Circa 2011, 12,600 prospective San Antonians are scheduled to show up on our doorstep, families, moving vans, and mortgage/rent checks in tow, ready for work and school at the expanded Fort Sam Houston military base — home to what will be the world’s largest medical technical training campus. Even our dear old polished-brass military gets a little breathless when it describes the mostly health-related “areas of excellence” the new super-facility will pursue, the partnerships it will build with local universities and hospitals, the way it hopes to transform the well-worn neighborhoods on its flanks with homeowners and storefronts. Projected economic impact of the Fort Sam BRAC makeover: $5.2 billion to start, plus an additional $2.9 billion annually.
This influx of people and infrastructure ought to spell renaissance for the woodframe Victorians, Craftsman bungalows, and quaint brick storefronts of Dignowity Hill, Harvard Place-Eastlawn, and Jefferson Heights, which currently rank as some of our poorest neighborhoods. But the city’s plans to lure new residents to date amount to some fresh porch paint and a few more code-compliance officers. Which means the biggest task facing District 2’s new councilperson is getting the City to focus its considerable resources on leveraging the military’s BRAC investment for Eastside revitalization. On June 13, former COSA planner and Merced Housing staffer Ivy Taylor will face off against general-election frontrunner Byron Miller, an insurance broker who serves on the board of the Edwards Aquifer Authority, and the outcome will have consequences for the entire city. As a 2005 draft of the report prepared by the DiLuzio Group for the BRAC expansion explains, if we fail to funnel this boatload of fresh workers and residents into these inner-city neighborhoods, it’s not just the East Side that loses out.
“If nothing were done to intervene, new employees arriving at Fort Sam Houston would most likely find homes in disparate locations throughout the region,” the draft Growth Management Plan warns. “That would in turn lead to significant increases in traffic congestion, air quality emissions, the carbon footprint, and incidence of trauma all of which rise in proportion to vehicle miles traveled (vmt) within a region.”
Fort Sam’s southernmost gate is on New Braunfels Avenue, and opened directly into District 2 — historically the heart of San Antonio’s African-American community — before 9/11 created a bunker mentality. From here one of the government’s prettiest Army bases spreads east and north into Terrell Hills’ landscaped lawns. Along the way it brushes up against a number of neighborhoods where crackheads and prostitutes recently outnumbered the 9-to-5 crowd. But Government Hill and Mahncke Park are already practically turned around, thanks to the Brackenridge Park facelift and the forthcoming River Walk extension just to the west, and the Pearl Brewery redevelopment at Grayson and Broadway. Realtors market their cute homes as relative bargains compared to Monte Vista, King William, and Alamo Heights. Plus: only 5 minutes to Central Market.
But just south of I-35, houses really are a bargain, if you’re willing to put in the work: rewiring, leveling, replacing rotted wood. And the schools (fairly in some cases, unjustly in others) suffer some of the worst reputations in town. Code compliance is unheard of on many streets, and while Police Chief William McManus has said the force doesn’t consider the East Side the most crime-ridden part of town, you can successfully cruise its main arteries in search of contraband and sex-for-hire.
The BRAC Growth Management Plan has a blueprint to address each of these issues in a way that sounds responsible, at least on paper: restore old homes and build infill housing on vacant lots, and assist longtime residents in taking advantage of programs; partner public schools with universities; chase state and federal redevelopment money; use tax-base funds to beautify the streetscape. The initiatives fall into five broad action categories: mobility and connectivity, neighborhood revitalization, economic development, education, and public safety.
Of those initiatives, the mobility arm has received the lion’s share of resources so far, with $42 million slated for transportation projects around Fort Sam, and another $5.6 million allocated for related capital-improvement projects, such as burying the utility lines along Walters Street, which will be the primary entrance for the expanded base. In comparison, the monies invested to date to get Fort Sam’s new employees to stay in those surrounding neighborhoods is paltry: $275,000 for a PR campaign, and $3.7 million to open an office tasked with addressing those action categories, of which $2 million came from the City.
It’s too little too late, say the Council candidates, but San Antonio Office of Military Affairs Director Bob Murdock is unfazed.
“Regardless of whether we’re behind or on track, this is going to be a very lengthy process,” Murdock says. Not one to two years, but five to 10. “As you can imagine, we can’t bite off the whole elephant in one chunk.”
The five dedicated staffers will be on the job by early July, Murdock says, and in late June or early July, the Task Force will host a planning charette for residents and prospective residents and developers.
“We’re already very far behind,” insists Ivy Taylor. “We should have been putting together an aggressive plan to do infill development.” But she approaches the problem in a measured, incremental way befitting a former City planner.
First, she says, the City needs to revisit the DiLuzio plan and make sure that the communities it will affect are included in the discussion. Taylor says she would work with the marketing firm in charge of public outreach to make sure the money is used effectively, especially for romancing realtors — who tend to favor the city’s new Northside enclaves over older inner-city housing. The City must identify vacant lots that are available for new housing and target funding and incentives to encourage developers to use them, but, she says, federal housing funds might not be suitable because they’re limited by income bracket.
“We need a product at a higher price point to attract people at a higher economic level,” Taylor says, mentioning a $150,000 median income. At the same time, “We want to be careful over here about issues related to gentrification.”
Taylor adds that she would work with police to clean up areas “where we have a lot of trafficking of all sorts” and would focus on building partnerships to create schools that are “highly attractive” to “middle-income families with children” — part of her overall philosophy of “just enough investment on the institutional side” to kickstart private buy-in.
Taylor is cautious about one early recommendation from the DiLuzio Group: borrowing against future tax revenue in the tax reinvestment zones known as TIRZ. The Inner-City TIRZ blankets the area that most needs BRAC’s benefits, but while it’s been active since 2000, there is relatively little to show for it, in part because the TIRZ can only spend money as it’s collected. TIRZ funds can be used to make streets more attractive by burying utility lines, improving sidewalks, adding plants and landscaping — the sort of eye candy that makes a neighborhood more appealing to residents and businesses. But, says Taylor, “I could see spending the money in advance for smaller-scale projects,” but more expensive investments “make it a little bit of a gamble.”
Deputy City Manager Pat DiGiovanni echoes Taylor’s TIRZ concerns: “There’d have to be a pretty compelling reason to borrow, to know that there’s a future revenue stream.” But, he says, federal housing funds could be part of a package that supports mixed-income development, which could provide developer incentives while also preserving housing options for residents with smaller pocketbooks.
Byron Miller says he’d like to learn more about the pros and cons of TIRZ bonding, but “I would expedite the research on this so that we could move this forward.” Miller says public funding should support apartment living, façade improvements for small business owners along the commercial corridors, and a range of housing-price options, from affordable to higher-end.
“I will focus like a laser beam on federal stimulus dollars and make sure that we take advantage of some $600 million from HUD and other agencies for blighted communities and encourage the City Manager and Mayor to work with me on this,” Miller wrote via email.
Eastside businessman Tommy Calvert, who took over Miller’s PR for the runoff, says it comes down to who’s willing to fight harder, which is why he’s not supporting Taylor. “She’s got to shed the bureacratic ‘Well, let’s weigh this, let’s weigh that,” Calvert says. “The jet stream of politics in District 2 has been the fact that we have been disenfranchised and given inequality in City funding. ... Byron was the only one who said, yes, I’ll make this an issue, because you’re right, Tommy, we are being screwed.”
Miller supports many, but not all, of the ideas Calvert proposed in a lengthy critique of the City’s BRAC initiative Calvert submitted earlier this year to outgoing District 2 Councilwoman Sheil McNeil.
“First, the city should make a commitment to marshal $100 million dollars to build and rehab housing on the Eastside of Ft. Sam Houston over the next 12 months,” Calvert’s letter says. “My suggestion is to request that Gov. Perry use $60 million dollars from the state Enterprise Fund toward this end,” Calvert writes, “utilize $25 million dollars from the City, and $15 million contributed from the San Antonio Housing Authority.”
Calvert also told the Current that the City should consider creating an Eastside land bank by buying up vacant lots and selling them to developers for pennies on the dollar, and providing bonuses to City staff for securing BRAC-related Eastside development deals.
If new Mayor Julián Castro is thinking in such creatively ambitious terms, he’s playing it close to the vest, but he agreed that “promises made to the East Side have not been kept.” Castro, who ate his first mayoral lunch June 1 at Tommy Moore’s Eastside restaurant, believes public transportation will be key to the area’s revitalization. Light rail or a street-car system needs to connect through those neighborhoods to downtown, he says, an initiative that is not yet part of the BRAC expansion plans, but could be added at a later date. Castro also mentions more SAFFE officers and the City’s Operation Facelift program, for which buildings along New Braunfels are qualified. Ultimately, though, it sounds like he’ll be looking to the new District 2 representative to, as Calvert put it, “knock heads a little and fight for the bacon.”
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