Residents and business owners in the neighborhoods near the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park have long asked for corridor improvements and pedestrian enhancements to Roosevelt Avenue. 

The continuous sidewalks, bike paths, turn lanes and lane reductions they’ve wanted were finally within sight when the city allocated $8 million for the project in the 2017 bond.

According to the original plan, on a 1-mile section of Roosevelt between Steves Avenue and just past Riverside Drive, there would be two lanes of continuous traffic instead of four, plus a two-way left turn lane, designated bike lanes and wider sidewalks. 

Traffic studies showed the redesigned roadway could handle projected vehicle traffic through 2039. 

Now it’s back to the drawing board.

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) told the city earlier this year that, as with Broadway Street, no lane reductions would be allowed on the state-owned Roosevelt. And no bike lanes could be added, either.

The Mission Historic District is seeing a spate of upcoming development in the corridor, and residents are seeking a balance between protecting the 300-year-old missions and gaining new neighborhood amenities and more housing options. They see Roosevelt improvements as integral to achieving those goals.

District 3 Councilwoman Phyllis Viagran said she is disappointed in what the revised plan could mean for tourism and commerce along the gateway to San Antonio’s Spanish colonial missions.

“What I was hoping for … is that people would stop along the way before they got to the missions,” Viagran said. “When you’re not able to reduce the lanes, they just go from downtown to the missions, and we wanted them to visit the restaurants and shops along the way.”

A spokesman for the city’s Public Works department said it is currently reviewing the next steps and developing a funding agreement for Roosevelt in order to continue work on the project design.

A bicyclist crosses Roosevelt Avenue as low-level clouds begin to hide the Tower of the Americas in 2021.
A bicyclist crosses Roosevelt Avenue, north of the state-owned section of Roosevelt where bike lanes were proposed, as low-level clouds begin to hide the Tower of the Americas in 2021. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

A new schematic will be made public later this year along with a new schedule, he said. But construction likely won’t start next year as planned.

When residents of the San José neighborhood learned of the issue, they were frustrated, said Theresa Ybanez, president of the San José Neighborhood Association.

“This neighborhood has for many years begged to have those infrastructure commodities — sidewalks, lighting, crosswalks, trees planted. For years, they’ve been asking and it’s just taking forever,” she said. Ybanez said she sees it as a safety problem. 

“We have a lot of low-income apartments where the family members and school children use that road constantly to cross, walking or on their bikes or on the bus,” she said. “It’s been like that forever so it’s frustrating to see that it’s not taken very seriously, or the expediency isn’t taken seriously.”

Mission signage

City crews recently began installing wayfinding signage in the area of the missions to help visitors navigate among the historic landmarks and other amenities in the area. 

The installations began near Mission San Juan and Mission Espada and will continue north. When complete in November, there will be 90 such signs guiding people through the Mission Historic District. 

The tourist-friendly signs along with a growing number of restaurants and coffee shops could also give visitors and residents more reasons to slow down and stay a while. 

Just past Riverside Drive going south on Roosevelt, corridor improvement plans are still in the works, according to a city spokesman. Bike lanes are going in along with a bike and pedestrian bridge that will make it safer to cross the river. 

Also coming soon to the missions area is the World Heritage Center. Construction is set to start later this year on the visitor center and museum at Mission Marquee Plaza and is scheduled to be completed in late 2023.

Further north on Roosevelt, at South St. Mary’s Street and Lone Star Boulevard, brothers Joe and Phil Bakke and nephew Brandt are rehabilitating a former industrial site with plans to create an open-air entertainment center. 

The Bakkes’ ice house project also will provide access to the trails of the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River. Last year, Joe Bakke relocated his office from Alamo Heights to the site of the ice house. “We believe in the area,” he said.

New apartments

In May, the Zoning Commission approved developer James Lifshutz’s request to rezone 18 acres of property at the intersection of Roosevelt Avenue and East Southcross, where he plans to build a new mixed-use retail and residential development.

Though still in the design phase, he expects the new development will have 300 apartment units on what is an underused and semi-blighted property.

A survey of residents by the neighborhood association showed that 90% of residents are pleased with the new plans Lifshutz has proposed. In neighborhood meetings with the developer, residents asked him for market-rate units, versus affordable, and they suggested that some apartments be located on the ground level to better accommodate seniors.

“We’re hoping that it’s going to be also an economic generator for our neighborhood because we’ve had a lot of vacant properties on the main corridor that have been vacant for a long time,” Ybanez said. 

Ybanez said the neighborhood association has fought against low-income apartments being developed in those areas and even against rental homes being built across the street from the visitor center at Mission San José. 

“This neighborhood has had a history of people wanting to put low-income apartments or apartments right next to the mission, which we don’t feel is appropriate for a World Heritage Site,” she said. “We’ve been accused of being anti-development. We just want development that’s going to benefit this neighborhood and benefit our mission.”

A longtime resident of the area, Lifshutz calls the district “one of the coolest parts of San Antonio, just given the historic resources and the river.” But development has been historically slow in coming. 

“I don’t think development for the sake of development is ever a good thing,” he added. “ … I want development that is appropriate for the context, and that’s more commonly desired than it is seen.”

Unique and sensitive

Created in 1977, the Mission Historic District was established in preparation for the National Historical Park designation that recognizes and protects the four Spanish missions in the area — Concepción, San José, San Juan and Espada.

The district begins south of the Union Pacific Railroad tracks near Interstate 10 and runs roughly along Mission Road, Presa Street and Roosevelt Avenue south past Loop 410. A design manual lays out certain requirements for land development in what is considered a unique and sensitive area of the city. 

The sun sets on downtown San Antonio and Mission Concepción on Thursday.
The sun sets on downtown San Antonio and Mission Concepción on Thursday. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

Whether you’re a longtime resident or a newcomer, Ybanez said, “if you have a mission in your neighborhood, you should be protecting that history. You should be protecting that culture.”

But residents also want development that’s good for their neighborhoods and brings people into the area.

Last month, the National Park Service announced that the missions drew an estimated $165 million into the area in 2021 through visitor spending and employment. In fact, visitor spending was up 23% over the previous year, with lodging at the top of the spending categories. 

But too little of that spending occurs within the mission district itself, Ybanez said. “There’s millions of dollars that are being made, and yet the neighborhoods that are within the Mission Historic District don’t get to see a lot of that money.”

Mission Crafts Chandlery owner Marcie Anguiano agrees. Operating in a storefront that’s a 12-minute walk from Mission San José, Anguiano said she’s learned since opening in 2017 not to rely on foot traffic for customers. 

Instead, custom orders for her room fragrance products from individuals in other neighborhoods and from downtown hotels fuel her business. Now convinced she’d see better profits in a more bustling location, Anguiano is planning to move her studio closer to downtown, possibly Southtown, she said. 

“There is no reason why our Mission District cannot be a vibrant, cultural representation of who we are, which is a community of makers,” Anguiano said. 

The Mission District in San Francisco is an example of what San Antonio’s district could be like, she added, if only there was more support and promotion by the city and the visitors bureau. 

Nicha’s Comida Mexicana, a 45-year staple among restaurants in the area, is learning to evolve as well. Located at 3119 Roosevelt Ave. across the street from Mission Marquee Plaza, Nicha’s is often packed with diners.

“We do very well. We’re blessed beyond measure there,” said Arthur Garcia. But there’s limited parking and no space to expand, and the growing number of restaurants on Military Highway with full-service bars is bringing a new level of competition for business, he said. 

Garcia is planning to build a new, more spacious restaurant, he said, with “a nice view of Mission San José” that will open during summer 2023. He hopes the proximity to the mission and Roosevelt improvements will be good for business.

“A lot of tourists just [visit the mission] and get back on the bus and they leave,” Garcia said. “We want them walking around.”

Shari Biediger has been covering business and development for the San Antonio Report since 2017. A graduate of St. Mary’s University, she has worked in the corporate and nonprofit worlds in San Antonio...