The Alamo Brewery‘s big new tent purchased for Octoberfest provided both a literal and metaphorical shelter for Dignowity Hill neighbors, community leaders, members of the design community, and elected officials, including Mayor Ivy Taylor, to gather Wednesday night to talk about balanced neighborhood redevelopment.
Looming thunderheads produced brisk winds that rattled the big top at times, but rains never materialized and only the occasional passing freight train disturbed the evening. A racially and economically diverse audience of 250 people that included senior citizens with more than a half century in the neighborhood and Millennial generation newcomers who moved in less than a year ago gathered to hear a panel discussion and enjoy casual conversation and craft brew.
Place Changing is designed to give readers an in-depth appreciation of San Antonio’s individual neighborhoods and urban spaces, especially those experiencing rapid change or growth. By marrying designers with journalists, the intent is to give communities the information and tools needed to actively participate in effecting positive change and outcomes for their neighborhoods. The first Place Changing project focused on Dignowity Hill, a small near-Eastside historic district and neighborhood undergoing rapid change even as it remains an area with one of the worst vacancy problems in the city.
The series examined Dignowity Hill’s history, culture, people and built environment, and the challenges and opportunities brought about by decade of neglect and a lack of public investment. It also documented the infusion of young professionals attracted to the neighborhood’s welcoming feel, its near-downtown location, and the availability of affordable historic structures, many of them rundown and left vacant for many years.
Wednesday’s panel at the Alamo Brewery included Councilmember Alan Warrick II (D2), Alamo Beer Founder Eugene Simor, Overland Partners Architectural and Urban Designer Allison Hu, and Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association Vice President Brian Dillard. Rivard Report Director Robert Rivard moderated.
Overland Partners Principal Madison Smith opened the night’s conversation, telling the story of how Overland Partners, which has projects underway across the United States and as far away as China, made a decision several years ago to move its offices into the urban core, and how he and his wife then decided to sell their Northside home and rent an apartment in River North a short walk from work. The move, he said, had a transformative effect on his company and its employees, “most of them a lot younger than me.”
Pointing to the nearby Hays Street Bridge and acknowledging that he had never practiced yoga, Smith said he did understand the importance of “strengthening the core.” Place Changing, he said, was all about helping people strengthen the City’s core and fostering positive discussion among diverse interests and individuals about downtown development and improvements.
“The ‘aha’ moment for me is there is power in a conversation,” Smith said. “Too many of our conversations are reactionary, they are defensive, while this is initiating a conversation about ‘what can be’ in our city.”
Mayor Ivy Taylor, who lives with her family in Dignowity Hill, complimented the Place Changing project and the “positive context” it used to address neighborhood change in San Antonio.
“We want to talk about change in a positive way and embrace the history, and the neighbors, and the architecture of neighborhoods like this, along with embracing the new people and new investments that will be coming,” Mayor Taylor said. “I do believe we can strike that balance.”
Change often is accompanied by conflict, and Mayor Taylor said she wants to make sure relationship-building conversations are taking place between newcomers and longtime residents.
“We have to figure out how to have those tough conversations,” she said.
Councilmember Warrick said San Antonio can attract new residents to the inner city from other cities and the surrounding suburbs by investing in a more appealing living environment in the urban core. That means investing in new housing, safer streets, and improved schools, he said.
“In the next five years, I would like to see zero vacant homes, zero stray dogs, zero murders, and zero percent unemployment in this community,” Warrick said. “I think it (Dignowity Hill) would be a shining light for the rest of the District (and) the city as a whole.”
Simor opened the $7 million Alamo Brewery in March, deciding to open the brewery’s beer hall to the public Thursday through Sunday and consciously reserving Monday through Wednesday for private events to attract people that otherwise might not venture “east of the railroad tracks” to Dignowity Hill.
“We wanted to get people south of Hildebrand and east of the railroad tracks, which may not happen if you’re the Average Joe San Antonian living on the north or far Westside. Chances are you are probably not going to come over to this side,” Simor said.
Most welcomed news of the brewery project in 2012, but the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, which has organized protests against several redevelopment projects in the urban core, opposed the City’s decision to sell the parcel to Simor. When that effort failed before City Council, Esperanza’s leaders helped organize the Hays Street Bridge Restoration Group and mounted a legal battle.
The group continued to vehemently oppose the brewery and hosted a disruptive protest during its grand opening ceremony in December 2014.
“I want to thank all of the supporters who have been supporting all along,” he said. “And believe it or not, I want to forgive and forget the haters … mostly forget.”
Dillard, a third generation Eastsider, has become a mediator in the neighborhood to bridge the gap between the “energetic newcomers” and those who have lived in the neighborhood for years – many of whom are equally energetic about enacting positive change.
“Place Changing isn’t just changing a place, it’s figuring out how to do that with the folks who are already there,” Dillard said. “How do we help our dynamic neighborhoods as they begin to grow from the past to the future? How do we balance out preservation with growth?”
Hu is one of those newcomers one of the Place Changing project leaders. She and her partner moved into Dignowity Hill about four months ago and she understands the need to protect the diversity of the neighborhood, which she said could be done by using the City of San Antonio 2017 Bond to establish a neighborhood reinvestment fund that invests in small-scale developers to build housing for middle-class and working-class individuals.
“(Place Changing) is really all about probing the DNA of this neighborhood to figure out what it is that makes it work, makes it special, and in the meantime what it means to be in the City of San Antonio,”Hu said. “I am hearing over and over again that San Antonio is the place you want to go if you want to see how conflicts can be resolved without drama and without unnecessary hostility. There is something about the culture of San Antonio that allows it to resolve conflict in peaceful ways.”
Rina Moreno-Belardi bought her house in Dignowity Hill at a reasonable rate 12 years ago. At that time, she said the neighborhood was plagued with drugs, crime and prostitution. But now, as more people flood into Dignowity Hill, she’s scared she’ll be forced out of the neighborhood.
“I see a great probability of me being pushed out of this neighborhood because of the increase of property and tax values,” she said.
Councilmember Warrick replied that City Council is looking to counter tax increases with tax freezes for those who have lived in the neighborhood for at least five years. He addressed her concern as a homeowner, and also pointed out that ago only a few years ago 80% of the neighborhood residents were renters who faced rising rents and potential displacement.
“There are hundreds of people who are renters who will be gone a lot quicker if their landlord decides to raise the prices,” he said. “We have the potential of losing 80% of those people.”
Simor called the issue of gentrification a “double-edged sword.”
“Everybody wants to have improved neighborhoods but improved neighborhoods have higher property values,” he said.
While the audience members mingled before and after the panel discussion, Overland Partners put together an interactive display of exhibits and place making maps inside the beer hall that invited community members to share their own aspirations for Dignowity Hill and its two underutilized public places, Dignowity and Lockwood parks.
An analog version of the online Neighborhood Refill platform created for the Place Changing project collected ideas on what to do with vacant or underutilized parcels of land in Dignowity Hill. Suggestions submitted Wednesday night will be added to the interactive map here.
Members of the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association and the Dignowity Doers community group have initiated a re-imagining project for Dignowity and Lockwood parks, an effort that emerged from the Place Changing project. Maps of the parks were displayed and input was collected for that endeavor during the event. Those interested in joining in on that conversation can email Allison Hu at email@example.com.
As emphasized by Hu during the panel, one of the biggest opportunities for neighborhoods and projects across San Antonio to acquire funding is through the 2017 Municipal Bond, which is now in the planning and discussion phase. Warrick said he hopes to capture at least $50 million for his Eastside district, but will ask for $100 million and hope for $75 million. Nicolas Rivard, an urban designer at Overland Partners and a leader on the Place Changing team, has posted an online survey to assess how residents want to prioritize projects funded in the bond. Printed copies of this survey were distributed at the forum and collected at the end of the evening.
The goal is to collect as many responses as possible and share the results with City Council members before the idea-gathering stage of the process closes in December. Click here to take the 2017-2022 Municipal Bond Survey.
*Top image: Overland Partners’ Allison Hu and Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association Vice President Brian Dillard share a beer and a laugh. Photo by Joan Vinson.