Chef Michael Sohocki, the city is learning, is also a good writer. His published lament, “Why I Closed Lunch at Restaurant Gwendolyn,” has hit a nerve and is traveling far and fast in the social media universe. Not everyone agrees that the demise of his lunch business can be laid entirely at the feet of an underdeveloped downtown.
Read my friend Jeff Reininger’s response: An Open Letter to Restaurant Gwendolyn. He makes some valid points. Michael can’t blame traffic tickets on anyone but himself. Most of us downtown denizens wish the SAPD would get stop looking the other way and get busy ticketing local hotel managers that have hijacked traffic lanes on Houston, Navarro and North St. Mary’s Street and turned them into valet holding pens.
Some of the posted comments to Sohocki’s story reflect a misimpression that lunch at Gwendolyn was exclusive and expensive. The truth is you could enjoy a cup of gourmet lentil soup and grilled cheese sandwich for under $10. The kitchen and service staff were small and seating was limited. Well-prepared, locally sourced food is going to cost more and take more time to make and serve. The market for that kind of lunch is smaller. The steady crowd across the street at Bill Miller’s, a San Antonio icon, is proof there is a far bigger market for fast, consistent and cheap.
Rivard Report staff and contributors were regulars at Gwendolyn, and what we’ve lost since Sohocki reduced his open hours to dinner service can’t be replaced by other area lunch venues or the coming and goings of food trucks. More importantly, as people who live and work in the urban core, we share Sohocki’s discontent with the negative shadow that downtown’s empty buildings cast on everything good that is happening.
There are two downtowns visible from Sohocki’s restaurant. One can sit on Gwendolyn’s balcony patio and watch passersby on the lushly landscaped River Walk below, and the Exchange Building, where the restaurant is located, is filled with an artsy mix of tenants living in its funky, affordable apartments.
Walk out the restaurant’s front door, however, and you see a VIA bus stop that also serves as a hangout for vagrants and drug addicts. The Greyhound bus station across South St. Mary’s Street isn’t a great match for Gwendolyn, and up the block, the blighted Hedrick Building sits empty, it’s deteriorated faux skin obscuring the historic building underneath that I’m told is a virtual twin to the Exchange Building.
Downtown San Antonio has many historic gems, including the Alamo and Alamo Plaza, The River Walk, Hemisfair Park, La Villita, the restored Bexar County Courthouse, Main Plaza, San Fernando Cathedral and many other historic churches of various denominations, and the Spanish Governor’s Palace. In fact, there are 79 suggested stops on the San Antonio Conservation Society’s Downtown Walking Tour.
Still, San Antonio has a fairly small downtown footprint, and within it, far too many historic edifices that are neglected, vacant, or underutilized. Year after year, downtowners see no progress, no change. The building’s owners, some who live locally, others who live elsewhere, benefit from weak codes and state laws that favor property owners.
Innovative efforts have been made to market and repopulate East Houston storefronts, but downtown progress is blocked by too many absentee or indifferent landlords who share no interest in a revitalized downtown unless they can maximize profits. When I published a New Year’s wish list, “My 2014 Wish List: A Litter-Free Fiesta, the Rebirth of Lone Star and a New Toyota Line,” in early January, Number 10 drew the most response:
10. City of San Antonio and Bexar County announce a new initiative to conduct a comprehensive study of vacant downtown buildings to determine real market values, using equitable taxing policy, condemnation and code compliance to force owners to develop or sell vacant properties or face new tax bills.
Last year, a bright young man named Regan Turner returned home to San Antonio after completing his graduate studies at Harvard, earning dual degrees in public policy and business administration. He’s no slouch. While in Cambridge, he authored a seminal study and paper titled, “Moving the Market by Way of Policy Incentives and Best Practices: Redeveloping Historic Buildings in San Antonio’s Central Business District.”
Turner’s project was presented to both the Harvard Kennedy School and the Harvard Business School, and was prepared for the Office of Historic Preservation and the Center City Development Office, both City of San Antonio offices led by two capable and progressive individuals, Shanon Miller and Lori Houston, respectively, who certainly share Turner’s objective of catalyzing redevelopment of the underutilized historic buildings.
Turner’s paper has been widely shared in the central city development community and is a must-read for anyone interested in the subject. We have included a PDF here that you can read online or download and print. He makes the same case in a more academic and systematic way that Sohocki, writing from the heart, made in his own article on the Rivard Report last week.
Turner writes: “There is no one causal factor to blame for the vacant historic properties in the San Antonio Central Business District; the situation is very complex. “There are, however, five overarching forces in San Antonio’s CBD that together lead to vacant historic properties. They are: 1) a property rights and municipal code regime that favors landowners, not the City of San Antonio; 2) unusually low property tax assessments of priority properties that disincentivize redevelopment; 3) a commercial real estate market in the San Antonio CBD that makes redevelopment or tenancy risky; 4) a lack of property owner motivation to redevelop or reuse vacant buildings, due in part to land speculation; 5) the difficulties of aligning the interests of multiple interested and concerned stakeholders.
“I have several recommendations designed to attack each of these forces, each with varying degrees of impact and feasibility, and a discussion of each can be found in Section 9. There are a few key recommendations, however, that I believe will move the market for the City of San Antonio and that should be rapidly implemented in a thoughtful and timely manner. Enacting some of these recommendations may come at the expense of political capital for the stakeholders involved, but without bold action, the intended outcome of downtown redevelopment may never occur. Specific first next steps are:
- Create a vacant property registration fee and tracking program.
- Work with Bexar County Appraisal District more closely to have historic buildings appraised in a consistent manner.
- Create a Center City Housing Incentive Policy (CCHIP)-like program for the (re)development of commercial properties.
- Establish a “Downtown Endangered Historic Buildings” Campaign.
- Build on-street parking and bicycle racks adjacent to target properties and throughout the CBD.
- Establish an interagency task force to facilitate communication and increase effectiveness of stakeholders addressing historic vacant properties. Require stakeholders to attend meetings that will be held 1-2 times per month.
- Find a local celebrity (e.g. David Robinson) to champion the preservation and reuse of San Antonio’s historic buildings. Employ an ad campaign by this celebrity as part of the larger “Decade of Downtown” revitalization marketing effort.
- Create a statewide commission of cities to effectively lobby the state legislature for changes to receivership and sales tax laws that affect vacant commercial properties and their redevelopment.”
Interestingly, David and Valerie Robison, I’m told, sold their Dominion estate some time ago and after a time in another gated community, recently relocated to The Broadway, the high-end Koontz-McCombs tower located on its namesake street just south of Hildebrand. We even hear the Robinsons are up for membership in the racially exclusive San Antonio Country Club, a vote worth watching. Perhaps David Robinson can become a driving force for downtown development. He’s involved now in real estate investments, and his establishment of the Carver Academy, now the IDEA Academy, on the city’s Eastside more than a decade ago was an extraordinary, ground-breaking act of philanthropy in the inner city.
Bexar County Tax Assessor-Collector Albert Uresti must embrace a new approach to valuing historic properties. I’ve written before about the role Centro San Antonio could play as an honest broker in facilitating progress on other complex issues. Who knows? If some of the vacant buildings are converted into living spaces and then attract new downtown residents, Sohocki might be persuaded to reopen Restaurant Gwendolyn for lunch.