It's hard for longtime San Antonio residents to believe the transformation underway on the city's Eastside, historically the home to the largest concentration of African-American families and small businesses, and long the most neglected and poorest side of San Antonio.
"Understandably there has been a lot of skepticism on the Eastside about whether anything would ever be done," said District 2 City Councilman Keith Toney. "I worked over there and I remember when Sutton Homes was called 'Sutton Death' because there were so many shootings and dead bodies there. This investment is very significant to the Eastside."
Some of that transformation is already visible, such as the growing number of homes being renovated in the Dignowity Hill neighborhood, home to Mayor Taylor's residence on Dignowity Park, the restored Hays Street Bridge and the under-construction Alamo Brewery.
Much more is on the drawing board and coming in the next five years, from the development of the Red Berry Estate to the razing of the Wheatley Courts housing project, the future sites of mixed-use, mixed-income communities with improved streets and other infrastructure, access to better schools, more neighborhood businesses, and improved public safety.
The new development is collectively known now as Eastpoint, which is both a geographic footprint of four square miles in the heart of the historic Eastside, and also the comprehensive program to use two key federal grants, a $29.75 million Choice Neighborhood grant and a $23.70 million Promise Neighborhood grant, to drive the Eastside revitalization.
The City's Eastpoint Director Mike Etienne presented City Council with an overview of the project Wednesday as part of the 2015 proposed budget review. San Antonio is the only city to win both federal programs as well as the federal Promise Zone designation, which does not come with any funds.
The drive to breathe new life into the city's Eastside is reaching a critical transition point from planning to execution under the leadership of Mayor Ivy Taylor, Etienne, and Toney – all African-Americans. The planning and execution are actually the work of multiple departments under City Manager Sheryl Sculley, but that concentration of black leadership is a historic first for San Antonio, and could expand in November if Democratic candidate Tommy Calvert defeats Republican candidate Timothy Wilson in the Precinct 4 County Commissioner race on Nov. 4.
Etienne outlined nine key strategies and initiatives undertaken by the City with the $55 million in federal grants and City, county, and private sector funds that will total $177 million in all:
1. The demolition of Wheatley Courts and building mixed-income community.
2. Build new infill housing and rehab vacant structures.
3. Improve education from cradle to grave.
4. Increase public safety and security.
5. Improve public infrastructure.
6. Attract private capital and investments.
7. Retain and attracts businesses.
8. Create jobs/workforce development.
9. Promote community engagement and sustainability.
Etienne invited Council members to witness the demolition of the Wheatley Courts homes on Sept. 25, which he predicted will be a "great event" symbolizing the coming construction of 625 new residential units that will be built in four phases between now and 2017. Seventy percent of the units will be set aside for lower-income residents, while 30% will be priced at market rate.
Wheatley Middle School, now half empty, according to Etienne, will be transformed by the San Antonio Independent School District, the United Way, and other partners into a "community school."
"Half of the building will be a school, and the other half will be used for community programs: an adult literacy program, other social services, possibly a BiblioTech library," Etienne said.
Etienne shared some other promising numbers and trends:
* The graduation rate at Sam Houston High School, once targeted by SAISD for closure, rose from a dismal 46% three years ago to 84% this year, perhaps the most dramatic turnaround in a district where the overall dropout rate has fallen from a high of nearly 30% to a low of nearly 10%.
* Crime is down 6.7%.
* Animal Services has impounded 731 animals that ran wild in Eastside neighborhoods.
* Code Enforcement has processed 7,336 cases and demolished 137 homes.
Seven capital projects worth $26 million were undertaken in 2014 and will be completed by 2018, along with the $10.5 million City-County Menger Creek project, which runs two blocks away from Wheatley Middle School.
"The plan is to transform Menger Creek from a drainage ditch to a destination linear park for the community,” Etienne said.
“For us as a city to thrive, all parts of town must thrive," Taylor said at the close of the presentation. "We will do anything we can to encourage investment and success in all parts of San Antonio.”
*Featured/top image: Two homes in Dignowity Hill; one empty and seemingly abandoned (right), another recently renovated. Photo by Iris Dimmick