The Case For Keeping South Main Avenue Open

Print Share on LinkedIn Comments More
“There are no benefits to the citizens of San Antonio for closing down Main Avenue. It's not good for the adjacent neighborhoods. It's not good for the whole city,” claims Woods. Photo by Charlotte Luongo.

“There are no benefits to the citizens of San Antonio for closing down Main Avenue. It's not good for the adjacent neighborhoods. It's not good for the whole city,” claims Woods. Photo by Charlotte Luongo.

michael nyeIn June 1947 after World War II, Congressman Paul Kilday, San Antonio Mayor Alfred Callaghan, and a citizens group called “The South Siders” advocated for the opening of South Main Ave. through the Arsenal property. The street was needed for the immediate relief of traffic congestion on the south side of the city. The city council agreed and S. Main Ave. opened.

Now 65 years later, HEB is requesting that the city of San Antonio convey to them S. Main Ave. between East Arsenal St. and East César Chávez Boulevard. (formerly Durango Boulevard.) in perpetuity in exchange for a small grocery store at the corner of South Flores St. and E. César Chávez Blvd. HEB will also be receiving a $1 million dollar bonus incentive.

H-E-B headquarters looking north at the intersection of Main Avenue and Arsenal Street. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

H-E-B headquarters looking north from S. Main Avenue and E. Arsenal Street. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

I can’t think of any company demonstrating good citizenship and generosity more than HEB. I grew up in Corpus Christi. As a boy in the 1950s, I saw how HEB treated their neighbors and workers. They were the best grocery store in town. In San Antonio, HEB has positively impacted so many people and causes—education, support for the Food Bank, arts, humanities and museums, etc. Downtown residents are fortunate to have them as our neighbors.  Saying all that, good citizenship and success is not the test for acquisition of an important public street for private use.

South Main Avenue is not an insignificant or “surplus” street, but is located in one of the oldest historic neighborhoods in San Antonio and connects our citizens from south (Alamo Street) and north (Chavez) into downtown and the courthouse. Hundreds of cars and trucks travel up and down S. Main Ave. every day.  Many bicycles, buses, trolleys, pedestrians, and wheelchair-users also share S. Main Ave.

Looking north on Main Avenue from its intersection with Arsenal Street, the closure of this block is necessary, H-E-B representatives say, if its grocery story is to be built downtown. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Looking north on Main Avenue from its intersection with Arsenal Street, the closure of this block is necessary, H-E-B representatives say, if its grocery story is to be built downtown. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

It is important to visualize this street closure to understand the larger debate and consequences: There are only two streets west of King William and the San Antonio River that connect our citizens to and through downtown: S. Flores St. and S. Main Ave. (Santa Rosa Street dead ends at E. Arsenal Street/El Paso St. it connects to Laredo, so it doesn’t look on a map like it dead ends.)

If HEB is successful in closing S. Main Ave. all traffic would be restricted to just one street,  S. Flores.  HEB’s proposal to build a small grocery store and gas station at this very corner, (S. Flores and Chavez) will contribute enormously to heavy traffic congestion and periods of downtown gridlock. Where will the traffic go? It will naturally flow into the King William neighborhoods and down S. Flores.

The block of Main Avenue in question between East Caesar Chaves Boulevard and Arsenal Street. Photo by Charlotte Luongo.

The block of South Main Avenue in question between East Cesar Chaves Boulevard and East Arsenal Street. Photo by Charlotte Luongo.

Any serious restriction of flow –whether to the heart, lungs, rivers, power lines or downtown streets has serious consequences. City planners around the country understand that if you eliminate or restrict traffic flow, the health and vibrancy of a downtown is diminished. I would suggest we look at this issue from a longer perspective.  What are the consequences in 10 or 50 years?  It is a very serious decision for our city to convey a public street to any private company for their own utility and at the same time cut off access to its citizens that need it most. This is not a neighborhood issue, this is a city-wide issue.

South of downtown is booming – condos, apartments, bicycles pouring into the neighborhoods.   At a time when we need more throughways – HEB is asking to eliminate one.  My wife Naomi and I have lived on S. Main Ave. for 34 years. There are more than 250 single/multifamily residents that live on S. Main, City, Arsenal, Sweet, Daniel, Rische and in the new apartments and condos near Alamo Street. We have always worked out solutions with our neighbors. We negotiated with the San Antonio Housing Authority on S. Flores St. to create a park instead of warehouses on S. Main Avenue. We worked with the Pioneer Flour Mill when they tried to acquire historic homes on both sides of S. Main near Alamo street.  We repeatedly stopped doctors, attorneys and other businesses who tried to change residential zoning on S. Main Ave. to commercial.

HEB moved into our neighborhood with the full understanding that they were moving into a complex downtown environment, into a particular history and thoroughfares that we all share.  They understood that there are competing interests, diversity among businesses, neighborhoods and family life. The fact that their growth is restricted was foreseeable. Dya Campos, representative for HEB, said, in a public meeting last summer (before the city selected HEB to build a downtown store) that HEB would petition to acquire that portion of South Main Ave regardless of whether a store was built because it would be a part of their overall growth plan. They said they need more space to grow. Closing South Main was negotiated in private without consulting their neighbors.

The red line indicates the section of Main Avenue that H-E-B has requested to close in the event of opening a downtown grocery store. Image by Charlotte Luongo.

The red line indicates the section of Main Avenue that H-E-B has requested to close in the event of opening a downtown grocery store. Image by Charlotte Luongo.

If HEB acquires our street, what precedent are we setting?  If HEB were Wal-Mart, would we have the same attitude? Todd Piland, HEB’s executive vice president of real estate and facilities, said their proposal for a 6,000-8,000 sq. ft. store will go to the city council in November for approval. This final vote is being rushed through. Building a grocery store downtown and closing an important public street should not be connected.

We want to work with HEB. We admire HEB’s contribution to our city. We are proud to have them as our neighbors.

There is a compromise solution:

Many are supporting the idea of HEB owning the air space above S. Main Ave. from Arsenal to Chávez in exchange for building a grocery store and keeping S. Main Ave. open to all of the citizens of San Antonio. It has been done in many large downtown cities. HEB could create an appealing architecturally dazzling over-the-street building which connects both side of their campus, including elevator and crosswalk. An ultra-modern building linked to the historic Arsenal and Commander’s House buildings could be much more attractive for their campus. Consider the innovations of the High Line in New York City (walking trail and train track goes through a building.) Robert Hammond from San Antonio was a co-founder.

HEB could build something special above Main Ave. and this would allow HEB to achieve their goal of a owning and operating a unified secure headquarters and allowing citizens of San Antonio to have access to downtown.

In less than two weeks, a grass-roots organization called Main Access has gathered over 900 signatures (paper and on-line) opposing the closure of S. Main Ave. by H-E-B. Maria Berriozábal, former city councilwoman, wrote on the group’s petition“This is one of the oldest and most historic streets in our city. It virtually crosses the oldest areas of the city from south to north. It is a public space that our government officials should not turn over to private interests. We, the People, have the right to our city!

Downtown residents want a grocery store, but the cost of losing our street is too high. We all own a tiny piece of S. Main Ave.  We were entrusted by past generations to take care of this public access and pass it on to the next generation. It really bothers me that any company could acquire a public street especially in a busy downtown area.  It is not in the best interests of our city to lose this accessible connection, this part of our special downtown.

 

Michael Nye, attorney and photographer, creates photography and audio documentaries. Find more at michaelnye.org.

 

Related Stories:

The Case for Rethinking South Main Avenue

H-E-B Briefs King William Neighbors on Expansion, Proposed Block Closure

The Feed: Two Guys Aim for Downtown Grocery Stores

Small Footprints, Big Impact: How to Make a Million Dollars Stretch across Center City

State of the Center City: More Housing, Fewer Vacant Buildings

No to Downtown Subsidies: The View from District 9 and Councilwoman Chan

 

24 thoughts on “The Case For Keeping South Main Avenue Open

  1. First of all, I think some people need to do a little more research before calling this one of the oldest streets in our city. I pulled up both the 1873 Bird’s Eye View map (Main doesn’t even exist on it) and 1886 map (it was called Maverick then but stopped at Main Plaza) to research the claims. Secondly, today a friend and I took Main from Guenther to Main Plaza on B-Cycle. The small amount of traffic on it almost all turned right on Arsenal (there’s a right turn lane there) and didn’t continue down Main. Finally, Main is already closed twice at Main Plaza and in between the two county buildings (there’s a gate there so I don’t see the county reopening it).

    You win arguments with real facts, not overstated fallacies.

    • Interestingly enough, my girlfriend and I took our B-cycles up S. Main from our house to and through Main Plaza this afternoon as well. Other than the fact that there was traffic continuing past Arsenal with us, your suggestion that this portion of S. Main must not be useful because you personally witnessed a few minutes’ worth of traffic on a lazy Sunday afternoon encourages me to invite you to come ride your B-cycle down that same stretch Monday-Friday from about 6:00 AM to 9:00 AM and again from about 4:00 PM to 6:00 PM. Also note that the stretch of Main between the courthouses and into the Plaza is open to your B-cycle and pedestrians despite the construction and gate there.

      You win arguments with real facts, not overstated fallacies.

      • James, the point I witnessed was Saturday afternoon and the majority of traffic turned at Arsenal. I didn’t say none proceeded up Main but the majority turned. BTW, I live downtown ALSO and have driven that stretch several times. They have put out traffic counters so the facts will prevail. BTW, rush hour doesn’t justify keeping it open.

        Did HEB say they were closing to pedestrians? I’m still trying to figure that one out. I think that’s a negotiable point. If they are trying to attract people to the downtown grocery store, I don’t think it’ll be closed to pedestrians.

    • Randy you said “today” and posted this on Oct 19, so this was a Saturday? I’d agree there’s a lot less traffic on Saturday than on weekdays. I’d expect the city would commission a study of traffic patterns before making a decision to close a street, and not base it on anecdotal evidence.

      I like the idea of pedestrian zones (common in many city centres in Europe), and if this was what we were going for, I’d dive in head first. But, IMO, this isn’t really an appropriate place for a pedestrian zone (Main Plaza is), and this won’t even be that, since it will be a walled compound blocking pedestrian and bicycle traffic.

    • It was Maria Berriozábal, a former city councilwoman, who made the statement about the street being old and historic, and in fact, many sections of it are. The home I live in on Main Ave. was built in 1904. My neighbor’s home is even older. The portion of the street H-E-B wants was built in the late 1940s to relieve traffic congestion. The citizens fought hard to get it built. It was a historic moment.

      History aside, though, let’s look at the facts:

      Fact: Closing this street would increase congestion.
      Fact: Closing this street would decrease the area’s walkability and make biking more dangerous due to the increased traffic on the streets left open.
      Fact: Closing this street is contrary to the City of San Antonio Lone Star Community Plan’s master plan

      • How is closing Main contrary to the Lone Star Community Plan? S Flores is where all the investment is targeted. In fact, there’s almost no additional development that can be achieved on Main. Come on people, quit stretching on this argument. You’re giving me too much material for a counter blog entry.

        BTW, Main is about as “historic” as Fredericksburg, which is actually more historic. Since we’ve already hacked it up, how is closing a section that was never open until the 40s destroying history?

        • The 2013 Lone Star Community Plan generally calls for high-density, mixed-use buildings and unobstructed paths of travel for multiple methods of transit. (See, for example, page 31). The Plan specifically targets H-E-B’s property for that type of high density, mixed use. (page 41). This comes as no surprise to H-E-B because the same plans were included in the 2012 Downtown Transportation Study and the 1999 Downtown Neighborhood Plan.

          The Plan also calls for more on-street links for cyclists and pedestrians in the area (page 60), as well as food truck and farmers market locations in the area(page 75).

          The Plan identifies the Commander’s House as a key facility that should receive increased use and expanded access, including removal of the wire fence and possible construction of a dog park (page 79). By the way, increased connectivity to the Commander’s House has been a goal since the 1999 Downtown Neighborhood Plan and the 1988 South Riverbend Neighborhood Plan.

          The plans are drafted by professionals with public input and then adopted by City Council. A single citizen should not be able buy its way out of the plan.

    • Saturday ( October 19) is not a business day of the week, of course traffic is diminished. The San Antonio River is not even in the location it was in 1873 or 1886.
      It is possible that the closures of Main Street downtown were actually created in an effort to prevent any possible terrorism in the core of the City. Think about it, please.
      Remember a couple of years ago when the R.V. with French tourists was parked near the courthouse and the drunk tourists broke into the courthouse via the fire escape?
      That’s why downtown streets are chopped up. To prevent access to county buildings.
      Again, I ask that you think about it.
      Forfeiting a municipal street to a corporate entity for a shopping facility is what the issue here is. It will set a precedent.

  2. My Lewis F. Fisher book ‘Saving San Antonio: The Precarious Preservation of a Heritage’ says that ‘Once upon a single tract, it’s property was bisected in 1929 when Main Avenue was cut through, requiring an act of Congress.” P. 400, Chapter 15. Oddly enough, the chapter is entitled ‘Arsenal to Ursuline: Cutting Deals Since 1971’. His book is heavily footnoted. I’m not sure the confusion on the two different dates of the bisecting of the Arsenal. It would be great to get all the articles he mentions from 1929. One is entitled “Street Through Arsenal Urged”. EN, 04.14.29. #oldisnew.

    • Excellent piece of history. That’s what I say – It’s the only safe cycling route from River North to Blue Star or even old Lone Star.

  3. The important thing is the future.
    SA2020 and the Lone Star Community Plan show what an incredible downtown and south side we can have if we don’t blow it by ignoring the essential planning principles in these plans. If we close S Main Ave, we will be building a wall between a thriving Southtown and the downtown that we all want. This wall will undermine the success of both halves of this new developing urban community.

  4. Mr. Butt and HEB have an amazing record of preservation in the oldest historic district in the state. The legacy of leaving so many architectural treasures in such good shape should inform and encourage a winning solution, and be an inspiration. The Groos House on King William Street was in pretty bad shape. Now it’s one of our very prettiest homes. The Arsenal was in real danger when HEB moved here and they’ve done a fabulous job of revitalizing it. A consistent preservation legacy would include keeping open this historic avenue. It did take an Act of Congress to open it.

  5. I lived on the corner of Madison and Beauregard. Every other day my jogging route would take me down Main and Arsenal. I choose this area because traffic was so low and it felt more safe.

    I’m all for the idea of building in to the HEB headquarter’s historic landscape to create a “architecturally dazzling” grocery store. Let’s do it.

  6. It’s not really about how many cars currently use Main but how many might do so in the future, while sharing space with cars and pedestrians. That’s exactly what city planning documents call for.

    With HEB’s history of historic preservation (started by Mr. Butts himself?), its current plans on shocking and disappointing.

    The Downtown Plan of 1999 clearly shows what is now HEB property being developed as mixed use facilities. In 2012, when Council carved out part of the Downtown area as a target for SA2020 growth and development, HEB had every right to participate in the new Lone Star Community Plan.

    Yet, as far as I remember as a participant, HEB did not participate. That plan again shows HEB’s property as mixed use, high density. A walled compound is contrary to these plans and the planning process. It’s time for HEB to step up and design an innovative urban campus. Ditch the wall. Keep the street.

    Until then, I’m shopping elsewhere.

  7. The idea that crossing Main Ave. is dangerous for employees is a bit ridiculous, given that millions of tourists, including toddlers and grandparents, completely unfamiliar with San Antonio are able to successfully cross any number of more heavily trafficked streets in the CBD on an annual basis. This is pure economics, wanting to expand horizontal vs. going vertical.

    • Right. HEB really needs to ditch this argument entirely if they want to have any credibility re the intent of the street closure. I’ve said this elsewhere, but if this really is HEB’s reasoning, then we in Southtown must petition the city to close S. St Mary’s St between Alamo and Pereida St to all vehicular traffic at all times. Hundreds of kids, from toddlers through 8th graders, must cross that street at least 2x/day.

  8. Having read all the comments from the three stories about Main street closing, I feel HEB’s argument to close the street is weak. The best idea is for them to construct an enclosed elevated walkway above main st. so there employees can safely go back and forth. I moved into Southtown 12 years ago and have watched the area explode with development that just keeps coming. Closing main st. is not worth a 5,000 ft grocery store. we need all the downtown north south streets we have left. I also don’t believe there is not enough demand to justify a larger store between all the current residents and the ones to come in the next year plus all the people that work downtown that may need to do some shopping before heading home. There should be more than enough business to have a large profitable store. I can’t imagine them not making a profit on top of the Million dollars the city is giving them. Please come to “the coffee with councilman” Diego Bernal at the friendly spot this saturday morning and share your views on this issue before it’s a done deal.

  9. After reading H.E.B.’s 2030 plan, I have noted some major areas where we disagree. The Commander’s House is NOT on the grounds of H.E.B. HQ, but treading water in a sea of H.E.B. Ceding the commons to a private corporation, no matter their reinvestment is a grave mistake. It’s insulting to carve a private employee green space, shutting the citizenry out of our safest north-south route downtown. It took an Act of Congress in 1929 to allow a road through the Arsenal. Due to war efforts, it was not opened til 1948.

    H.E.B. is reinvesting, doubling their employees by 2030. Over 17 years, is that extraordinary? Has anyone calculated the loss of jobs this may create by denying access to the urban core to many of us south? Google is undoing bad suburban planning making their campus walkable.

    Locate the store at Liberto’s Warehouse. To say that won’t be planned until long after Piland’s retirement smacks of hubris. A store adjacent to the Test Kitchen, along San Pedro Creek allows creative use. Imagine picnic areas and Chef Events. Santa Rosa, west, is more appropriate, with its industrial nature. Flores is a much safer traffic solution than variances for 2 out of 3 entrances at the intersection. The traffic nightmare does not consider 350 apartments at Univision. The traffic study seems limited at best and a ruse at worst.

    “Adopting” the Commander’s House leads to declaration of surplus property, which should be deed-restricted in perpetuity as a public park. It’s our 2nd most historic military installation, second only to the Alamo. Has the Texas Historical Commission reviewed this? Building on S. Main is a permanent gesture degrading a big preservation legacy.

    The process is moving at breakneck speed, leaving us scrambling helter-skelter for shelter from the municipal-institutional-development complex grounded in our city politics.

  10. Regardless of where this one goes, I’m grateful to everyone for the thoughtful discussion on this topic. Thank you Robert for raising the question and providing the forum…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *