Eastern promises

Struggling for generations in the shadow of the downtown skyline, San Antonio’s East Side has seen its share of ups-and-downs. The good: The AT&T Center, home to the Spurs and a major venue for all-star performers, and the Carver Community Cultural Center, showcasing African-American arts. The bad: Notoriously high crime stats and a series of broken promises, the latest made by HollyHills development, whose 2005 Eastside Vision was supposed to bring in more professional sports teams, NASCAR dreams, and a resort hotel and golf course.

In an attempt to rejuvenate this oft-neglected side of town, the City of San Antonio Planning and Community Development department has proposed an Arts and Entertainment district, which promises to capitalize on already established entertainment venues such as the Alamodome and the AT&T Center by building additional commercial and residential spaces.

The goal is to transform the East Commerce corridor into a “walkable district,” says Bobbye Hamilton, executive director of the economic-development non-profit San Antonio for Growth on the East Side, which is working with the City to develop and administer the plan. Hamilton said the types of businesses the district would foster are similar to what Southtown offers — coffee shops, art galleries, bookstores — small, community businesses.

A draft proposal, presented at an open-house meeting in April, includes four sub-districts: Main Street (East Commerce Street between Cherry and Polaris), Artisans Street (East Commerce Street between Polaris and Rio Grande), Town Center (between Rio Grande and IH-10), and the Warehouse sub-district (between Coca-Cola Place and Commerce/Houston). Design goals include the preservation and adaptive reuse of existing structures, limiting signage, limiting building size, creating a community for artists, and enhancing building facades.

The proposal was developed through a series of public meetings the City commenced in late February. Hamilton acknowledges that when the idea of an A&E district was initially raised, residents expressed a number of concerns, but as public meetings progressed, she says, they became more comfortable with the concept. “It’s really turned around,” Hamilton said. “I think knowing and understanding has really turned things around.”

Eastside advocate and Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association member Nettie Hinton, however, remains a skeptic. Previous urban-revitalization plans imposed from outside the community have gone nowhere, she says, and points out a 2005 Urban Land Institute report that focused on the St. Paul Gateway District and spotlighted the former Friedrich Air Conditioning building as ready for “timely and appropriate” redevelopment. Years later it has yet to be fully renovated. 

That same ULI report also pinpointed a “diminished cultural memory” on the East Side, a problem Hinton says she and other residents don’t see addressed in the A&E draft. The proposed district would be taking the “character of the East Side and bulldozing it,” she said. “It’s not good for our community. ... We need to build on our historic heritage.” Long-time Eastside residents know the true value of their side of town, she says: historic cemeteries, mom-’n’-pop grocery stores, and one of the country’s largest Martin Luther King Jr. parades.

One of the main goals of the A&E district would be to clean up the appearance of the East Side, creating a visually cohesive area with streetscapes and pedestrian amenities such as sidewalks, public art, landscaping, and awnings. The project’s proposed economic incentives include: an Empowerment Zone, in which businesses may receive wage credits, deductions, capital gains incentives, and bond financing; an Enterprise Zone, which is a package of state tax benefits including sales and usage tax refunds; and an Incentive Scorecard that awards qualifying projects rebates, reductions, or waivers for certain development fees.

Those incentives, combined with the district’s proposed design standards have some area businesses worried that they’ll have to relocate. The specter of eminent domain was raised early on, prodding District 2 Councilwoman Sheila McNeil to promise, “We’re not taking anyone’s property.”

Assistant Director for Planning Patrick Howard says those fears are misplaced.

“Everybody can agree on the idea that they don’t want bars over here, or sexually oriented businesses,” Howard said. “We all think about things we don’t want, so we had to think about what would `the Eastside community` like.”

Ideas suggested at the public meetings included professional offices, bed & breakfast inns, and apartments/lofts. Howard says that the A&E district will be a “good opportunity to create a destination point” on the East Side, and dangles the promise of “more cultural tourism.”

The possibility that residents, especially elderly owners and tenants, will be forced out of their properties is still a concern for Mark Outing, co-owner of the popular Eastside burger joint Fatty’s Burgers & More, who otherwise welcomes the district. He’d love to see a gas station, Starbucks, and a hotel located East of Hackberry Street.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Outing said. “I think it’ll help us. ... I think it’ll encourage business growth.”

But Hinton still speaks for many area residents when she asks, “Why is this being proposed?” 

“I don’t understand the need for it,” she said, citing the city’s many existing cultural hubs, including the South Flores Arts District, the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, and the Deco District. Hinton also questions whether McNeil or any of the City planners have met with local artists — many of whom have moved into the area in recent years because of the availability of affordable, historic homes. Howard confirmed Hinton’s suspicions.

“We haven’t met with any specific artists groups,” he said, but added that the City will still seek a “variety of input” before plans are finalized. The proposed A&E district is being reviewed by the Planning Commission Technical Advisory Committee with an expected City Council public hearing planned for September. Senior Planner Michael Taylor said they hope to host additional public meetings in the community prior to the public hearing.

“The A&E District `will` bring extraordinary life to this community,” McNeil said during a March public meeting. “We hope the East Side feels the same way, too. •

Whatever happened to ... ?

Remember when NASCAR was on the lips of everyone on the East Side?  We do, but we’re sure that LA-based developer HollyHills would rather we not. In 2005, when the developers strolled into town with their Eastside Vision, residents were blown away by what they promised to bring to the historic neighborhood — a resort hotel, golf course, and commercial and retail developments.

HollyHills spokesman T.J. Connolly, president and CEO of Connolly and Co. public relations firm, believes the inner-city development would still be a great investment, if only the City would back it. The 20-plus-year plan would cost upward of $3 billion with the City’s contribution including infrastructure, such as roads and sidewalks. According to Connolly, County Judge Nelson Wolff had a different vision. But when called for comment, Public Information Officer Laura Jesse said that the County was never involved with HollyHills negotiations.  

Connolly also noted that the AT&T Center, built in 2002, has not quite lived up to the City’s promises. Although the venue brings in thousands of attendees for Spurs games and big-ticket concerts, it hasn’t made a real economic difference in the community. The Eastside neighborhood that calls the Center home lacks nearby restaurants or other sources of entertainment or lodging for attendees. “It’s built, but we didn’t come,” Connolly said.

But Connolly remarked that the real blow to the gut for HollyHills came when recently appointed Community Venues Program Director Michael Sculley announced that he didn’t foresee the National Football League or Major League Baseball calling San Antonio home in the near future. “That was shortsighted for long-term implications for the County,” Connolly said.

Sculley, who left the County to work as a consultant for the San Antonio Sports Foundation, said the statement wasn’t aimed at HollyHills, a project he was none too familar with. Hired by SASF in 2006 to woo professional sports teams to San Antonio, Sculley courted NFL and MLB franchises and received no worthwhile bites. He realized that there were “too many things fighting against us,” he said, citing a medium-size media market and a lack of corporate sponsorship. “MLB and NFL had no short-term goals to locate here,” Sculley said.

With the HollyHills development currently inactive, residents and City and County officials don’t seem to mind that the project has been abandoned. But with the A&E District gaining more attention, residents wonder whether they’re on the brink of seeing a smaller-scale, artsier version of HollyHills come to life.


— Jennifer Herrera

one pushcart at a time

Dignowity Hill resident and artist Cruz Ortiz understands the troubles that plague the East Side; he’s observed them while living off the intersection of Hackberry and Houston Street the past four years: daily drug deals and a lack of suitable parks and art-oriented activities for the neighborhood kids. Ortiz wanted to create a project that would lure people off the streets and into their garages and tool sheds.

“One of the things I do is come up with solutions to create attention to a positive change,” Ortiz says. That positive change is a high-performance-art project, the Dignowity Hill Pushcart Derby, which takes place this Saturday at Dignowity Hill Park at 5 p.m.

In 2004, Ortiz got a few of his artist friends together, built pushcarts, and raced each other at the little hilltop park, which overlooks downtown just east of Hackberry. It helped that Ortiz’s father was a mechanic, so he knew the nuts-and-bolts of building pushcarts (his team, Calypso, did win third place in the main-event category last year, so that should tell you somethin’). After gaining the attention of Contemporary Art Month organizers, they listed the event on the schedule, and it’s since become one of the craziest CAM events to date. “That’s when it exploded in my face,” says Ortiz. But each year, he says it gets more amazing and brings people that don’t live in the neighborhood into the historic community. “There’s a nice energy in this neighborhood.”

For info on the Derby, visit myspace.com/dignowity.


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