Diego Bernal does not like the fact his city council district is home to more than 30 vacant downtown buildings. Where others see neglected structures, he sees the promise of development projects adding to the initiatives already underway. Add to that the possibility of finally moving beyond rhetoric and shelved plans to revitalize the Alamo Plaza and you have a snapshot of the District 1 city councilman’s second annual State of the Center City presentation Friday at the Briscoe Western Art Museum.
Bernal told the story in one hour and 150 snapshots – slides, actually – as a packed house of center city business, civic and cultural leaders joined him to assess progress in downtown revitalization since he last convened the group for his inaugural downtown address at the St. Anthony Hotel one year ago.
Bernal spoke about the planned rollout of new city “empty building” initiative that would both pressure and incentivize property owners to either sell their properties to willing developers or undertake projects themselves. The decades-old downtown vacancy problem was the subject of a recent story here: Ghost Buildings Haunt San Antonio’s ‘Decade of Downtown’.
Bernal illustrated the empty building problem with a slide of the Hedrick Building, for decades owned by a wealthy Indian-American businessman B.P. Agrawal, who has largely ignore developer interest in revitalizing the vacant structure. A center city developer has told the Rivard Report that Agrawal is now in talks to sell or co-develop the building and adjacent property.
Two recent stories by Gwendolyn restaurant owner/chef Michael Sohocki on the Rivard Report also generated considerable discussion about the challenges of succeeding as a small business owner downtown amid the blight and current city codes: Why I Closed Lunch at Restaurant Gwendolyn, and Chef Sohocki: I Still Believe in Downtown.
Bernal’s address is a reminder of just how much is going on in and around City Hall to address the problem. Mayor Julián Castro’s “Decade of Downtown” initiative has set the tone, and perhaps the most effective city strategy to date was City manager Sheryl Sculley’s creation of the Center City Development Office (CCDO).
To track the changes and unaddressed challenges of central city redevelopment, the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, based at the Pearl, and Centro San Antonio, has invited the council member responsible for District One to deliver an annual “State of the Center City” address to the city’s urban core leadership.
The luncheon sold out two weeks ago and drew more than 500 people to the Briscoe Western Art Museum in the heart of downtown. Guests were greeted by some cool pop music while they mingled. When I walked up to the councilman, who moonlights as a musician and composer, said, “That’s my stuff,” as his head bobbed to his own tunes mixed with musical partner, Ernest Gonzales.
Bernal is a young, energetic activist councilman with a closer touch to the downtown arts and culture scene than any of his predecessors. Friday’s talk was a rapid fire presentation of development projects, peppered with a little stand-up comedy, and a dialogue about why San Antonio merits the tag line of “City on the Rise.”
Bernal started the address standing on a stage in the center of the room, but soon went on the move, wandering among the audience as he gave “an unadulterated ‘info-dump’ on downtown and the center city,” as Ramiro Cavazos, president and CEO of the Hispanic Chamber, put it.
Paradigm Shift of the Urban Core
San Antonio now has more college students in the city than Austin, Bernal said. The Tobin Lofts, located beside San Antonio College, are just the start of efforts to provide affordable student housing for not only SAC, but for UTSA’s Downtown Campus, the Southwest School of Art, the Culinary Institute of America, and the downtown medical school planned by the University of the Incarnate Word.
[Read More: Where I Live: Tobin Lofts at San Antonio College]
Focusing on a new re-use development on the Eastside, the Merchant’s Ice House project, Bernal touched on one of the biggest problems with downtown development: Empty and neglected buildings. He then presented a series of slides featuring planned projects in the downtown area starting with the Witte Building, the Peanut Factory, and one many have seen and thought hopeless, the Fish Market building. Of course, Bernal noted there is still work to be done, pointing to the Hedrick building on St. Mary’s and Martin everyone downtown would love to see either renovated or demolished. A complete list of downtown developments can be found at Urbantonio.com.
Talking about the recently approved Alamo Plaza Study, Bernal said they will be starting with the 1994 plan and develop from there. One factor that will help lead to success of the plan is the enlistment of Alan Hartman, former architect of the U.S. Capitol. To capture the cultural voices of the area, Mimi Quintanilla, principal with Quintanilla Schimdt Consulting, will facilitate the public meetings. The process is expected to be complete by September 2015.
Noting that development on the outskirts of downtown is now moving inward with the list of projects, Bernal said that in April or May the City will roll out the most aggressive “empty building” policy ever seen, including empty homes in the Center City area as well. “You can’t have a strong downtown or neighborhood with a bunch of empty buildings,” said Bernal.
No discussion about downtown could happen without a conversation about Geekdom, the technology/startup innovation center currently located in the Weston Center but targeted to move to the Rand Building by the end of the month. Calling it the YMCA for geeks, Bernal noted that he and his music partner have an office there where they can focus on getting their works out. “We took 10 days working almost 24 hour days, loading up on free Dr. Pepper and Trail Mix, to finish our last record,” he said, talking about the creative environment.
Bernal also talked about the number of events and festivals that happen downtown, listing off a number of cultural festivals, capping it with the biggest festival of them all, Fiesta San Antonio. “We’re a city that comprises a lot of different cultures and instead of having events by the group for the group, the groups share the events with all of us,” said Bernal about the inclusivity of San Antonio culture.
Setting the audience up with talk about the “elephant in the room,” Bernal referred to an event where people of different allegiances lined up around city buildings waiting to get in, then surprised everyone with a slide of Alamo City Comic Con that brought in around 45,000 people to the event. Next year he feels the event will be even larger, thanks to the popularity of this past year’s event.
Closing out the address, Bernal noted that “Center City is a place where people who have wild differences find common ground,” flashing a slide of himself standing side by side with City Council gadfly Jack Finger at a downtown event. While downtown progress could be measured by the developments happening, Bernal said it was really those in the room and the people who come to downtown that have made it the success it is.
While almost everyone in the room had an understanding of some of the developments noted in the address, Bernal provided even more details on other areas. Charles Gibbs of Gonzaba Medical Group said he learned about a lot of good things happening downtown. “It’s nice to see kind of a multi-pronged attack on revitalization, bringing the community at large back into the downtown area,” said Gibbs.
Cavazos said two years ago the Chamber decided to give Councilman Bernal a chance to tell everyone what’s happening downtown. “He has shown he is willing to take a heroic stance on many issues,” said Cavazos, noting the many projects and efforts such as the non-discrimination ordinance. “It tells me there is this strong foundation of investment going on in the Center City from all walks of life.”
Friday’s event is available for viewing online via Nowcast SA. Bernal is planning a reprise of the event in March or April at the Woodlawn Theater.