Mainstreet Architects Inc. Principal Sue Ann Pemberton has been hired by the City to lead a team of architects and consultants to conduct a neighborhood redevelopment study for the St. Paul Square Historic District and surrounding area.
About 50 people gathered at the Little Carver Civic Center Tuesday evening to take part in one of the first meetings to explore long-term revitalization. The public meeting was held to gather preliminary comment from property and business owners, Eastside residents, developers, and community leaders. Pemberton’s ensuing report will be presented to City Council in March 2016.
The objective is to produce a market analysis of existing real estate stock, to update land use restrictions, develop goals, and identify potential tenants, investors, and funding sources and mechanisms. The number one priority is getting people to come to St. Paul Square.
“The biggest thing missing to me is people,” Pemberton said. Once people are there to activate the space, more businesses will be attracted to the area, streets will become safer, and the Square can become a destination. People have few reasons to go there now.
Danny Treviño owns Ringside Sports Bar, one of three bars on the block of East Commerce Street between IH-37 and the train tracks – the thoroughfare that most San Antonians identify as St. Paul Square. A more expansive definition and history can be found on the webpage of the City’s Office of Historic Preservation:
“The St. Paul Square Historic District, on the eastside of downtown, is bounded by Center Street, Montana, the railroad tracks, and IH-37. The name is derived from the Old St. Paul Methodist Episcopal Church, which was constructed between 1870 and 1880 in the Gothic Revival style. Sparsely developed in the early 19th century, the area grew significantly with the arrival of the railroad in 1877 and the ‘Cemetery Line’ of the street car system during the 1890s down East Commerce Street, the commercial corridor’s main artery.
“In 1902, the Mission Revival style Southern Pacific Passenger Depot was constructed, which greatly increased the amount of commercial activity and development. Most of the existing commercial buildings were constructed during this period and included a variety of businesses largely focused around trade and transportation. Although racially mixed from its earliest days, the area had developed into a flourishing African-American community by the early to mid 20th century. St. Paul Square reached its peak during World War II and the Korean War, despite segregation. However, the rise in automobile traffic and the construction of IH-37 brought about a decline in the 1960s and ’70s.”
“During the week, it’s dead,” said Treviño, who owns the building at 1161 E. Commerce St. “People only come here after (games and events) at the Alamodome. … The rent is too high for people (businesses) to move in.”
Two large projects were slated in and around the St. Paul Square Historic District: the $40 million Merchant’s Ice Lofts, which has since fallen through, and the $42.8 million Crockett Street Urban Lofts. Treviño said residential developments would have the most impact on neighborhood revival. New residents would need to eat, drink, and be entertained, he said. “(St. Paul Square) is the perfect place for them.”
NRP Group, one of the nation’s largest multifamily developers, and San Antonio-based Zachry Corp. the largest property owner in the district and study area, are jointly developing the Crockett Street project. Several NRP Group representatives attended the meeting.
St. Paul Square experienced a period of rebirth in the 1990s that included new restaurants and shops and several historic building renovations, but the revitalization preceded other downtown redevelopment and did not last. With the departure of the San Antonio Spurs from the Alamodome to the AT&T Center in 2002, the area went back into decline. Area stakeholders want to see a flourishing gateway commercial and cultural district linking downtown San Antonio and the Eastside. Some businesses are moving into the historic buildings that make up the square, but much of the office and warehouse space is vacant or underutilized and the area is physically and physiologically isolated by busy railroad tracks and I-37.
A new effort to activate the historic district will be helped by successful development nearby, including Eastside redevelopment, the revival of the Dignowity Hill Historic District and neighborhood, and the continuing developments moving south on Broadway from the Cultural District and the Pearl.
The most recent study of St. Paul Square is almost a decade old, carried out by the Urban Land Institute. That report suggested a name change to “St. Paul Gateway District.” The name is one of many elements for which Pemberton and her team are seeking feedback.
Pemberton, who has lived in Dignowity Hill since 1986 and is the past president of the San Antonio Conservation Society, gave a brief overview of previous planning and revitalization efforts.
The area closest to Sunset Station, a former train station turned event venue, and on East Commerce Street is relatively well-maintained with wide sidewalks and renovated historic buildings with small store fronts. Then there are large, more industrial parts further north and the Alamodome to the south. While investment has been made to improve pedestrian connectivity to the Alamodome, extending that to the rest of downtown and further into the Eastside will be a major challenge.
“I have a lot of guests from all over the world,” said Esther Ponce, who operates a small complex of temporary rental units on the Eastside within six blocks of the square. “Believe it or not, a lot of these people want to walk.”
Ponce has lived in the neighborhood since the 1980s and remembers a time when there were bars, restaurants, and people that filled East Commerce Street. “I want to see people, art, food, and music there again.”
Yet another challenge will be historic preservation, making sure that existing residents enjoy amenities that come into the neighborhood, said Nettie Hinton, an Eastside native and community activist.
“This was the center of African-American culture and commerce. If you start doing all these developments that erase that history, you would be doing a terrible injustice,” Hinton said.
Hinton is concerned that luxury housing projects in the works may not respect that neighborhood history. She would like to see a local African-American professional added to the study team.
“We don’t want condos on Ellis Alley,” she said. Ellis Alley was one of the first African-American settlement areas in San Antonio dating back to the post-Civil War era, when new Texas laws granted ex-slaves the right to own property. The area now hosts several historic buildings with various tenants, including San Antonio for Growth on the Eastside and the Vidorra, a condo tower, which was built in 2009.
“No one is suggesting that (history) disappear through district development,” Pemberton said.
Since state funding for the G.J. Sutton building was rejected by Gov. Greg Abbott this summer, the City should step in and find an alternative use for the space, Hinton said. G.J. Sutton was Bexar County’s first African-American told elected office, winning a seat on the San Antonio Union Junior College District in 1948, now the Alamo Colleges. HB 1255 would have allocated at least $132 million to the renovation and redevelopment of the G.J. Sutton State Office Complex. Local and state officials, surprised by the veto, are regrouping and looking into developing some sort of public-private partnership (P3) to give the abandoned and deteriorating 110,000 sq. ft. building new life.
Others are concerned about the boundaries of the study itself, especially Rev. James Amerson of St. Paul United Methodist Church, San Antonio’s oldest African-American congregation that will celebrate its 150th anniversary next year. About 10 congregation members attended the meeting with the Rev. Amerson.
“The boundary of the current St. Paul district does not include the current St. Paul church,” Amerson said. The church moved in 1922 from its original location on Center Street, closer to Sunset Station, to 508 N. Center St. in the 1920s. The original church, known as The Spire, is not currently designated as an historic site by the City – which Amerson hopes to rectify soon.
Pemberton said the study could recommend expanding or adjusting the historic district lines.
“We would like to see this not be a top-heavy approach to revitalizing St. Paul Square but that it will involve a conversation with those that know the history of this area,” Amerson said. “It has so much history that needs to be remembered, even if it gets revitalized.”
Comments from Tuesday’s meeting as well as those submitted via this online survey will be organized and shared with stakeholders in November and December. Pemberton and her team will host another open house in February 2016 before the final plan is presented to City Council in March.
Interested community members are encouraged to contact Pemberton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Top image: The wide train track crossing next to St. Paul Square. Some tenants said trains block traffic for up to 20 minutes at a time. Photo by Iris Dimmick.