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A study says Friedrich Building is key to East Side revival. But will the City act on the recommendations?

The Friedrich Building was cited as ripe for redevelopment in a study by the Urban Land Institute. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

The streets are torn up. Houses are crumbling off their foundations. Drug dealers and streetwalkers plumb the depths of a community that has lost its "cultural memory." Buildings stand empty on the other side of a major highway and tracks that lead through an old railroad depot.

This is the near East Side of San Antonio, where city leaders, business owners, and citizens acknowledge a need for reinvestment. But little progress has been made by various factions who want to see one of the city's most blighted neighborhoods return to its former status as a thriving community on the edge of the downtown business district.

Perhaps an answer lies in the latest in a long line of economic development studies. Last week, the Urban Land Institute released a 52-page booklet, titled "St. Paul Gateway District, An Advisory Services Panel Report."

The Urban Land Institute is a non-profit, real-estate think tank with offices in Washington, D.C. and Brussels, Belgium. With revenues of $34 million in 2003, it researches building and land-use issues, and has published case studies on projects including the historic Ford factory in Cincinnati, which was transformed from a deteriorating 1915 landmark into a modern office building.

The City paid $110,000 for the report, including costs related to travel, staff time, and printing. The panelists were not paid; they included J. Kevin Lawler, managing partner of N-K Ventures LC, real estate and financial deal advisers in West Palm Beach, Florida; Lynn Everett-Lee, a land use and transportation program manager for the South Florida Regional Planning Council; and Mtamanika Youngblood, chair of the board of the Historic District Development Corp. of Atlanta, Georgia.

The panel met for five days in San Antonio, touring the East Side and talking to community representatives. They made several short-term and long-term recommendations that if carried out, would make the near East Side once again a lively neighborhood.

The study focused on 227 acres out of 14 square miles, defining the district boundaries as I-37 to the west, Montana Street to the south, Monumental Street to the east, and along Nolan Street, Brown Alley, Dawson Alley, and Florence Street to the north. The plan also recognizes the Commerce Street Corridor as an essential part of any economic redevelopment plan in the St. Paul Gateway. That puts the old Friedrich Building within the eastern edge of the district, and includes the Dignowity Hill Historical District to the north.

The ULI panel concluded that "because of its development patterns, geographic contours, and historic significance, the study area required special attention beyond that envisioned by the City as a more detailed part of the Arena/District/Eastside Community Plan."

The report finds a number of "issues that currently inhibit redevelopment of the study area," including transportation barriers that separate the area from downtown - I-37 and the Union Pacific railroad tracks. It further cites limited streets connecting to downtown, "extensive physical deterioration of existing structures, abandoned or shuttered buildings, and vacant property." There also is "deteriorating housing, inconsistent development patterns, a low grade of city services, a transitioning and transient population, and a diminished cultural memory."

To the advantage of Eugene Simor, one of the original investors in the Friedrich Building, an old warehouse that is undergoing piecemeal renovations into office space, the report recommends that the Friedrich Building be redeveloped with the help of public funds for mixed use, a move that could make it a cornerstone of the St. Paul Gateway District.

"I am all in favor of implementing the recommendations of the report," says Simor. "What I don't want to see happen is what has happened with many studies done on the East Side in 20 years ... with no implementation. I hope to get all parties on board in good faith to implement those recommendations."

Simor acknowledges that burying the highway lanes and removing the railroad tracks would be controversial, but he says the community can "still achieve the promise of the East Side without doing that ... by moving forward with the other recommendations."

Christopher Kimm is an architect who has located his firm, WestEast Design Group LLC, on the first floor of the Friedrich building, overlooking the play yard of Carver Academy.

Kimm disagrees that the highway and railroad tracks should be removed to make the St. Paul Gateway District an extension of downtown. He says the obstacles serve to preserve the integrity of the neighborhood and its potential to be a health-care business sector with the right investment.

Kimm says sustainability is possible by luring high-income residents with political clout, but the next step would be to draw up an architect's overlay on the district to determine specific areas for economic redevelopment.

"There is a particular group of residents who could make this area viable," says Kimm. "But how are we going to get there logically and responsibly for the future of the area; not just today but how to make it sustainable long-term."

By Michael Cary

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