Vacant Building Ordinance Could Be Game Changer

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A vacant house in Government Hill, San Antonio. Photo by Grant Ellis.

A vacant house in Government Hill, San Antonio. Photo by Grant Ellis.

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.

From the COSA Vacant and Underutilized Building Policy and Next Step presentation.

From the COSA Vacant and Underutilized Building Policy and Next Step presentation. Click image to enlarge.

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.

Mayor Julián Castro addresses the crowd during the 2014 State of the City.

Mayor Julián Castro addresses the crowd during the 2014 State of the City i February. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

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.

Center City Development Office Director Lori Houston (left, photo by Al Rendon) and Director of the Office of Historic Preservation Shanon Miller

Center City Development Office Director Lori Houston (left, photo by Al Rendon) and Director of the Office of Historic Preservation Shanon Miller

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.

(Read More: State of the City: More Housing, Fewer Vacant Buildings)

District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal walks through the crowd during his 2014 State of the Center City address at the Briscoe Western Art Museum. Photo by Randy Bear.

District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal walks through the crowd during his 2014 State of the Center City address at the Briscoe Western Art Museum. Photo by Randy Bear.

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.

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7 thoughts on “Vacant Building Ordinance Could Be Game Changer

  1. I like the idea of dealing with the blight aspect. However, I do not see this promoting use of the buildings for either residence or business. I envision building owners simply maintaining the facade or the possibility of tearing down the building altogether as it is easier to maintain an empty lot. Too bad the ordinance doesn’t go further to actually put these buildings to use.

    • @Terryl

      Other than outright tearing a building down, even a maintained, vacant building is better than the status quo even if it’s not optimal. I don’t think; however, that many buildings can be torn down. In the the historic neighborhoods, this certainly isn’t a possibility without approval and that doesn’t happen often, if ever.

  2. I think people who buy crappy properties and keep them vacant and crappy are providing a valuable service.

    By keeping neighborhoods from improving, they put their money where their mouth is to stop gentrification.

    I’m glad Esperanza has taken a strong stand on this issue. If they hadn’t bought Lerma’s, it might have turned into a place that people wanted to go to, thereby unfairly raising the property values of the citizens nearby.

    Instead of this misguided vacant building ordinance, I think we should follow Detroit’s example. They have lots of vacant buildings and their housing is very affordable.

  3. I read the article and it seems pretty slim on facts. It sounds more like PR. How will it effect owners of the property? How will it effect the building? Will historic buildings be allowed to be torn down, thus making “demolition by neglect” a viable strategy for property owners? Will it help the poor relocate from their derelict homes and sell the property? Will it just bulldozers itself over the neglectful no matter what their personal situations? Will it provide advantages to developers and the wealthy at the ordinary person’s expense. Etc. I don’t know what the issues are, but they should be honestly reported on by someone (a journalist?) with expertise in the full implications of urban renewal.

    • Melissa Miller —

      The article was a brief update on previously published in-depth articles conveniently listed and linked within the article. You can read all the ordinance details by clicking on the links and even access a full Power Point presentation of the city ordinance. By clicking on additional links you can access and read Regan Turner’s Harvard thesis on the vacant buildings in San Antonio. Doesn’t get more in-depth and detailed than that. –Robert Rivard

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