201 E. Commerce St. gets a make-over. Window and interior art and displays by artists Rex Hausmann and David Almaguer of Hausmann Millworks. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
201 E. Commerce St. gets a make-over for a Center City Development Office Open House. Window and interior art and displays by artists Rex Hausmann and David Almaguer of Hausmann Millworks. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

While researching historic neighborhoods in San Antonio, Donovan Rypkema wasn’t surprised that the demographics mirrored – for the most part – that of the greater population. What did surprise him was that San Antonio lags behind most cities of its size in terms of taking advantage of federal historic preservation tax credits.

Rypkema, a nationally known urbanist, gestures across West Commerce Street from the Municipal Plaza Building to make his second point. The c. 1938 Kress Building, a former dime store, at 201 W. Commerce Street, stands empty.

“Why isn’t that housing?” he asked. “On this block there’s gotta be eight buildings that in most cities of this size … somebody would have scarfed them up.”

Good question.

Rypkema, principal behind Washington D.C.-based real estate and economic consulting firm PlaceEconomics, gave a quick presentation to City Council during Wednesday’s B Session outlining the preliminary results of his City-commissioned study of the cultural, economic, and environmental role of historic preservation in San Antonio, and how historic districts compare and contrast with the rest of the city.

Office of Historic Preservation Director Shanon Miller and PlaceEconomics principal Donovan Rypkema pose for a photo in downtown San Antonio. A vacant historic building in the background. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Office of Historic Preservation Director Shanon Miller and PlaceEconomics principal Donovan Rypkema pose for a photo in downtown San Antonio. A vacant historic building in the background. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The study was initiated in early 2014 by the Office of Historic Preservation. His full report will be released in February and presented by Rypkema at Centro San Antonio’s Urban Renassiance Luncheon on Feb. 18 at the Wyndham San Antonio Riverwalk. Tickets are available for purchase here.

His comprehensive Powerpoint presentation to Council included each historic’s district’s racial makeup, income distribution, employment, density, proximity to social and cultural amenities, change in property values, foreclosure rates. At the end, he discussed the inherent benefits of historic districts and how they benefit an entire city, not just the people who live and work in the districts.

Slide from Donovan Rypkema's presentation, "Historic Preservation in the Life and the Economy of San Antonio."
Slide from Donovan Rypkema’s presentation, “Historic Preservation in the Life and the Economy of San Antonio.”

There were some attributes that strayed heavily from the city average. Density, for instance, is actually higher in historic districts, property values are (unsurprisingly) higher, and the foreclosure rate is much lower.

Sue Ann Pemberton, president of the San Antonio Conservation Society, attended the Wednesday meeting to gain insight into the neighborhoods the society serves.

“He dispelled the myths about how historic districts are for rich people, or only certain people live there,” Pemberton said. “(His research) helps to demystify some of the misconceptions about what it means to live in King William or Dignowity Hill. In King William, the low-income and upper income (residents) are almost equal (in number).”

Slide from Donovan Rypkema's presentation, "Historic Preservation in the Life and the Economy of San Antonio."
Slide from Donovan Rypkema’s presentation, “Historic Preservation in the Life and the Economy of San Antonio.”

“One of the strengths that Don (Rypkema) brings to the table is that he’s not a born-and-bred preservationist, he’s an economist,” she said. “He’s out there to save buildings or communities. He’s out there because of the economic sense … It’s a very pragmatic perspective to historic preservation.”

So what is the economic impact of historic preservation, anyway? Most of the answer lies in heritage tourism, defined by the National Trust as “traveling to experience the places and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past and present. It includes historic, cultural and natural resources.” His research showed that heritage tourists on average spend more money while traveling than non-heritage visitors.

Slide from Donovan Rypkema's presentation, "Historic Preservation in the Life and the Economy of San Antonio."
Slide from Donovan Rypkema’s presentation, “Historic Preservation in the Life and the Economy of San Antonio.”

Total expenditures per year are in the billions. These numbers make a strong case for historic preservation to attract visitors, but locals benefit from vibrant, cultural neighborhoods as well as they often provide jobs, entertainment, and “staycation” opportunities.

Many features and side effects of historic districts are in line with SA2020 goals. Residents in historic districts are typically walkable, bike-friendly neighborhoods closer to parks, bus stops, public schools, libraries, and universities.

Slide from Donovan Rypkema's presentation, "Historic Preservation in the Life and the Economy of San Antonio."
Slide from Donovan Rypkema’s presentation, “Historic Preservation in the Life and the Economy of San Antonio.”

Rypkema’s research shows about 51,000 San Antonian jobs a year are supported by the local heritage tourism industry representing more than $1.7 billion of income directly and indirectly from lodging, transportation, food and beverage, retail, and recreation.

Construction work in historic districts provides more than 1,850 jobs a year, he said, with derived income of more than $100 million.

Despite all this, San Antonio is lacking a development community that renovates/converts historic buildings and takes advantage of federal tax credits.

Rypkema’s report didn’t dive into the “why” for this missed opportunity, but after Wednesday’s meeting, he posed a possible explanation.

“I think there is an issue when the downtown economy is so tourism-based that drives up land prices and so the only thing that makes sense is a hotel. So I think that’s probably part of the issue – but this is a big place,” he said. “That can’t be effecting every parcel all around (the central city).”

What San Antonio needs, he added, are a few architects, developers, and general contractors to take up that historic preservation niche. Some would say there already are many such players in the mix, and that more attractive incentives will be necessary to prime the pump. That issue might be explored more deeply when Rypkema appears at the Centro SA luncheon.

“There is some great work being done here that certainly is historic preservation that hasn’t used the tax credit .. that’s not a failure, but I just hate to see money left on the table,” he said.

One possible explanation for that is relatively little  industry experience with the tax credit, coupled with the fairly recent development of infill development policies and incentives, said Office of Historic Preservation Director Shanon Miller. “There are horror stories that get circulated around (about dealing with tax credits), so many (developers) shy away.”

The Texas Historic Preservation Tax Credit Program went into effect on Jan. 1, so it’s likely that more developers will take a closer look at federal incentives, too.

“With the addition of the state (incentives), it’s going to be much harder to walk away from a 40% discount,” Miller said. “We’ll start to see more use of both of the credits.”

*Featured/top image: 201 E. Commerce St. gets a make-over for a Center City Development Office Open House. Window and interior art and displays by artists Rex Hausmann and David Almaguer of Hausmann Millworks. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Related Stories:

City Offers Workshop on Texas Historic Preservation Tax Credit

Redefining Preservation in a City on the Rise

Centro San Antonio Explores Preservation, Windows To Our Future

Artists and Developers Eye Historic Buildings, Imagine Possibilities

Progress versus Protest: The Path to Smart Preservation and Development

Care of Old Spanish Missions a Citywide Calling

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org