Graciela Sanchez, director of the Esperanza Center, looks at the renderings.
Graciela Sanchez, director of the Esperanza Center for Peace and Justice, looks at UTSA Downtown Campus renderings. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

As a microphone was passed around Guadalupe Theater Monday evening, Kristel Orta-Puente stood up and shouted to be heard. The University of Texas at San Antonio senior challenged school officials to consider Westside residents’ apprehension about expanding the Downtown Campus.

“You can say you’re concerned about it, but it’s the residual effect,” she said. “UTSA has an intention, but those intentions have a consequence. The community wants to know that UTSA is on their side, advocating to save businesses and homes.” The people around her broke into applause.

Tensions rose Monday as attendees of a public forum discussing UTSA’s Downtown Campus master plan shared their misgivings about how development on the West Side of San Antonio may affect longtime residents of the area. More than 50 people showed up to participate in the discussion at the third and final public meeting about the master plan.

Several people criticized UTSA for not allowing Westside community members to be part of the planning process from the beginning. Others said expanding the Downtown Campus without putting policies in place to keep housing and rent prices down would drive residents and business tenants out of the neighborhood.

Veronica Mendez, vice president for business affairs at UTSA, said she thinks any conversation about the Downtown Campus’ impact on surrounding area needs more entities involved, including the City of San Antonio and local businesses.

“We can affect the area we own, but they’re talking about the ripple effect outside,” she said. “We want other people coming to the table. We’ll take that and see if we can do that.”

UTSA Provost Kimberly Espy assured forum attendees that the master plan would continue to be developed with their input. Even after the plan is finalized by the UT System Board of Regents, it would still have flexibility to evolve, she added.

“Our goal is to be a good neighbor,” she said. “We recognize the cultural assets and heritage and we want to be a part of that.”

As far as ensuring new development does not push out existing residents and businesses, she said UTSA would continue to be part of the conversation on how to address that. However, UTSA is only looking at publicly owned land and not private, she said.

“We are not a private developer,” she said. “We are in a market and we don’t control the market. We can enable college-going and access to a much greater degree. That’s what our goal is. I think we have many more shared interests where we can be an advocate and partner to our communities.”

Ryan Losch, a senior associate and urban designer with Austin-based firm Page, gave a brief overview of the new iteration of the master plan on Monday.

Losch said the current draft plan prioritizes community partnership, embracing the urban environment of San Antonio, improving pedestrian options through and to the campus, and creating a complete campus with affordable housing options and services that community members and UTSA staff and students can use.

Espy said she hopes that the expanded UTSA Downtown Campus will draw the community in, as well as encourage more students in the area to consider college after they finish high school.

UTSA professor Lilliana Saldaña said she was disappointed to see how few Westside students enrolled at the San Antonio university. There are currently 941 students from Westside ZIP codes, an increase of more than 126 since 2011. There are more than 30,000 students enrolled at UTSA.

“That’s dismal and concerns me as a faculty member,” she said. “It makes me upset as a San Antonian that in the 30 years we’ve been downtown, we’ve only been able to enroll that number of students from the West Side. We are not even a mile away from the Downtown Campus, and it’s upsetting to know we have not done enough.”

Espy said UTSA plans on increasing enrollment from Westside residents, especially as the Downtown Campus grows.

“[Enrollment numbers] could be better, but we hope by have a deeper engagement in Downtown Campus to increase that,” she said.

Renderings show the future of the UTSA Downtown Campus.
A rendering shows the proposed future of the UTSA Downtown Campus. Credit: Courtesy / UTSA

Judit Vega, who brought her two young daughters with her to the meeting, dismissed the public forum as inauthentic community engagement.

“If you really are truly community-minded, you’re coming out to the Guadalupe Theater is not enough,” she said. “You have to go to church meetings, PTA meetings. That is authentic engagement, not this – in professional language that everyday people don’t understand.”

“You are using public land, public money against us and we are going to start organizing.”

Susana Segura echoed Vega’s criticisms.

“They’re just checking a box,” she said. “‘We went to a meeting. People showed up to a meeting. We did our due diligence.’”

The draft master plan will be published at utsa.edu/masterplan later this week. UTSA officials will take feedback from Monday’s meeting and one more meeting on Tuesday. Planners estimate the final master plan will be finished this summer. People may give more feedback by emailing masterplan@utsa.edu or texting 830-339-2252.

Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang is the local government reporter at the San Antonio Report.