A rendering of McCullough Avenue at the intersection of US-281.
A rendering shows what the intersection at McCullough Avenue and U.S. Highway 281 could look like after improvements. Credit: Courtesy / Jay Louden - Work5hop Architects

Hundreds of people every month turn to Christian Assistance Ministry (CAM) for help paying their utility bills and keeping the lights on another day. It’s just one of the many services CAM provides its 50,000 clients a year. Since April, the 40-year-old nonprofit has been working to bring a different kind of light to its corner of downtown by forming the McCullough Avenue Consortium.

Made up of CAM and McCullough Avenue neighboring organizations – among them CPS Energy, DPT Laboratories, several area churches and a hospital, KLRN, the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, and GrayStreet Partners – the consortium also includes representation from District 1 City Councilman Roberto Treviño’s office. Most of the group’s stakeholders reside in District 1.

The consortium has been meeting monthly since the spring and has collaborated on a shared vision to improve the neighborhood, starting with a set of guiding principles. But it began with CAM, located on McCullough Avenue just west of Interstate 37, and the nonprofit’s Executive Director Dawn White-Fosdick.

CAM got its start in 1977 as a joint venture among nine downtown churches that shared the goal of wanting to help the homeless, working poor, and others in crisis. The “emergency room of social services,” as the organization is often referred to, operates out of a century-old home and buildings donated by Grace Lutheran Church. Today, it receives support from about 100 churches, as well as local businesses, individual donors, foundations, and 200 regular volunteers. CAM receives no government funding.

When she took the helm of the nonprofit six years ago, White-Fosdick’s goal was simply to raise the money needed to run the ministry and provide quality service to clients.

“I would often say, ‘No, we can’t expand or take in more clients,’” because the organization already struggled with its workload, she said. “At the same time, I started realizing what our location was. And that started to change my vision.”

McCullough Avenue is a gateway to downtown churches, corporate headquarters, the Tobin Center, Metropolitan Methodist Hospital, and residential properties, restaurants, and retail outlets in the area. It connects to I-37 to the east and Interstate 35 to the north as it stretches across the northeast section of downtown.

It is an area to pass through on the way to somewhere else.

Office towers that once anchored McCullough Avenue to the business district grew quiet in 2009 when AT&T moved its headquarters to Dallas. CPS Energy is currently renovating AT&T’s former homestead as its own new headquarters, to be completed in late 2019.

And although the mile-long stretch of roadway is home to some of the oldest Protestant churches in San Antonio and named for Presbyterian missionary John McCullough (1805-70), who offered the first church services there, homeless people often camp out under the highways. The area is disjointed and somewhat blighted.

White-Fosdick took notice of people driving past CAM to get to the Tobin Center on nights and weekends, or to get to and from church or work in the center city. She saw the development happening nearby on Broadway and at the Pearl, which shifted her vision from wanting to improve CAM’s property to something more far-reaching.

“I wanted people to see CAM and say, ‘Oh, that’s that place my church supports,’” she said. “And I wanted them to see it from the perspective of, ‘That’s a joyful and powerful place [where] I could be a part of giving back.’”

That was more than a year ago. Shortly after, a friend who had volunteered to help with a slideshow for an upcoming fundraiser challenged that vision.

“It’s one thing to say you have a vision for CAM,” the volunteer told her. “But what is CAM’s place in this new neighborhood that is changing around you? What would it look like if your plans matched their plans and their guiding principles?”

“That’s when I said, ‘Yes, we want to be a light, not a blight,’” White-Fosdick recalled.

That friend was Tony Diamond, a local business growth consultant and founder of TDthink who then began contacting potential partners for the consortium. Since its first meeting, the consortium has grown to incorporate Metropolitan Methodist Hospital and Methodist Healthcare Ministries, and extended to include the Light Building, a new GrayStreet development. The group is also looking to invite the likes of Providence Catholic SchoolCentral Catholic High School, businesses within a block of McCullough Avenue, and others to what Diamond calls “this area of faith.”

A current draft rendering of the San Antonio Light Building.
A draft rendering shows the San Antonio Light Building, located at the corner of Broadway Street and McCullough Avenue. Credit: Courtesy / Ford Powell & Carson

Consortium meetings have resulted in three guiding principles and some basic objectives for each. Members want McCullough Avenue to serve as a gateway to the downtown area’s vibrant culture and a gathering place for the community. “What could it look like so [you don’t feel like] you’re entering ‘Ghetto City USA’ to get down to the pretty part?” White-Fosdick asked.

Members said they would be open to “some architectural changes, some fencing changes – to a visible alignment,” so as to avoid a hodgepodge. White-Fosdick hopes to use the Light Building and CPS Energy architectural renderings as inspiration for changes to CAM’s exterior.

Members want the area to be inviting and accessible for all visitors and residents, and they want it to showcase the neighborhood’s cultural and spiritual history and future.

“We all have a selfish reason to partner together,” White-Fosdick said, alluding to CAM’s need to raise money to help those in need. “Out of that, we came to the realization that what made our neighborhood different was an unusual combination of businesses that cared about healing and spirituality as well as economic development for the neighborhood. Even the churches care about economic development. Even CAM, because we want our clients to have better and do better. If we work together, we could together be lifting people up.”

Diamond said the new CPS headquarters and the Light Building renovation serve as “two shining examples of how the area could be rejuvenated by respecting the history, but looking forward to the future.”

But as he and White-Fosdick began talking to local architects and developers, another consideration began to emerge: property values.

“They told us, ‘We don’t know if we want to put a light on CAM. That might scare people who are buying property around here,’” White-Fosdick said. “It’s not because people are uncaring … I knew why they were saying it. If you’re selling a half-million-dollar condo or an elite restaurant, is my ministry an eyesore or a safety problem? That’s a realistic thought, and nobody wants to say that out loud. But I was willing to own it.”

A look at San Antonio Police Department crime reports for that stretch of McCullough Avenue during the last six months revealed two burglaries, but no other crimes reported.

It’s a part of town that needs attention, Treviño conceded.

“We want to approach this with the proper vision for the corridor,” he said. “A unified vision is what [the area] lacked before. What you have is a corridor seeing the value of being located downtown, the value of partnering to connect these great spots, to help provide a corridor that is inviting, active, vibrant, with infrastructure that links to the east side of downtown and across.”

Map of the land use along McCullough Avenue.
A map shows the land use along McCullough Avenue. Credit: Courtesy / Tony Diamond

For that reason, he hopes the consortium will create more activity along McCullough Avenue. There has already been talk of a festival.

“The more activity, the more we feel that crime can be addressed,” Treviño said. “You have areas that are not well-connected, that can feel somewhat disconnected from parts of our city and can be hiding grounds for nefarious activity. … The whole point is working together to provide vibrancy, recognizing this is another evolution for this great spot.”

CPS Energy representatives also asked about the homeless population in the area, but not with the intent of displacing them, White-Fosdick said. Rather, they wanted to know how they could help.

“[CPS Energy is] proud to be part of the McCullough Avenue revitalization efforts …,” the company stated. “The consortium wants to make McCullough the ‘Avenue of Light.’ CPS Energy is often thought of as the ‘light company,’ so it is appropriate that we be part of making our new neighborhood a beacon for San Antonio.”

Riverwalk view of the proposed CPS Energy Headquarters.
A rendering shows the proposed CPS Energy headquarters located at 530 McCullough Ave. Credit: Rendering by Corgan / Courtesy of CPS Energy

In fact, branding the neighborhood in that way has already had a unifying effect. Starting with the idea that churches are a metaphorical light in the world and that the medical and scientific communities shed light on social issues, the consortium incorporated CPS’ “light company” concept, the Tobin’s distinctive exterior lighting, and the Light Building’s name into potential brands such as the “Avenue of Light” and the “Light District.” Organizers hope to secure more street lighting as well as some signage to reflect the brand.

Although the consortium has not yet formally requested City or State support for its plans, it is working with Dennis Martinez, a consultant on public-private initiatives at DMAssociates, and exploring potential funding and financing programs, including matching funds for nonprofits like CAM. Treviño named various resources – the Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone, government bond programs, and public art funding – that could be applied.

“Because a lot of these areas are well-established, they have the resources to adapt, and they’re asking for these improvements,” he said. “This area is home to some of the oldest churches in the city. They’re not going anywhere, and, ultimately, the buildings are in fairly good shape. They’re asking for improvements in the corridor itself so we can provide more pedestrian mobility and more connection to different amenities that we see in our great downtown.”

White-Fosdick said CAM’s role in downtown is to serve as a connector between people and organizations. “I want CAM to bring those people who are in need to a place of help, but also to bring people who have a desire to help those in need,” she said. “Lots of times, people don’t just want to write a check. They want to be a part of really helping people.”

Her goal also includes connecting neighboring business partners so they see CAM as an asset. “I want this to be a place where somebody would want to move into the neighborhood because not only did it have great art, thriving business, and an urban community that’s cool and up-and-coming, but also that it was a place for you to serve and be served.” She is also in talks with SA2020 for help on the project.

CAM will celebrate its 40th birthday with a benefit gala Oct. 25. An anonymous donor has committed funds for major upgrades to the charity’s exterior landscape and gate renovations.

Construction, lack of sidewalks and heavy traffic surround's CAM on McCullough.
Construction, lack of sidewalks, and heavy traffic surround CAM on McCullough Avenue. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“I’m excited about the big picture and the McCullough Avenue Consortium,” White-Fosdick said. “Because if I were to tell any of those business people to come learn about the poor or ask if I can talk with them about poverty, I wouldn’t get a meeting with them. Not because they’re mean, but [because] it’s overwhelming.

“People always want me to help more and do more and I’ve thought, ‘Wow, if more people were paying attention to CAM, partnering and serving, I could say yes to helping more,’” she said. “[The consortium] given me a greater vision and possibility for helping people.”

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.