For an 84-acre property that has long sat underutilized and is better known as a place to stage weddings than a potential Eastside economic development catalyst, The Red Berry Estate actually looks pretty good.
The City of San Antonio purchased the property for $2.25 million in 2012 with an eye toward recruiting a developer for the site. Late last month, City Council unanimously approved a $150 million public-private partnership to do just that. Last week, City staffers showed the property to local officials and the media.
As our small tour group entered the mansion from the side garage entrance, I expected cobwebs and broken mirrors. Maybe a raccoon. After all, the big house is slated for a $2-million makeover as part of the larger development. Save for the initial overwhelming smell of dust and a few broken light switches, the estate – save some interior renovations and pool expansion done by subsequent owners – is almost entirely just as Berry left it. The bookshelves are filled with strange titles, the walls are covered with odd paintings and wallpaper, and almost every room has some variation of chandelier and defunct security camera.
While the estate is not yet designated as an historic site, the 1951 mansion – and Berry's strange tastes – will be preserved.
The estate has been relatively well-maintained. Its restoration will be part of a larger redevelopment of the 84-acre property in the Eastside by a partnership that includes NRP Group and two Sugar Land, Texas-based developers, Terramark Homes and Wallace-Bajjali Development Partners.
The plan includes using 50 undeveloped acres for a 600-unit multifamily project, with half the units reserved for residents who earn less than $47,070 a year or 80% or less of the district's median income, which would be a much lower figure. Achieving that goal of leasing half the units to lower-income residents would qualify the developer for a full tax exemption.
A Chapter 380 economic development agreement and the established inner city TIRZ, or Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone, could yield developers another $8.4 million over 20 years as property values rise. The developers have the option of purchasing the land from a City-held trust once the development is complete.
Another 66 townhouses and 300,000 square feet of commercial office space largely targeted for medical offices and practices will round out the project. Some spaces for restaurants and retail stores are planned.
The Red Berry Estate is located just east of Willow Springs Golf Course, about five miles from downtown, and about 6.5 miles south of Rackspace on I-35. The development will prove to be a good test of demand for apartments in the area at a time when a hot market has developed in Dignowity Hill and other near-Eastside neighborhoods.
Few people other than longtime Eastside residents and San Antonio history buffs know much about the vacant property at 856 Gembler Rd., or its larger-than-life namesake, Red Berry, who died in 1969. Berry, who came to San Antonio after World War I as a serviceman assigned to Fort Sam Houston, made a quick study of the city's seamier side in an era when local politicians and law enforcement looked the other way for a price.
Berry ran his own successful gambling houses, and somehow beat multiple murder investigations and indictments. He ultimately was elected to the Texas Legislature, and served terms in both the Texas House and then Senate. Berry won the land in a card game, according to legend, and built his mansion and a 12-acre lake on the property.
Developers hope to connect the lake, which has shrunk to almost half its original size, to the adjacent Salado Creek Bike Trail.
Looking out over the artificial lake, recently appointed District 2 Councilmember Keith Toney envisioned a catalyst for positive change in his district – new housing, jobs, recreational amenities, and a desirable events venue. He and other officials hope the Red Berry redevelopment will do what the AT&T Center, located 1.7 miles away, has not done.
"We've received a very positive response from residents for this project," he said. "We have a true need for medical facilities within the Eastside ... and the recreational component (that the lake may provide) will be most welcome."
Toney was joined last week by a handful of staffers and Eastside business owners for a tour led by Center City Development Office Assistant Director Colleen Swain. Much of the undeveloped acreage is covered in abandoned structures, brush, and trees that will be cleared for development.
As plans progress, Swain said, environmental impact studies will be conducted to ensure that the nearby floodplain and neighborhood will not be adversely effected by 420,000 cubic yards of fill slated to be used near Salado Creek as part of development plans.