” Gomez said. “The next five years will bring more high-paying jobs, more housing options, more opportunities to shop, eat, and enjoy the natural beauty we have down here. We look at the Brooks City-Base campus as a catalyst for growth and prosperity in the entire south-east area. People are just beginning to appreciate what a prime location this really is.”

Last year, The Landings,  a new, 300-unit multi-family development by the NRP Group, was selected by the San Antonio Business Journal as the city’s best new development project of 2012. BC-B officials say the median household income of residents there is more than $80,000, a pronouncement that left most civic and business leaders pleasantly shocked.

“The Landings represents the biggest demographic game changer in the city’s contemporary history in terms of middle class people moving in south of downtown,” said Dan Markson, NRP’s senior vice president and head of its Texas offices. “It’s changing the income profile on the Southside. Brooks is where it’s at.”

Many doubted Texas A&M University’s plans for a Southside campus would be a success, making San Antonio the only city in Texas with campuses in the UT and A&M systems and perhaps causing scarce higher education funding to be inadequate for both schools. Those doubts were dispelled as thousands of students enrolled even before the first permanent campus building at Loop 410-South and Zarzamora Street was completed.

Amid all this redevelopment, a new partnership formed by Bexar County, the City of San Antonio, the San Antonio River Authority and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers joined forces and funding to carry out what eventually would be the $358 million San Antonio River Improvements Project. It only happened because local officials decided to stop waiting for federal guarantees and instead funded the project largely with local funds.

Blue Bonnets on the Mission Reach, April 2012
In April 2012, bluebonnets brightened the trail along the Mission Reach. The Mission Reach Ecosystem Restoration and Recreation Project is gaining recognition from around the world for being an example of how urban ecosystem restoration can be accomplished. Photo by Al Rendon, courtesy of SARA.

The Catholic Archdiocese of San Antonio launched a parallel effort and assigned Fr. David Garcia, the visionary head of San Fernando Cathedral who raised the funds for its restoration, to embark on a similar campaign to restore the four Missions, considered the finest collection of Spanish colonial architecture in the United States. Fr. Garcia has raised more than $17 million, and workers are now busy at Mission Espada, the last interior restoration project of the four.

“Just think about the fact that the Franciscans arrived here 300 years ago and found basically wild country,” said Fr. Garcia.  “There was a river, fertile land, lots of wildlife, and some Native American nomadic tribes.  That was it.  Literally they started with the very stones, earth and vegetation of South Texas to create the marvelous structures we see today.

“It is remarkable that not only did they build these fantastic buildings but actually they helped create and sustain living communities that worked together for the common good,” he added. “That same spirit seems to be once again very much alive on the Southside of our city today.”

Officials will gather on Oct. 5 along the newly opened Mission Reach of the San Antonio River to celebrate the creation of what is now one of the nation’s longest linear urban parks. In reality, the all-day party will be a celebration of something even bigger.

SARA General Manager Suzanne Scott. Courtesy photo.
SARA General Manager Suzanne Scott.

“Life has returned to the San Antonio River, and along with it, a renewed sense of pride in this vibrant natural resource,” said Suzanne Scott, general manager of the San Antonio River Authority, which has overseen the 13-year restoration project.  “Visiting the Mission Reach, you will be pleasantly surprised with the diversity of people, plants and wildlife enjoying the restored ecosystem.”

Low-paying jobs, poverty, crime, and unacceptable education outcomes all remain pressing concerns throughout the Southside as well as its neighbors to the East and West, but there is unmistakable change afoot and a sense of slowly building momentum.

One example: Last week’s announcement by Graham Weston’s 80/20 Foundation and the San Antonio Independent School District that Highlands High School is launching an ambitious coding program as part of the school’s curriculum. The Rivard Report published “From Stanford to Highlands, CodeHS Aims to Program Success,” on Friday. It’s an inspiring, ambitious idea, one worth tracking – and we will.

Southtown, which began as an effort to promote the arts and entertainment in King William, Lavaca and and the Blue Star Arts Complex, has become a youth and talent magnet, attracting thousands of young professionals, artists and others to live, work and recreate there. Its continuing evolution, the redevelopment underway along South Flores Street, and the arrival of more and more urban pioneers into the Lone Star neighborhood farther south has many hoping for redevelopment of the former Lone Star Brewery and the land now owned and occupied by Newell Recycling.

The Newell Plant, where cars go to die in the shadow of the abandoned Lone Star brewery. Photo by Randi Rushing.
The abandoned Lone Star Brewery just beyond the Newell Recycling plant. Photo by Randi Rushing.

I worked some tough jobs in a couple of South Philadelphia factories as a young college dropout, and have watched with some fascination as that city’s light and heavy industrial zones also have undergone their own redevelopment. Here is an Atlantic Cities article that looks at the rebirth of Fishtown in South Philly. It’s instructive for anyone interested in the redevelopment of San Antonio’s near-Southside communities. You also can read about the Lone Star Community Plan adopted by City Council in March to learn more about what’s in store locally.

As the Mission Reach Ecosystem Restoration and Recreation Project spurs neighborhood revitalization along its path in the coming years, it seems possible one day for the Decade of Downtown to lead to the Decade of the Inner City, Southside included.

District Four Councilman Rey Saldaña.
District Four Councilman Rey Saldaña.

“I feel like the Southside has been on a rocket ship ride up for the last few years,” said District Four Councilman Rey Saldaña, “but my mind races with optimism to think of what this part of the city will look like in another decade.”

Over the next week, Rivard Report readers will hear directly from some of the change agents and protagonists behind the redevelopment of the Southside. Our series will explore the economic, cultural and environmental renaissance underway. We also welcome submissions from people who read the series and have their own perspective to share on a rising Southside.

Coming Tuesday: “The Mission Reach: Bringing Life and Pride Back to the Southside”, by Suzanne Scott, general manager of the San Antonio River Authority.

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

Related Stories:

Rain Date: Historic San Antonio River Mission Reach Party on Oct. 5

Toyota Investing in Tomorrow’s Southside Role Models

One of the Last Inner City Trailer Parks Going Condo

D.C. Official’s Visit to San Antonio Begins on the Mission Reach

Artists and Developers Eye Historic Buildings, Imagine Possibilities

Scholarships and Jobs: Toyota and Alamo Colleges Strike Deal

Confluence Park: Nature’s Learning Laboratory Atop the Mission Reach

Museums in the Current: Hardberger’s Homage to the San Antonio River

SARA Documentary Chronicles Story of the San Antonio River

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.