City Council threw its unified support Thursday behind a comprehensive program to address the urban core’s hundreds of vacant buildings that range from historic downtown landmarks to abandoned inner-city homes.
Amid such Council support not seen on many other downtown initiatives, the prevailing sentiment seemed to be a desire to see the program succeed and quickly spread to all districts in the city. There isn’t a district in the city that isn’t plagued by neglected strip malls, long-empty buildings and other signs of urban blight.
City staff has worked for months to craft and build support for a pilot project in the center city that includes a range of incentives and penalties designed to bring empty, unused and neglected properties back to life. Property owners will no longer enjoy the luxury of ignoring calls to address such blight.
A comprehensive database of vacant properties will be built in the coming months and by January 2015 when the ordinance takes effect, owners will have to register their vacant properties and make improvements or face stiff fines.
For all of San Antonio’s progress and national recognition for building its vibrant urban core, eyesore buildings have proven to be a blight on efforts to revitalize the center city, both in the downtown and in nearby historic neighborhoods.
If successful, the new vacant building ordinance could prove to be one of the most transformative programs initiated during Mayor Julián Castro’s time in office and as part of his much heralded “Decade of Downtown” vision. After five years as mayor, Castro can point to thousands of new residents into the center city, along with a new downtown grocery store in the works and other programs designed to enhance life and work in the city. All together, hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested by the private sector in the urban core during Mayor Castro’s time in office.
The unanimous vote supporting the new ordinance might have been anticlimactic, given all the staff work and attention to the ordinance in recent months, but its passage Thursday could be one of the most significant policy initiatives in the waning days of the Castro era.
Lori Houston, director of the Center City Development Office, and Shanon Shea Miller, director of the Office of Historic Preservation, made a joint presentation of the ordinance on Thursday, just as they have been doing in meetings with stakeholders, the public, and city officials leading up to today’s vote.
Both are rising stars in the administration of City Manager Sheryl Sculley, serving as joint project managers of the pilot program, bringing together representatives of the development community, architects and engineers, historic preservationists, urban planners and others to develop an ordinance that passed with no substantive opposition.
Council members lauded District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal for the role he has played supporting and pushing for the initiative. It’s interesting to go back to early 2013 and read coverage of Bernal’s first State of Downtown address and his early focus on vacant buildings.
To review recent presentations to City Council by Houston and Miller and to explore the new ordinance in detail, read recent Rivard Report stories covering the run-up to City’s Council’s Thursday vote: “City to Vote on ‘Long Overdue’ Vacant Buildings Ordinance,” and “Pilot Program Takes Aim at Downtown’s Vacant Buildings.”
*Featured/top image: A vacant house in Government Hill, San Antonio. Photo by Grant Ellis.