By Robert Rivard
Few people in San Antonio, I'd hazard, could drive a car or ride a bike to the Hays Street Bridge without a few wrong turns or a pre-trip glance at Google Maps. I was there only a few days ago on my bike, and like always, I was the just about the only one there. Underneath the elegantly restored historic span is a wasteland of empty space, dilapidated warehouses and the distinct absence of social, cultural or economic activity.
Right now the Hays Street Bridge on the near-Eastside is San Antonio's Bridge to Nowhere.
More people (476) like it on Facebook than visit it. Cyclists traverse it, but mostly as a shortcut, as a change of pace from their regular route, or for the chance to enjoy a seldom-seen view of downtown from the Eastside, arguably the best of all vantage points. What the bridge badly needs is a lift to its neglected surroundings to give people reason to visit and appreciate its preservation and perspective.
That's why I'm surprised that anyone would oppose the efforts of inner city developer and entrepreneur Eugene Simor, founder and owner of the Alamo Beer Company, to win final approval from City Council this week to locate and build a $7 million microbrewery adjacent to the bridge, and to incorporate some of the bridge's public space into a place for people to gather, enjoy a brew, a meal and the company of others.
There are very few stories that include the words "Eastside" and "private investment" in the same breath, which makes it even more surprising that anyone from any other part of the city would oppose a project that has no other competing alternatives.
The Esperanza Peace and Justice Center recently organized a protest at the bridge, one that included a crowd of cyclists as if a brewery would somehow impede cycling. The Center's protest is an 11th hour effort to build opposition, given how long the brewery has been under development and discussion. The rallying cry, "Public views, not private brews," belies the fact the brewery and its surroundings will be open to all. Another protest is scheduled for Wednesday at 7 p.m., according to the center's website. What the Westside organization wants to see in place of the brewery, assuming that preserving the current state of blight is not its goal, is unclear. We know what they oppose. What are they for?
District Two City Councilwoman Ivy Taylor supports the project. The neighbors, the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association, has supported the project for more than a year. You can contact Councilwoman Taylor or any of her colleagues by email or telephone by clicking on her link, or you can attend Thursday's City Council meeting to listen to arguments for and against selling a plot of city land to Simor to keep the project on track. Almost every other Eastside community group also supports Simor, as noted in a June 23 Express-News column by Brian Chasnoff.
Simor's beer has been brewed for some years at the Real Ale Brewery in Blanco. Still, beer enthusiasts undoubtedly will view Alamo Beer as a more authentic local brew once it carries the "Hecho en San Antonio" imprimatur. The project also will link Dignowity Hill to other entertainment venues at the Pearl and downtown. Two local firms, Lake/Flato Architects and Guido Brothers, are designing and constructing the brewery.
"We hope to break ground by Thanksgiving and be manufacturing beer by next summer," Simor said. "Over seven years we should build a workforce of 40 people in the brewery, and that doesn't include people who will be hired at the restaurant."
In a city famous for its breweries that operated when the Hays Street Bridge was erected more than a century ago, it somehow seems fitting that a 21st century microbrewery will help a neighborhood already on the rebound accelerate its redevelopment and attract newcomers and visitors with a new community amenity. Craft breweries have enlivened urban cores from Portland to Fort Collins. There is no reason why San Antonio can't follow.
"People are being told the bridge is going to be closed and that I'm taking it over, all of which is absolutely untrue," Simor said. "Hopefully all this attention might bring more people to the bridge even before the brewery gets there. If it wasn't for the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center's protest, hardly anybody else seems to be going over there these days."
Simor is no newcomer to Eastside redevelopment initiatives. For years he operated as a limited partner in less-than-successful efforts to bring back to life the Friedrich Building and the Merchants Ice and Cold Storage Building. Give him and his partners credit for trying what most other developers wouldn't touch with a ten-foot tax incentive. Now, however, he is general partner of the Alamo Brewery project, and the scale makes it a venture much more likely to succeed.
Full disclosure: I've known Simor for 20 years, and for a brief time, Alamo Beer was a sponsor of the Third Street Grackles, the cycling team I helped found eight years ago. I can count on one hand the number of privately financed, multi-million dollar developments I've seen launched on this city's Eastside in the time I've known Simor. His project is a worthy one, and deserves unanimous Council support.