Empowerment Zone. Sounds good. And San Antonio’s got one.

It’s one of the federal government’s latest approaches to aiding distressed neighborhoods and creating local “economic development,” by “giving local businesses in distressed neighborhoods an economic boost to help drive revitalization, provide jobs, and ultimately build a foundation for stronger communities.”

San Antonio just has an interesting way of doing it.

Our Empowerment Zone, covering much of the inner city on the west and east sides, is an area that certainly needs an economic boost and new jobs. Sitting right in the middle is our needy, distressed downtown core.

And the latest “local business” to step up and seek special empowerment-zone bond financing? A condo development — Piazza San Lorenzo, located between Soledad Avenue and the San Antonio River, is seeking $25 million in special Empowerment-Zone bonds.

When the Piazza development was announced in September 2003, it was heralded as an exciting mixed-use project for the heart of the city, combining restaurants, boutiques, and both regular and time-share condos — the latter in the form of a “private residence club” complete with its own personal chef and concierge. On the official website it’s termed “a luxury urban village on the Riverwalk in San Antonio.” But that was four years ago, and the website shows lots of the condos still “available” or “pending.” And with the national condo market not quite so hot, and lenders pulling back from a host of projects in other cities, it appears that Piazza San Lorenzo is indeed “distressed” — at least distressing to its developers. Hence the turn to the city for funds.

Two weeks ago, the San Antonio City Council voted unanimously to reserve $25 million of our Empowerment-Zone bond funds to support this “luxury urban village.” The promise is that the development will create 350 permanent jobs — lots of need for chefs, concierges, and housekeepers for the private-residence club — some of which would be filled by residents of the empowerment zone.

If the Piazza deal is finally approved, it will join our two previous efforts to boost distressed neighborhoods and generate revitalization with Empowerment-Zone bonds — the Drury Plaza hotel, with $40 million in bonds, and the Hyatt convention-center hotel (rising high on the downtown skyline) with $130 million.

For me, something seems a little out of joint here. We’ve spent decades and millions revitalization downtown, building the Alamodome, expanding the convention center, doing the Tri-Party project, improving Houston Street for Federal Realty, and providing tax abatements for any number of hotel projects. And there’s the Main Plaza makeover right next door. Yet now come the developers of Piazza San Lorenzo, at a prime River Walk site in the heart of downtown’s core, where folks are supposed to be lining up to buy condos, and they need special funding to make it work? It doesn’t seem to add up.

Or does it?

For a while, when money was cheap and lenders eager to back downtown projects, a host of residential and condo projects were announced. Some are still in the works. The Alteza, 147 condo units atop the new Hyatt convention center hotel (yes, Empowerment-Zone bonds for condos there, too), will open in mid-2008. And Vidora, designed to include two 20-story condo towers, is building on the near East Side. But an August 25 article in the Wall Street Journal reported on “rising foreclosures and bankruptcies of entire condo projects” in major cities such as Miami and Washington, D.C. Maybe there really is a vast reservoir of demand for luxury downtown condos here. More likely not.

The real question for us as a community is how we choose to use the resources the federal government has given us to revitalize truly distressed neighborhoods and provide them an economic boost. My answer is clear. Projects like Piazza San Lorenzo aren’t ever going to do anything to help the impoverished and needy neighborhoods on the east and west sides, or their residents. It’s a total misuse of Empowerment-Zone bonds, and a telling comment on the priorities of City staff (which recommended the funding) and the Mayor and Council. If, after decades of public spending, we have a downtown that only works for tourists, with hotels (and condos) for the well-heeled that only get built with ever more public subsidy, we have a real problem.

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