In a unanimous vote, City Council approved plans to go ahead with the construction of an H-E-B grocery store downtown during a meeting on December 5. The move also allows the partial closure of South Main Avenue, between César Chávez and Arsenal Street, to make way for the locally based grocer’s expanded headquarters. (District 8’s Ron Nirenberg and District 4’s Rey Saldaña recused themselves from the vote because respective family members work for the company.) While city leaders support the plan, saying it fits the vision they’ve laid out for downtown, it continues to see heated criticism from residents of the area, who feel business interests are trampling their community. Even with the grocer’s guarantee that it will fix traffic and pedestrian problems, community members say those plans fall short and worry their voices and involvement will continue to be drowned out as the process moves forward.
Proponents of the $100 million expansion point to the allure of job growth. While the promise of new employment brought on by the 10,000- square-foot store remained vague for some time, the City’s Development Office cleared the confusion up at the early December meeting, saying H-E-B will employ 800 workers by 2020 and an additional 800 employees by 2030—50 percent of these will be new jobs. Mayor Julián Castro said he understood concerns of the residents affected by the partial Main Street closure but that the chance for economic development was worth the investment.
“We have on the table an opportunity to create a significant number of jobs in the urban core of the city and create a grocery store that I believe will further catalyze the revitalization of downtown,” said Castro, of the 1,600 estimated jobs.
To mitigate walkability and cyclist concerns, H-E-B also promised to create a 30-foot pedestrian and bike amenity zone, re-open Whitley and Dwyer Streets, ensure ADA-friendly walking paths, arrange and replace or preserve the bike route and pedestrian path through South Main Avenue and enhance pedestrian signals and crossings. The street upgrades must be made before closing Main Avenue, City representatives said.
However, the mitigation improvements didn’t do much to help assuage critics’ qualms.
“Those ideas don’t alleviate any of those concerns from citizens, myself included,” David Bogle, a local architect and University of Texas at San Antonio College of Architecture professor, tells the Current. “They’ve broken the street grid and connectivity already, it’s not mitigating the real problem they’ve created.”
“To use their term, the ’30-foot amenity zone’ is just sort of window dressing on their own property,” says Bogle. “… It’s just one block long they’re talking about improving; it’s a conceptual proposal that is not something that is very feasible or workable and it will just create unsafe situations.”
Bogle, co-chair of the local chapter of the AIA Urban Affairs Committee, has presented against the H-E-B site at City zoning and planning commission meetings. He argues the plan is “antithetical” to most of the citizen and public input policies that are in place here in San Antonio, pointing to the Lone Star Community Plan, which shows residents favor high-density, public transit-oriented, mixed-use developments in the core. “What they are proposing is anything but this,” says Bogle. “It’s a low-density, single-use parcel and very much automobile oriented—it’s not what our downtown needs.” In fact, says Bogle, the new store will negatively affect SA2020 goals, including miles traveled, public transit ridership, travel time and air quality indexes as well as walkability scores.
While some groups like The King William Neighborhood Association initially opposed the street closure, they’ve since changed their minds. The KWA dropped their disapproval after the board of directors voted 7-6 to OK the measure in late November. In a release, the KWA said the board came to its decision based on the mitigation plan. A KWA member voiced the group’s approval at the council meeting, but also pointed to lingering concerns. She recommended the $3.5 million allotted for street closure fees be earmarked for infrastructure improvements, sidewalk and street repair and additional lighting along Arsenal and South Alamo streets for those directly impacted. She also noted inconsistencies surrounding bike paths between the presentation given by H-E-B and the actual development agreement and lastly, she urged the grocer to add an expiration date clause to the gas station, as the grocery store is only guaranteed to operate for at least five years.
But not everyone has come to terms with the proposal. Charlotte Luongo, member of Main Access (a coalition of residents opposed to the plan), delivered a petition against the street closure signed by 2,000 citizens to council on the day of the vote. “[T]hese citizens are angry, they know they have been disenfranchised … they know the city is no longer a democracy, it is being run by corporate interests,” she says. In an interview after the meeting, Luongo tells the Current the mitigation plan didn’t ease the problems for her, either.
Luongo and Bogle find it interesting that some Zoning Commission members weren’t completely gung-ho about green-lighting the grocer’s plans—namely District 1 Commissioner Marianna Ornelas, who, during a meeting before the council vote, proposed a motion to halt the gas station on the grocery store site—an integral part of the plan. With no second, the proposal died. The new H-E-B store will fall in Ornelas’ district.
“They seemed very conflicted, it was not an easy decision for them. Ultimately, they accepted H-E-B’s answers but it did end with the chairman saying he hoped they didn’t put their trust in the wrong corporation,” says Claudia Guerra, Bogle’s architecture colleague, present at the meeting.
Additionally, residents say one of the major failures of the project has been the perceived lack of public input and transparency. With the plan already in motion, the next step for concerned citizens appears to be ensuring they are part of the process. Some feel the plan was guided by economic pressure, as the local retailer is the largest privately held company in Texas, and as a result, their concerns were pushed aside.
“All of these deals have been done behind closed doors with no citizen input,” said Luongo. “No community input was ever asked for.” There hasn’t been much community outreach, she says, with the exception of a few private talks with little to no compromise. “In their minds, they had taken possession of that street already.”
Guerra questions the fast-track nature of the agreement: “The fact this was rushed through in just three meetings seems unprecedented or at least unusual—the need to rush this is always something that concerns the public and certainly makes it look more suspect.”
But Lori Houston of the Center City Development Office says that’s not the case. The City did have “several meetings with the neighborhood association,” as well as with individual community residents and adjacent property owners. She says moving forward, outreach with stakeholders will be “extensive,” with regular meetings to vet the improvements. (When asked what “regular” entails, Houston replied: “as needed.”)
“Some of [the mitigation plan proposals] may change, some may not, but we will continue to work with [neighborhood groups] on those traffic improvements,” she says. For instance, the 30-foot amenity plan has yet to be designed, but it will go through a public outreach process.
Houston says there will be no formal oversight committee, rather “an internal work group” consisting of members from several City departments who will track design and construction progress. Houston says there will be simultaneous dialogue with stakeholders.
“It’s very remiss of them not to have voices from the neighborhood on that committee,” says Luongo, who hopes the City doesn’t disregard residents not explicitly tied to a neighborhood association during the input and oversight processes. In the meantime, Luongo says her group is considering litigation against both the City and H-E-B.
Representatives from H-E-B did not return calls for comment.
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