MAP- Lone Star vacant and underutilized property
Image from the Lone Star Community Plan draft.
Robert Rivard

“The city needs another Kit Goldsbury.” That line has been repeated by any number of wishful thinkers in the last year as yet another proposal to redevelop the former Lone Star Brewery on the San Antonio River has gone flat.

Goldsbury, whose private equity firm Silver Ventures developed and owns the former Pearl Brewery property, has no doubt heard it himself a time or two and probably answered in two words: No thanks.

One brewery, one billionaire might be the winning formula. Two might be one too many.

Update: A unanimous vote of approval (save for three absent members) by  City Council on Thursday accepted the Lone Star Community Plan on Thursday, March 21. This plan further lays the ground work to change the current dynamic of the neighborhood through rezoning initiatives and building code recommendations. Further implementation of this plan may encourage the eventual relocation of the Lone Star Brewery‘s owner and the still-active industrial neighbor on Probandt Street, Newell Recycling,

Image from the Lone Star Community Plan draft.
Map from the Lone Star Community Plan draft.
Newell Recycling plant. "This place keeps my rent low," said nearby resident Jens Rushing. Photo by Randi Rushing.
Newell Recycling plant. “This place keeps my rent low,” said nearby resident Jens Rushing. Photo by Randi Rushing.

If Newell Recycling is ever going to find a qualified buyer to redevelop the brewery, agreeing to leave the neighborhood will have to be part of the deal and even then only if the neighborhood gets a big taxpayer-financed face lift. The 22-acre brewery has sat idle since 1996, despite at least four different announced redevelopment deals.

Together, the brewery and recycling plant sit like huge white elephants in the heart of a community that is otherwise sending redevelopment tentacles south along the river and its five main surface streets, South Presa,  Roosevelt, Probandt, South Flores, and Nogalitos.

The South Flores loft district, in particular, seems to be recovering from the recession. It’s already an established  center for several architecture firms. Reborn residential projects like the Steelhouse Lofts, home to Johnny Hernandez‘s new eatery, Fruteria, suggest a market for more such housing is there. La Tuna, the Cevallos Lofts and expanding Blue Star form a solid southern front connecting Southtown to Lone Star.

Cevallos Loft courtyard and pool, 301 E. Cevallos St. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Cevallos Loft courtyard and pool, 301 E. Cevallos St. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Some sort of small, smartly designed grocery store south of downtown, expanding upon Uncommon Fare‘s offerings at the Cevallos Lofts, would act as a further accelerant. I sized up Trader Joe’s in the Quarry Village on a recent visit and came up with a tad more than 10,000 sq. ft., which seems like more than enough space for an urban grocery to cater to pedestrians, cyclists, bus riders and residential delivery services like the Bike Waiter – not just people in cars who need parking spaces.

All that is missing is the money and political will to move Newell Recycling. The company seems headed towards relocation, but has expressed some impatience with City efforts to help with a new location and the necessary zoning, as well as a  commitment to clean up the Newell site once vacated. Whether the City finds a new location or Newell does it independently, the company will have to move its plant and scrap yards away from residential developments. A previous effort by the City to broker a deal that would have relocated Newell further south along Laredo Highway backfired when nearby residents successfully protested.

Lone Star Brewery Train Tracks
Photo courtesy of the City of San Antonio.

They had good reason to say “no thanks” themselves. Newell, which has operated in its Lone Star location since the 1950s, has been cited and fined on various occasions for illegally releasing contaminants and heavy metals, including lead, into the air and soil. Noxious odors emanating from the plant have bothered neighbors, off and on, for years.

Recycling might be a green endeavor, but it’s also a dirty business, whether you’re sorting residential garbage or crushing and shredding old vehicles. It’s a necessary industry, but one that should be carried out well away from where people live. For developers to invest long-term in the community, new zoning that eliminates heavy industry will be essential.

The Lone Star Community Plan establishes new industrial performance standards that, by my reading, forces Newell’s hand. The plan could provide Newell, and any other industrial operation that fails to meet standards, financial assistance to move to city-owned land elsewhere. And the City could fund a clean-up effort of the vacated site. That might provoke taxpayer protests in some districts, but the long-term return on investment – assuming the brewery is eventually developed and the area flourishes – would more than repay the costs.

The Lone Star area bridges two council districts, One and Five, both fighting to retain and grow population after the 2010 census showed declines there. Certainly District One is realizing gains now, but city planners would like to see Lone Star grow from around 7,000 residents to more than 10,000.

MAP- Lone Star vacant and underutilized property
Image from the Lone Star Community Plan draft.

It won’t happen as long as Newell is still operating there, and a large-scale redevelopment surge won’t take root until someone with deep pockets falls in love with the brewery. Until then, the redevelopment plan will remain largely aspirational.

A revitalized Lone Star area, coupled with neighboring King William and Southtown, represents a vision for the city’s near-Southside equal to what has already happened to the north. Lone Star, in time, could be less upscale but also more interesting. Much of the Broadway corridor is, by necessity, new, like the apartment complexes and the coming Children’s Museum on the site of one of the former automobile dealerships. Outside of the Pearl, there aren’t that many buildings that lend themselves to reuse.

Lone Star, on the other hand, was home to many of the city’s late 19th century and early 20th century factories, craft shops, warehouses, and rail spurs. It offers far more historical authenticity than what is found north of downtown, which was always more residential than industrial or commercial, save for the breweries and the once-thriving automobile dealership row on Broadway.

The AFT displayed on the grounds of the Lone Star Brewery. Image: Lone Star Brewing Company 1975 Annual Report, Bob Skillman collection.
The American Freedom Train displayed on the grounds of the Lone Star Brewery. Image: Lone Star Brewing Company 1975 Annual Report, Bob Skillman collection.

The plan’s stated intent is to support the “adaptive re-use of the City’s industrial heritage for arts, entertainment, and creative living space.” That kind of neighborhood transformation is one of 11 goals in Mayor Julián Castro’s SA2020 initiative. Approval of the plan and the implied taxpayer-funded improvements are a necessary step on the path to locating a credible private developer. Taxpayers have already invested $175 million in the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River. Investing a few million more to spur the next wave of redevelopment along the river makes sense.

A private-public partnership to transform Lone Star is exactly what San Antonio needs to stay on its present path of becoming a national caliber city that continues to attract talented, educated professionals from elsewhere who will bring new energy and resources with them.

A decade ago, few openly expressed confidence that Goldsbury and Silver Ventures would be able to transform the Pearl to what it is today, which was accomplished by a number of taxpayer-supported incentives and entitlements that made the project viable. Until Goldsbury came along and purchased the Pearl, San Antonio had never seen a redevelopment project on such a scale. There wasn’t much hope, in fact, that either of the city’s two big breweries would become more than the abandoned industrial sites they were.

The Pearl
The Pearl, where city planning meets innovative urban development. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Flash forward to 2013 and the Pearl is home to the Culinary Institute of America, hundreds of new apartments, some of the city’s best restaurants, various boutique retail venues, and cool offices and live/work spaces. Plans are underway for converting the old landmark Brewery building into a luxury hotel. The Pearl’s outdoor spaces host the city’s biggest weekly Farmer’s Market, and various seasonal festivals, celebrations and events. Some are culinary, such as the recent 4th annual Paella Challenge, and the Tamales! Festival held each December, while others are musical, like the Echale! Latino Music Festival staged in the Pearl’s 1,000-seat open-air amphitheater on the San Antonio River.

Silver Ventures hasn’t even started on the other side of the river, once home to the seedy, crime-ridden Alamo Lodge motel, a dairy facility and other properties that will become home to additional mixed-use development and add to the corridor’s residential density. VIA street cars  will come along in a few more years, along with more independently owned shops and small businesses.

By 2015, residents will be strolling down the river to attend symphony and opera performances, among other cultural events, at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, while the Witte Museum and the new Children’s Museum anchor Broadway just south of Hildebrand. Sooner or later, all these new residents will figure out how to incorporate Brackenridge Park into their daily lives.

Even the occasional detractors of the Pearl acknowledge that it has served as a catalyst for redefining Broadway and the northern reaches of near-downtown. Coupled with the River North project and thousands of new apartments built or being built along or near the avenue, the area is well on its way to becoming the kind of community Castro envisioned in the SA2020 plan.

The problem, of course, is this: There isn’t another Goldsbury, that is, someone with the word “billionaire” in front of his or her name who believes a defunct, Southside brewery can be transformed profitably into a new mixed-use community. Others in the city with that kind of wealth have their own visions they are pursuing and – so far – they don’t include Lone Star.

For now, Lone Star will stay funky, artsy, and scruffy, a slowly evolving network of pocket neighborhoods, but not a larger, integrated community that lives up to its full potential.

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.