Ground Zero in San Antonio’s gentrification debate is a 21-acre plot of land that sits prominently above the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River just south of Concepción Park and a 10-minute walk to Mission Concepción. The now vacant parcel is the former site of the Mission Trails Mobile Home Park and the future site of MELA, the Mission Escondida Luxury Apartments, a 600-unit development that will be built in two phases starting this year.
For John White and Tom Conlee, the owners of San Antonio-based White-Conlee Development, the tone and volume of protest over their purchase and plan to redevelop the long-neglected trailer park might be the worst experience they’ve had in developing nearly 100 properties and 21,600 apartments here and across Texas.
Public anger that might have been directed at the absentee Colorado landlord and indifferent City officials who permitted such squalor to exist unchallenged, instead was directed at White-Conlee after it purchased the trailer park, necessitating the relocation of the 296 residents, 150 of them children.
Media coverage of the situation has since died down, yet many facts never became part of the very emotional public conversation, and also did not make the report issued April 22, 2015 by the Mayor’s Task Force on Preserving Dynamic and Diverse Neighborhoods and approved by City Council on Thursday.
Third World Conditions
Until the sale, no one intervened on behalf of the Mission Trail residents to address the squalid living conditions at the trailer park: uncollected brush, unsanitary pools of standing water, leaking sewage and dozens of abandoned, stripped and collapsing trailers. Some of the abandoned trailers were used by street prostitutes and their customers, according to residents I interviewed last year.
The task force did not ask one of the most fundamental questions about Mission Trails: Why did city officials permit such conditions to exist in the first place? There were no city inspections or citations issued to Mission Trails MHC LLC, an entity affiliated with Colorado-based American Family Communities that sold the property to White-Conlee. American Family Communities leased trailer pads to residents and also owned some the trailers that were rented to tenants who did not own their own trailer.
By not using City code enforcement powers to force the owners to improve the property, the City failed to address the underlying problem of people living in illegal and unacceptable conditions. The report leaves the impression by omission that the City will only focus on pockets of poverty once they become of interest to developers.
The media, including the Rivard Report, also failed to draw public attention to the trailer park’s conditions before the sale. Such media attention would have undoubtedly led City staff to at least consider requiring the owner to bring the property up to code or risk continuing fines.
The Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, which organized some of the residents to protest the White-Conlee project, while others said they rejected the overtures, also failed to identify the squalid living conditions at the trailer park as an issue just as it ignored high crime rates, heavy drug dealing and the blight around the Hays Street Bridge before it led protests of construction of the Alamo Brewery on the edge of Dignowity Hill. The organization’s interest in tenant rights at Mission Trails developed only after the property was purchased for redevelopment.
The report also failed to note that residents of Mission Trails did not have lease agreements to live there. They lived there on a month-to-month arrangement. Whatever the emotional arguments were surrounding their relocation, in Texas such tenants have very limited legal rights without written lease agreements. In any case, property owners have the right to sell their property and no ordinance can change that.
The report also ignored the fact that long before the property sale, the blighted living conditions had led many residents to relocate, leaving much of the park empty and conditions worsening for those who remained. Some residents spoke fondly of life at Mission Trails, but the reality suggested otherwise. There were more than 200 trailer pads in the park, but only 135 trailers, and 30 of those were vacant and unsuitable for habitation, ranging from burned-out trailers to others heavily vandalized or stripped of building materials. American Family Communities owned 25 of the trailers. Only 80 trailers were owned by residents.
Unprecedented Relocation Assistance
The task force’s report calls for longer relocation periods for displaced renters, and it calls for communicating with a larger population of potentially affected neighbors and nearby residents, but the end result of the Mission Trails relocation process suggests the most valuable assistance could be in the form of cash subsidies paid by developers to displaced renters.
Under Texas law, White-Conlee had no legal obligation to help renters relocate, but the company, while vilified by many, actually demonstrated remarkable sensitivity to the tenants and spent $900,000 relocating them, paying them cash stipends, and in legal fees. Critics can question their motives, but not their actions.
In the end, White-Conlee gave every trailer owner $2,500, paid in $100 bills. White-Conlee did not pursue reports that some trailer owners or renters who really lived elsewhere were paid, too. In the end, no one who lived there turned down the money.
Seven months from the time the zoning approval for the new development was issued, all the residents had accepted the cash offer and other benefits. No one was forcibly evicted. The same individuals were given guaranteed locations at one of six area trailer parks with a one-year rent subsidy worth at least $3,000. The tenants paying American Family Communities $350 a month to live in deplorable conditions are now paying $100 a month to live in well-tended trailer parks in far better surroundings.
White-Conlee also paid the cost of moving trailers to their new locations, for set-up and utility hook-ups, and for dumpster services to haul away all the trash left behind at Mission Trails.
Mission Escondida Luxury Apartments
The coming multi-family development will include 10,000 sq. ft. of retail along with approximately 300 apartments in the first phase of construction set to begin this year. The developers want the project to be a model of sustainability. Not a single heritage tree is being cut down. Rain collection and storage will be used to irrigate native landscaping. The property itself is not historic; it dates to the 1950s when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged the river and created the site with landfill.
There will be a new level of connectivity to the Mission Reach , including an extension of the public pathway open to residents and the public, and a kayak put-in and take-out amenity. The development will have a Doggie Day Care center, a bike program and kayak storage.
The apartments will range in size from 524 to 1,149 sq. ft. and rent for $1,000 to $1,600 a month. The building exteriors will be limestone and stucco. Phase one public spaces available to all the residents will include a gym, yoga studio, a commercial demonstration kitchen for culinary events, an outdoor pool with grilles, and a business center. The price begs the question of whether the apartments really will be “luxury,” but the use of the words gives the developers the ability to call the project “The MELA.”
The project was designed by B&A Architects of San Antonio.
*Top image: Left: An trash-filled lot at Mission Trails Mobile Home Park. Photo taken in April 2014, before residents were forced to leave. Photo by Robert Rivard. Right: A rendering of Mission Escondida Luxury Apartments courtesy of B&A Architects.