Sunset Station
Sunset Station, photo via SAGE
Tommy Calvert

By Tommy Calvert Jr.

San Antonio is 30 years behind most major cities in terms of revitalizing its urban core–maybe more when you understand the steps unique American cities like Boston and San Francisco took to turn around blighted communities.

But there are some reasons to be hopeful that San Antonio will finally catch up.  A new rise of young, more cosmopolitan and traveled business, political, and community leaders are beginning to address the key investment needed to spur urban renewal—better housing in the inner-city.

When I started writing this article, I must admit that I told all four people I interviewed that I was extremely skeptical about San Antonio getting its act together to revitalize the inner city.  After all, during the entire course of my short 31 years on earth, I’ve witnessed the same thing former District 2 City Councilman Mario Salas said he has witnessed: “Mainly decline.”

The ribbon cutting and reopening of the Hays Street Bridge drew a crowd in 2010, but today it mostly stands empty.

That deterioration is compounded by a sometimes out-of-step development community that continues to make the mistake of building luxury condos priced at $500,000 dollars  and up that few can afford.   Many of these condos remain barely occupied . Affordable apartments that bring young professionals and older urban pioneers into the area to create the urban life people complain is lacking seem like they’re taking forever to come.

The South End of Boston is a neighborhood that at one time was home to the highest incidents of drive-by shootings. Today, it stands as one of Boston’s most desirable communities with an assortment of restaurants and trendy urban residences that were born from rehabbing the nation’s largest neighborhood of brownstone housing—housing that by the 1950s was falling apart.

I have more reasons to be hopeful that if city leaders stay focused on the elements that are needed to create world-class big-city living, we will achieve it over the next ten to thirty years.

Several years ago, during one of the first Eastside Revitalization meetings, a fairly well-known local developer questioned whether business corridor revitalization or new housing development should come first in the process of creating urban renewal.  Most San Antonians don’t have a frame of reference to answer this question.  However, in economic development textbooks, with some exceptions, this question has long been settled.  Businesses follow rooftops.

In other words, to revitalize a city’s urban core you have to get new housing in the form of apartments and revitalized houses to create greater incomes and markets for stores to have patrons. It is part of the reason our downtown struggles to get a viable grocery store—not enough people with incomes at a great enough level are present to justify the financial viability of a business in new commercial corridors.

Mayor Castro and I both lived in Boston.  Boston as well as San Francisco, where Mayor Castro earned his undergraduate degree, are significant case studies in how San Antonio can prevent what he calls “the donut hole of despair in our urban core.”   Citizen business leaders of Boston began improving their old worn-down inner-city housing stock in the 1960s with the goal of preserving their built environment.  But more importantly, they wanted to revitalize the South End neighborhood housing and the portion that was added on called the Back Bay.

San Antonio, on the other hand, began similar revitalization efforts in the 1980s.

Some might look at the efforts of the San Antonio Conservation Society in the 1920s to save and rehab properties in King William, Monte Vista and beyond as an on par contemporary of San Francisco and Boston’s urban renewal organizations.  But it’s not.   The SA Conservation Society has had little focus on neighborhood housing revitalization—revitalization embraces the merging of old rehabilitation with the recruiting of new housing development structures.

Instead, the Conservation Society’s focus is on the preservation of the stories, art, old buildings, and unique artifacts that are distinctly San Antonio.That is a very different mandate than San Francisco’s SPUR organization, founded back in 1910 to improve the quality of housing after a major earthquake and fires.   It kept a laser focus on housing concerns in the 1930s, 1940s, and in the 1950s and was ahead of its time in curbing urban sprawl and focused city growth back to the urban core.

San Antonio, on the other hand, appears to have no intention of stopping urban sprawl, even though it created an Office of the City Center over the last few years.  While San Antonio embraced urban renewal more than most Texas cities, Texas law prohibited using federal urban renewal funds for low and moderate income housing without a public vote.   The Anglo conservative business establishment steered federal dollars towards projects that built up commercial corridors and big business projects like the Riverwalk and HemisFair Park. As a result, San Antonio is still playing catch up on creating the urban dwellings that other big cities enjoy after decades of investment.

To answer the question of why San Antonio is behind in turning around its blighted center city neighborhoods, one has to understand that private citizens and business leaders pushed for housing revitalization in San Francisco and Boston.  In San Antonio they did not.

San Antonio leaders compromised with the Anglo business establishment with the creation of the Good Government League to help assist in commercial urban renewal projects and only through the pressuring by groups like Citizens Organized for Public Service (COPS) did we begin to play catch up in 1973 on the infrastructure-deficient blighted neighborhoods on the western, southern, and eastern communities surrounding downtown.

Jackie Gorman is helping city leaders to champion revitalization of East San Antonio as the executive director of San Antonio for Growth on the Eastside (SAGE).   One of the roadblocks to progress she faces in terms of recruiting housing to the Eastside is the mixed quality of schools in the San Antonio Independent School District.

Gorman explained, “Community development is like a three-legged stool which has economic development, education, and housing holding it up. Unless we have all three of the legs strong, we won’t achieve community development.”

Leadership focused on improving student academic success and bridging the drop-out crisis is the chief complaint among developers reluctant to build where they worry parents won’t want to live.   The proof that the Eastside can have middle and upper income housing with great schools is born out in the East Central School District.

On the Eastside, just off of W. W. White and Rigsby roads, you’ll find gated communities with houses priced at $200,000 dollars and up because the East Central School district has sustained a record of academic success.   SAISD officials groan about the pressure they are under to help the inner-city housing stock by asking the rhetorical question: What came first in Stone Oak: the houses or the schools?

The literal answer is the houses.  However, the houses were also located and spurred by the fact that developers were building housing in a school district with a solid track record.

The $27 million dollar Eastside Promise Neighborhoods program is off to a slow and some say rocky start in terms of leadership and vision, but they can build the foundation for turning around the test scores of thousands of inner-city youth if they find a dedicated education leader like Geoffrey Canadaof Harlem, New York who will not settle for mediocrity.

Geoffrey Canada.

The program should be used to expand school hours, tutoring resources, partner with local community early childhood programs, parenting programs, and create an ethic of hard work and college access.  The investment in Eastside education comes at the same time that the old Sutton Homes, like the old Victoria Courts, has been revitalized into market rate and subsidizing housing.  The community is so nice that the market-rate apartments have a waiting list.

Not only is the San Antonio Housing Authority looking at plans for phase II of the old Sutton Homes, which will include additional retail strips on the Eastside, but just four minutes away, the San Antonio Housing Authority also has plans to give the Wheatley Courts the modern revitalization that we saw at Sutton Homes and the Victoria Commons.

As quiet as it is kept, the biggest economic development project in the history of San Antonio is happening on the Eastside at Fort Sam Houston.  The military has consolidated all medical training for all branches of the armed forces in San Antonio and it will have an economic impact 2.5 times greater than the much more discussed Toyota manufacturing plant on the city’s south side.

Sadly, both Gorman and I agree the City missed the opportunity to revitalize the Eastside with the first wave of medical personnel relocating to San Antonio.  However, Gorman, always the optimist, inspired me with a second look at the situation and she is working to take advantage of the second wave in the inner-city if we begin now because Ft. Sam will have a steady stream of people who need housing close to Ft. Sam Houston’s Eastside gates for decades to come.

Sadly, Mayor Phil Hardberger and City Manager Sculley made a text-book failure of how not to revitalize an inner-city area with respect to the relocation of the armed forces medical training at Fort Sam Houston.  Most smart urban cities would have done what local entrepreneurs like Michael Westheimer and others are trying to do, which is acquire blighted properties near Fort Sam Houston and create middle to upper middle-income apartments, condos, and houses for the military personnel to live in.

Instead, the last mayoral administration increased commute times of soldiers relocating to work in San Antonio through our vast urban sprawl, which has incentivized housing in neighborhoods as far away as Schertz and Cibolo, or Highway 151 and Alamo Downs.  Many soldiers live in neighborhoods where their commute is 1.5 hours each day, increasing the likelihood the Department of Defense may move their investment if they feel their soldiers quality of life is hampered.

The creation of a new children’s hospital appears doomed for failure because of the establishment’s business interest away from the urban core in the Medical Center.  San Antonio is, therefore, likely to delay or forgo the natural “New Medical Center East” (you can look back 30 years from now and credit me with that phrase if it happens) that can be created by linking San Antonio’s medical teaching community at St. Philips College and the University of the Incarnate Word with the military’s world-class medical training center at SAMC.

On the other hand, San Antonio can create medical synergy if it promotes an urban-centric vision where political and business leaders embrace hospitals and medical centers on the Eastside as Boston’s South End leaders did.   To the credit of the University of the Incarnate Word, Councilwoman Ivy Taylor explained to me that they are breaking ground on a multi-million dollar Eye and Medical Building at the same time that St. Philips’ College is investing an additional $15 million dollars to re-do the third floor of their science building at one of the city’s best nursing colleges.

At St. Philip’s College, community college students can look next door at a four-year institution to continue medical training and perhaps Walters Street will have a similar medical corridor as Wurzbach from the gates of Ft. Sam Houston to the hill upon which St. Philips College stands.  After all, Councilwoman Taylor is also pouring millions into the revitalization of the old Good Samaritan Hospital a few blocks over, which will be used to help veterans.

Ft. Sam houston
Big mistake: Moving medical facilities away from Ft. Sam Houston photo via www.ftsamhouston.gov

Just next to Ft. Sam Houston is the Eastside neighborhood called Government Hill and the Pearl Brewery.   What, you don’t think of the Pearl Brewery as an Eastside neighborhood?

Well yes, I’m stretching a little, but Councilwoman Taylor is right that the young professionals and urban dwellers will bike and walk next door to the eastside neighborhoods that abuts Fort Sam Houston and find the same type of housing found in Terrell Hills and Alamo Heights just waiting for reinvestment as they grow from single to married and seek more space than an apartment at the Pearl provides.

People who reside in Government Hill will also have the benefit of being able to walk or bike to the new River North extension, which, too should spill over into the historic eastside neighborhoods which even have three-story colonial homes and mini-castles like the old Terrell Castle.

Another short bike ride from the Pearl is sparking two to three phone calls per day at SAGE.  Eugene Simor’s new Alamo Brewery and the restoration of the Hays Street Bridge above it provides one of the most spectacular panoramas of our skyline.  Soon, new apartments will be sprouting up next door to the brewery, which if priced right, will see the success of San Antonio’s SoFlo neighborhood, rather than the drag found at the Vidorra luxury high rises.

And developers should take note that the old days of Eastsiders blasting a developer for bringing a development to the Eastside are slowly dying.   In fact, the last three major contentious zoning cases on the Eastside—Redifuel, the Crosspoint Summit Development, and the Alamo Brewery have seen some opposition but even more supporters.

Jackie Gorman notes that developers just don’t have time or desire to develop in areas that are unfriendly to business and residential development.  But the era of activists shaking down every business person who wants to revitalize the Eastside is closing and many neighborhood, business, and political leaders are willing to lead their communities through the sometimes tense friction between neighborhood integrity and new revitalization.

When NBA great Magic Johnson, one of the nation’s greatest inner-city revitalization developers, and Taj Matthews look at the East Commerce and Hackberry Corridors they don’t see the run-down storefronts most non-Eastsiders see.  They see another Quarry at the old Friedrich Building and in the older strip centers along the streets they see how stores like Marshalls, JC Penny’s, office buildings, and restaurants like R&B great Gladys Knight’s Gladys & Ron’s can re-invigorate the most logical direction for downtown development—to its East.

Matthews says the issue with San Antonio getting the NBA legend to give San Antonio his billion dollar reinvestment Midas touch has been follow-up.

“They sent him one packet but no one has followed up.  Now things are in limbo,” exclaimed Taj Matthews, executive director of the Claude & Zernona Black Developmental Leadership Foundation.

Another quiet secret about inner-city revitalization is that a piece of property that has elicited cries for restoration may just be about to undertake such a facelift as it is finally on the City auction block—the old diner owned by “Bighouse” Sterling at the corner of Hackberry and Commerce.  Taj Matthews explains, “Whoever controls that site will control the Eastside’s revitalization facelift.  The corner is one of the first things you see when you cross the railroad tracks.”

At the same time, Matthews says the City needs to do a better job of incentivizing business to redevelop Denver Heights like they do historic Dignowity Hills. “The City CDBG application ask if you are in Dignowity Hill, then you get an extra point on the grant—we are directing businesses there.  We need to do the same sort of incentive packages we did for Rackspace here,” he continued.

SAGE director Jackie Gorman does believe she has the tools she needs to recruit housing developers and businesses to the Eastside.   In fact she says business developers are more hostile to coming to the Eastside than housing developers.

“The business developers have concerns over a big zoning or planning commission battle, ” said Gorman. “They see easier places in town to do business.“

But those who do take the risk can reap big rewards including:

  • Complete fee waivers for CPS utilities, city permits, the historic review board, and SAWS impact fees
  • Real property tax reimbursement grants if they locate within targeted reinvestment zones where 100 percent of the previous year’s real estate tax increment increase goes back to the business owner
  • If a development qualifies for a historic tax credit it qualifies for other maximum incentives
  • And the city has created an inner-city loan fund that is completely forgivable for mixed-use developments

With those tools at the City’s disposal, councilwoman Taylor is still frustrated that the City hasn’t followed-through on a measure that could greatly expedite inner-city revitalization–mainly, the creation of what some call a land bank that would help dole out vacant lots for redevelopment.  “The city hasn’t gotten its act together on land assembly and land conveyance. We don’t have a strategy for this—for every one person that does the work to untangle properties from taxes and issues, there are ten that walk away we could be benefiting from,” according to District 2 city councilwoman Ivy Taylor.

She continued, “We can also do simple things like have more than two contractors for the entire city who mow the grass on vacant lots so we can prevent neighborhoods from getting as bad as they get.”

Finally, there is a consensus from Eastsiders who grew up in the neighborhood and rose to the middle and upper class and took their disposable income to neighborhoods on the Northside, that they would have come back to the Eastside if it had the upper and middle-income housing stock and schools available elsewhere.

Red Berry Mansion on the Eastside.
Red Berry Mansion on the Eastside.

There may be hope for that desire to be attained on the hills of the historic Red Berry Mansion property.  The City is going to send out an RFQ for developers looking to develop a gated community, which sits above one of my favorite city golf courses at Willow Springs.  The property which used to house exotic animals, gambling, and legendary night life of state senator Red Berry, will also boast views of the San Antonio skyline amid bodies of water and undoubtedly the coolest neighborhood club house in town—the Liberace-like Red Berry Mansion.

The elements for improvement of the three legs of community development—educational improvement, housing improvement, and business improvement—are being uniquely lined up for the Eastside.  Now what is needed most is results in all three sectors.   This must be met with an informational renaissance about the fact that Eastside is pregnant for rebirth with a sustained 30-year image, investment and attitudinal change among stakeholders in San Antonio and from major cities that have seen success in their urban core.

If we come together to successfully complete the projects detailed above, we can see the end of the long Eastside housing, education, and commercial blight, which are the key reasons some residents feel nothing is moving forward on the Eastside and lead the way toward San Antonio’s unique revitalization rise to create a world-class urban core.

Tommy Calvert, Jr. is public relations and public affairs strategist with CIC, is the former head of the American Anti-Slavery Group, and serves as the General Manager of San Antonio Community Radio, KROV 91.7-HD2 FM where he hosts the morning drive-time radio show from7-10 am Monday through Friday on the new 91.7-HD2 KROV FM, online at www.krovfm.com, or on the Tune in Radio App search for “KROV” and can be reached via Facebook subscribers, via twitter @TCJR01, and  tcjr@krovfm.com