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City Council approved zoning changes on Thursday that will allow local developer Efraim Varga and investment partners to construct a multi-block, mixed-use complex in the Eastside’s Denver Heights neighborhood near the Alamodome. The neighborhood, plagued with crime and vagrancy, stands to undergo a revitalization similar to that which the Pearl brought to the crumbling brewery complex just north of downtown.
Specific plans for the site, currently an industrial park, are still in early stages, Varga said. The development itself is pending the closing date on his purchase of the 7.7-acre property in early May. Mike Horn and Edgar Lozano own the property that hosts several abandoned homes and buildings as well as small automotive, wood, and metalwork shops. He’s also looking to acquire about two to three acres of separate property nearby.
“We’re in negotiations … they know that we’re doing something big,” Varga said Thursday, motioning towards City Council chambers from the from the front steps in Main Plaza. But he was also referring to the neighbors. Varga has met with area neighborhood associations and he said they’ve been receptive to his plans.
“They’re looking forward to the change, it’s going to (revitalize) the neighborhood,” Varga said. While the project will surely have a residential component, he added, preliminary ideas for the commercial aspects include a wide range of uses including a microbrewery, hotel, office space, restaurant, and retail.
“We (have) the zoning for the maximum available that we could do,” he said. The new zoning would allow up to 100 residential units per acre and diverse commercial use. “We fit everything in there (for now) and now we’re going to go back and design it.”
Once the property is purchased, Varga estimates that the design phase will take until the end of 2016. If all goes as planned, the first of three phases would break ground in the first quarter of 2017.
“It’s hard to find an eight-acre piece of property so close to downtown,” Varga said, who has a few other housing projects in nearby Southtown, but none at this scale and complexity.
Councilman Alan Warrick II (D2) welcomes the increased attention to Denver Heights. Most public and private investments in the Eastside have been focused further north, closer to the Dignowity Hill and St. Paul Square historic districts, where single- and multi- family residential projects are sprouting up almost monthly.
“Since the Alamodome, very little has happened with this area,” Warrick said during an interview with the Rivard Report prior to the Thursday vote. “That’s what makes this so exciting.”
The Alamodome was a highly-controversial project when it was built two decades ago on the lead-contaminated site of the former Alamo Iron Works. It was supposed to bring jobs and development that never came. Perhaps until now. A $43.5 million improvements package was approved in January 2015 that is slated to improve connectivity to the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center expansion and Hemisfair Park.
Though it’s physically and psychologically cut off by Interstate 37 from downtown and the flourishing neighborhoods of Southtown, it’s a short walk or bike ride to either. Urban blight and vagrancy stands in the way.
But not for long, Varga said, because projects like the one he has in mind will provide the connective tissue – with street and infrastructure improvements close behind – to bring these communities together. “It’s all going to be one big inner-city town” despite the highways.
“We definitely have plenty of room,” Warrick said of the surrounding area that is dotted with homes, warehouses and industrial complexes – some vacant, some in use.
“But we also don’t want to force people out too quickly before they can take advantage of (education and employment) programs,” the councilman added, speaking to the building fear of gentrification and displacement that the looming increased property values that many commercial and residential neighbors have.
“It’s not about making sure you can stay in the community,” he said, it’s about making sure that current residents have access to programs like Promise Zone to Work and job training opportunities so that the people in the community can rise with the neighborhood and choose to either stay or move elsewhere.
“Because does everyone want to stay?” he asked rhetorically of Eastsiders. “It’s not (or won’t be) the same neighborhood that you were in before.”
Top image: Properties along Cherry Street at the corner of Carolina Street are proposed to become possible mixed use by developer Efraim Varga. Photo by Scott Ball.