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L to r: Irma Lazalde, Sara Muniz, and Gloria Rivera listen to a presentation on the Victoria Courts project at a July 2 community meeting. Photo by Mark Greenberg
Will Victoria Courts allow SAHA to rebuild the community's trust?

Immediately after the San Antonio Housing Authority Board of Commissioners voted on a construction loan for the Victoria Courts project, Michael Berrier patted developer David Kelly on the shoulder and said, "You win."

"We both win," replied Kelly, as Berrier, a long-time resident of the Lavaca neighborhood, hurried out of the room and into an adjacent hallway.

On July 3, the interim board unanimously approved the loan, which guarantees $7 million in tax credits for 210 units at Victoria Courts. Once completed, the four-phase, five-year project will blend 602 public, affordable, and market-rate homes, townhouses, and apartments into a 36-acre parcel tucked southwest of the Alamodome. Had the board denied SAHA staff's request for the loan, the authority could have missed a July 13 application deadline, forfeited $25 million in federal HOPE VI funds and tax credits - and the project would have likely tanked.

But the issue isn't as cut-and-dried as it sounds. Berrier and Kelly's awkward interlude illustrates the community's distrust of SAHA - a wariness that lies at the heart of the conflict over Victoria Courts' reconstruction.

Residents of the historical Lavaca and King William neighborhoods - former slums themselves - fear that the new Victoria Courts, which is replacing the original 60-year-old projects that SAHA razed in 2000, will be yet another doomed public housing project: shoddily built, poorly managed, and eventually left to go to seed.

Former Victoria Courts residents, who have priority in renting or buying new homes in the project, share their neighbors' distrust of SAHA, especially in light of the troubled Mirasol and Springview South public housing developments, where the homes began crumbling before their welcome mats were dirty. Local contractor KB Homes built Mirasol. 3D/International, which has offices in San Antonio and several other U.S. cities, was the project manager for Springview; San Antonio's Valemas, Inc. was the builder.

"SAHA's building failures is what we're trying to prevent in this case," Berrier told the board. "Our neighborhood stood firm that we want to bring public housing back to this site. But we want to use good materials. We want success."

David Kelly of Carleton Residential, the project's developer and general contractor, assured Berrier and the board that his group will build the highest quality project that the budget will allow. For its part, SAHA has promised to form an oversight committee comprised of board and community members, and to hire an independent third-party group to ensure the buildings are constructed of more than Kleenex and spit.

Yet, despite these assurances, the project has already hit snags in its early stages. Preliminary drawings by local architects Lake Flato, who are also working on the project, showed that the exteriors of the Phase I apartments would be covered primarily in high-quality brick and stone, with stucco and siding used as secondary materials. But at $69-per-square-foot, that plan busted the budget. With input from yet another architect, Dallas-based BGO, the price has fallen to $60-per-square-foot, but at the expense of much of the brick and stone and in favor of lower-quality siding and stucco.

"I don't want to walk on the balcony and fall through. I want to see materials that don't crumble in my hand."
— Juanita Castillo
"The city requires us to have certain materials on our houses," said Berrier, referring to ordinances governing a historical district. "It's time to change the institutional culture at SAHA. It has a major role in building communities. They need to develop a project we can be proud of and that requires additional expenditure on materials. What is being cut back on is the heart of our community. I think we can cobble together the money for it."

John Kinney, executive director of the San Antonio Housing Trust, offered to loan SAHA money for the materials upgrade, which could run as high as $750,000.

But even this dollar estimate is uncertain, because the drawings are only half-finished, said Bill Phillips, SAHA's vice president of asset management, adding the loan doesn't preclude going after private funds for better materials.

With so many unknowns surrounding the project, community members and city leaders feel nervous. It took the authority three attempts to secure the HOPE VI funding, and for awhile it appeared the project wouldn't get the funds to build affordable and public housing, which is in high demand, but short supply in San Antonio.

While SAHA's failed projects have been cloaked on the West or East Sides - where tourists never venture - Victoria Courts is SAHA's most ambitious, visible, and scrutinized project yet. It will be located in the heart of the city - and the project's success or failure will resonate through downtown.

"This is a very special piece of property and will have a profound effect on the rest of the city," said District 1 Councilman Roger Flores Jr, who represents downtown. "It could be a tipping point for progress rest of downtown."

Victoria Courts could signal not only a change in SAHA's building record, but also in the way the authority's dense, sluggish, bureaucracy interacts with the public. Members of the advisory board, for example, said they weren't notified of the July 2 community meeting until the last minute. And when former Victoria Courts residents asked to see floor plans at that meeting, David Kelly replied that he didn't bring them. "It's the first request we've had for floor plans," he said, adding nonchalantly that they were on file with the state.

As board member Carol Rodriguez noted at the July 3 meeting, SAHA also proved how out-of-touch it is with its constituents when it failed to provide Spanish translation for citizens at the community meeting the night before. After Phillips' 30-minute presentation about Victoria Courts' progress, someone spoke up and said, "These women didn't understand anything you just said. They speak Spanish."

Also during the July 2 meeting, Berrier complained that hiring Carleton as both developer and general contractor represented a conflict of interest - and that Carleton's $1.7 million in development fees was excessive. (Half that amount goes back to SAHA.) After Berrier erroneously stated that Carleton Residential would manage the property (it is Lincoln Properties, the largest privately held property management firm in the U.S.), Kelly took the microphone and laughed at Berrier as if he were at the Rivercenter Comedy Club.

At the next day's board meeting, Rodriguez reprimanded Kelly - without naming names. "Things have to change about how meetings are conducted," she said. " We need to have respect for the public. "

Another change also has rattled SAHA. Last month, Mayor Ed Garza summarily asked for the former board's resignation and appointed five temporary members, who had to vote on the $7 million decision. "We have to make it and we don't have a lot of history," said board vice-chairwoman Maria Berriozabal. "I was devastated when Victoria Courts was torn down. Families were devastated. The message is we can develop places for people that is not a barrio or a suburb, that people can grow up in the inner city. Transparency is very important because we're not going to be here to ensure the conditions we voted on will be done."

The Council and Mayor could appoint a new permanent board next month.

Whether SAHA makes good on its promises remains to be seen, but at least one staff member said he is willing to swear to the project's success. On July 2, former Victoria Courts resident Juanita Castillo admonished asset vice president Bill Phillips for SAHA's shortcomings: "I've heard too much about Mirasol and Springview. These better be made good," she said. "I don't want to walk on the balcony and fall through. I want to see materials that don't crumble in my hand."

To which Phillips replied: "I'll sign it in blood. I promise." •

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