Plans for a walkable Town Center with shops, bars and restaurants, a new hotel with a large meeting ballroom, old military barracks turned into residential loft spaces, and hike and bike trails connecting the neighborhood to the San Antonio River were shared with City Council by the top executive of Brooks City Base Wednesday.
Brooks President and CEO Leo Gomez also set an ambitious goal of doubling the number of jobs at the former Air Force Base over the next seven years, predicting there would be almost 9,000 jobs on and around Brooks by 2021. There are 4,597 people working within the Brooks Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone today. About 3,000 of those jobs are on Brooks City Base itself.
Brooks is fast becoming a national model for redevelopment of a closed military base, Gomez told City Council Wednesday in a lengthy briefing on redevelopment efforts. One milestone he cited was the 3,000 job mark reached last year, with the average job paying $50,000 a year. There were 2,700 mostly military jobs at Brooks AFB in the years before its last mission finally departed in 2005. Air Force operations at the base had been winding down for years, and base redevelopment actually got underway in 2o01 with formation of the Brooks Development Authority.
For newcomers to San Antonio, Brooks has a rich history that dates back to 1917 when Brooks Field became one of the nation’s first Army Air Corps installations for training young cadets. It later became the home to the School of Aviation Medicine in 1927, which grew into the School of Aerospace Medicine in 1957. As the U.S. Space Program developed, Brooks became home to extensive astronaut training and testing. President John F. Kennedy gave one of his last speeches at Brooks, praising the astronaut training program the day before he was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. By the mid-1990s, however, Brooks had become a target for closure, which was successfully fought for two decades.
“The Air Force is gone,” Gomez told Council when one member asked if there were any remaining military personnel today. “There isn’t a single military tenant, but we’ve replaced those jobs and more over the last 11 years, and the average job today pays $50,000 a year.”
Gomez said visitors to Brooks City Base who have not been there since it was an Air Force base are amazed at the transformation. If much of the focus to date has been on recruiting employers to establish a presence at the base and bring jobs to the Southeast Side, Gomez’s Wednesday briefing suggested that the continuing drive for jobs will now be joined by a multi-million dollar placemaking strategy to make the 1,200-acre campus a more appealing place to live, work, and recreate.
“Our mission for the first 10 years was to develop a research, technology, and science park,” Gomez said. He was recruited to the CEO position 18 months ago from his executive position with the San Antonio Spurs. “That was the mission, but the market was telling us something different.”
Gomez said the Brooks board of trustees changed directions, wrote a new mission statement, and undertook a new strategic direction with his hiring. Several of the trustees, including Board Chair Manuel Pelaez-Prada, were on hand for Wednesday’s meeting.
“Your charge to us is really one thing: jobs. Help create jobs and attract jobs to San Antonio…we are all about creating jobs,” Gomez said.
Last year, that job growth included 300 new jobs at Mission Solar Energy, a Korean-owned and publicity-shy fabricator of photovoltaic solar panels recruited here to supply CPS Energy for its 400MW solar farm network. Mission Solar opened in 2014 and could eventually grow to 800 employees.
Only last week Brooks announced plans by Hilton to build an Embassy Suites with an 8,000 sq. ft. ballroom, a spa, and a restaurant. The ballroom, Mayor Ivy Taylor noted, will give the Southeast Side a badly needed public gathering venue for meetings, conferences, and other events. One likely user will be the South San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, which has offices at Brooks.
Brooks is now home to a diverse number of business, government, medical, and education tenants ranging from DPT Laboratories, a pharmaceutical contract development and manufacturing company, to Mission Trail Baptist Hospital, to Texas A&M-San Antonio’s 1,800 students who are enrolled in business and cybersecurity classes.
The University of the Incarnate Word announced plans last year to locate its new School of Osteopathic Medicine at Brooks, and Gomez said Wednesday that UIW also plans to relocate its Rosenberg School of Optometry there.
Until now, the Landings, a 300-unit multifamily project has been the main residential draw. Gomez said new residential units are on the drawing board, including 288 lofts that will be built in converted military barracks within close walking distance to the A&M-San Antonio classroom buildings and the future hike and bike trails.
Gomez told City Council that Brooks will ask the City to dedicate funds in the 2017 city bond to finance new roadways to connect the campus to South Presa Street and on its southern edge to Loop 410 to relieve traffic congestion around the once-restricted military facility.
The board is also studying the viability of issuing it own revenue bonds to help raise $35 million needed to complete all the infrastructure improvements projects on the Brooks drawing board to make it a more livable community and to make it more attractive to major employers, he said.
Brooks today is divided into three distinct zones. Zone A includes the current residential, future Town Center, Zone B includes most of the business operations, and Zone C is largely vacant and being marketed nationally as suitable for major employers looking for affordable land with good transportation infrastructure, favorable tax rates, and available workforce.
Suggesting that Brooks is an appealing alternative for city planners engaged in comprehensive planning and worried about the rate of sprawl north and northwest of the center city, Gomez said, “You will someday be able to live, work, play, and learn at Brooks, and ride your bike all the way to downtown and on to the main UIW campus and back.”
*Top/featured image: Brooks City Base signature gateway. Courtesy photo.