Ghost Buildings Haunt San Antonio’s ‘Decade of Downtown’

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Hedrick building photo from Google Maps.

The Hedrick Building. Photo from Google Maps.

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.

The Bill Miller's, no parking and commercial loading zone sign across from Restaurant Gwendolyn. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The Bill Miller’s, no parking and commercial loading zone sign across from Restaurant Gwendolyn. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

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.

The Vacant Hedrick building at 601. North St. Mary's St. Courtesy photo.

The Vacant Hedrick building at 601. North St. Mary’s St. Photo from Regan Turner’s report.

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.”

Vacant building at 901 E. Houston St. Photo from Regan Turner's report.

Vacant building at 901 E. Houston St. Photo from Regan Turner’s report.

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.

Vacant building at 519 Houston St. Photo from Regan Turner's report.

Vacant building at 519 Houston St. Photo from Regan Turner’s report.

Some of Turner’s ideas are actionable, others undoubtedly would prove impractical to execute in the short-term. But forming a city-county-private sector task force to address the problem and giving it the political backing to make recommendations that are adopted and enacted by local authorities is key.

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.

Related Stories:

An Open Letter to Restaurant Gwendolyn

Why I Closed Lunch at Restaurant Gwendolyn

Attacking Urban Decay: Take Back Neglected Property

Is San Antonio Ready for High-End?

21 thoughts on “Ghost Buildings Haunt San Antonio’s ‘Decade of Downtown’

  1. Wow! This fine piece is long, long, long overdue. Thanks for taking it on. Keep talking, San Antonio! Those ghost buildings downtown haunt us all and shadow the touristy cheer.

  2. Great article! I only wish more people cared other than just those of us who live downtown. I am a resident of the Exchange Bldg and I share the same views (both regarding the lack of interest from the city regarding the empty and deteriorating bldgs, as well as the actual views), from my 7th floor loft. In the past month our bldg has been tagged by gangs twice. The Hedrick Bldg is constantly being tagged. The Bill Miller has hired a full time security guard. I love living downtown, but I can see where many are scared to visit our area. Sad……….

  3. This building has so much potential to add to the revitalization of downtown and it’s such a shame that the owner is (heck, I don’t know what to call him) and has such low regard for the city he lives in. Developing this building and the adjoining parking lots that he owns is something I dream about on an almost daily basis. Parking is usually one of the roadblocks for new housing in the center city and this building has it all. What is his problem???

  4. Don Rypkema mentioned Regan Turner’s analysis at his “economics of placemaking” lecture last year. Didn’t know Turner was from SA and recently returned for that matter. Thank you for posting the PDF report. Great nugget of information. Will definitely review and pass it on.

  5. Thanks for rounding out the discussion with your thoughts. I would love to see fewer empty buildings and always have. But as long as developers have exorbitant price-tags on them they will either stay empty or be bought up by hotels and high-end loft builders. More mid-priced apartments downtown and more affordable studio/performance spaces still seem like a far away dream. As far as a few other aspects of your article: To the folks who would like to see something “prettier” than the Greyhound station across from Gwendolyn. Really? Some of us actually use the bus and its nice that it is actually in the heart of our downtown instead of some far-flung location that you have to take a cab to and from. A centrally located Greyhound station would seem essential to a lively and diverse downtown population. On that note, easily accessible and centralized bus stops are also key..again for the folks that don’t want to fuss with parking. I would like to not feel like we are being shoved to the edges of downtown so that the fancy folks won’t have their appetites ruined by watching us live our lives. Finally the issues with the homeless, derelict etc. I think this is a long-term issue that the city could be innovative and compassionate on. Look at other progressive cities that have better options for the homeless that are still centrally located. It is something we can continue to do better on and not just because we’d like access to our nice meals…but because it would be the decent thing to do.

  6. @S.T. Shimi all great points except that our homeless shelter is one of the best models in the country. The city doesn’t really need to improve here. @Matt, the decade of downtown serves to turn the ghost buildings around; everyone is aware of the problem as it has existed for decades now, but thanks for the condescending sarcasm.

  7. That is awesome about the shelter. I guess I am not up on the outreach efforts to the folks that are still on the streets although I think there is always going to be a certain number of people who are unable/unwilling to be in a shelter & arresting them or sweeping them out of our sight is not the only option I’d like us to entertain.

  8. Great piece. Agreed, we need to get the tax base up on these neglected buildings and dedicate a good portion of the revenue back into all manner of downtown improvements from bike lanes, parking, and infrastructure to rooftop gardens and street beautification (possibly using expanded tax increment financing policy or similar). There already is a tax abatement ordinance on the books in San Antonio since the early 1980s that gives a graduated property tax relief over 10 years to folks who re-purpose a historic building to the tune of at least 25% of its basis (purchase price). Then the property is revalued to reflect its new purpose and worth, and the city’s tax basis rises accordingly. Good long-haul policy. Not sure if that ordinance is being talked up anymore, but it’s there (at least I never heard of a repeal) and is a great incentive. Other ordinances should be researched and considered, taking examples from successful downtowns in our own country and even abroad. In Germany, for example, to foster diversity and mitigate full blast gentrification that would drive the prices too high for low and moderate income folks, there is a law that the owner of a multi-unit housing structure that has more than 8 units must designate two of every 8 units as “Sozialwohnungen,” or “social apartments,” meaning the price is set for affordability to lower income workers, the elderly on fixed incomes, students, etc. and they must be advertised as such in the rental notices. This makes for a much more interesting and diverse mix of city residents. I’m sure if we had such a task force as suggested, many best practices could be researched, considered, and tweaked for San Antonio’s particular needs. Let’s get the conversation going full speed ahead! Thank you for providing a good catalyst for community discussion.

  9. Impose penalties similar to the Demolition by Neglect ordinance. The Hedrick Building has been empty forever as has the wonderful decorative building beside it that held Potchernik’s (sp??) for so long. Once a building has sat empty for over 10 years, there need to be stronger enforcement options so we can move on.

    I like this article and the ideas in it. In the late 70’s and 80’s there were huge numbers of buildings being restored. Any way to reive and improve on those efforts is very welcome. Thank you for bringing additional focus to this issue.

  10. As someone who originally relocated to San Antonio by Greyhound over ten years ago , I have to say that the downtown Greyhound station – along with the Megabus and Omnibus (formerly Americanos) stations on Broadway – in walking distance of the Alamo and connecting with the city’s existing trolley and bus system, should be viewed as a tremendous asset for downtown San Antonio, including in framing the city as a car-free and truly urban destination for visitors and experience for residents . . . many of whom have been living car-free and ‘centro’ waaaay before it was ever up-sold as an elite lifestyle choice or gated community.

    I haven’t dined there, but it sounds to me like Restaurant Gwendolyn simply failed n its lunchtime marketing or customer service (no need for excuses) – specifically, missing the opportunity to cater to the HUNDREDS OF TRAVELERS passing through downtown by Greyhound during lunch hours each day – seeking a good meal, any meal the minute they step off the bus as they await a transfer or arrive in San Antonio as their final destination.

    Failure to compete with Bill Millers or the hot light operation within the station – or more likely the terrific and welcoming Cafe Blanco next door – to me is a sign of what the various ‘upscale’ (as Restaurant Gwendolyn markets itself) downtown offerings of recent years are actually delivering the city . . . emptiness.

    I will never forget my arrival in San Antonio by Greyhound or meal at Cafe Blanco (in stumbling distance of the station), duffel bag in hand – or the courtesy I was shown as an obvious bus traveler.

    Talk of ‘two San Antonios’ is dispiriting – as is judging all who ride VIA or Greyhound or other regional bus as vagrant or criminal. It doesn’t take a Harvard degree to understand the secret to downtown business success is to treat actual potential customers of all stripes with dignity, respect and hospitality – something that established and successful San Antonio eateries and other businesses haven’t forgotten. If you’re aiming for exclusive, some times you really get it.

  11. The “cover” photo building along with the site directly West, is probably one of the most desirable in the State of Texas. The fact that the building is vacant and derelict, and has been so for so long, is an indicator to the way the (San Antonio) economy is funding things. It would take more than $100m to develop the pair of sites (one on the river) and premier projects of that size have not cornered the attention of investors since the mid-1980’s (hotels excluded).

  12. San Antonio Country Club racially exclusive? Mexicans and Jews have been members for generations. But if you don’t get in by family, apparently it’s a long waiting list.

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