Donovan Rypkema, the intellectual force and principal behind Washington D.C.-based PlaceEconomics, a real estate and economic development consulting firm, couldn't be coming to downtown San Antonio at a better time.
Perhaps he can help locals find common ground.
The nationally-recognized expert in the economic viability of historic structures will deliver a speech titled, “Decade of Downtown: Why It's a Good Idea and What It Will Take."
The talk, sponsored by the City's Office of Historic Preservation, will be held at 231 E. Houston – the vacant space located between Bohanan's and The Palm restaurants – Tuesday at 6 p.m. and is free and open to the public.
Rypkema will find that San Antonio has hit some bumpy air as the redevelopment of the city's urban core picks up speed. Some community and neighborhood groups and historic preservationists have become increasingly active in their opposition to some current projects.
Many of us consider ourselves supporters of historic preservation and progressive infill development, but as of late it seems that some have tried to cast the public conversation into two camps – as if you can't be for both preservation and progress.
Developer and Alamo Beer founder Eugene Simor ran into eleventh hour protests last year opposing the construction of a new brewery at the foot of the Hays Street Bridge on the city's near-Eastside. Groundbreaking for the $7 million project designed by Lake/Flato and to be built by Guido Brothers is scheduled for Friday at 10:30 a.m.
Greystar, the national multi-family developer and property manager, was challenged by protestors who opposed the company's $55 million, 350-unit Elan Riverwalk project slated for the former 4.3 acre Univision site that sits between the San Antonio River and César Chávez Boulevard.
Opponents asked a judge to halt demolition of the 1955-era KWEX-TX studios on the grounds they were the home to the first Spanish-language broadcast station in the country. When legal maneuvers failed, a handful of protestors scaled the property fence to stop demolition crews. Their arrests on trespassing charges were quickly dismissed when Greystar declined to prosecute, but still led the Express-News to sensationally dub them the "Univision Eight" in front page headlines. The small group of protestors were outnumbered by San Antonio police on the scene.
A proposal by H-E-B to close a non-residential block of South Main Avenue as part of a $100 million corporate headquarters expansion that will include a new downtown grocery has also been met with neighborhood opposition in King William, even as H-E-B and the City of San Antonio prepare to bring an agreement before City Council for a Wednesday briefing and a Thursday vote.
In sum, as Mayor Julián Castro sees his "Decade of Downtown" vision taking shape, not everyone sees all the change as progress or in a positive light. The differences of opinion are bound to continue as redevelopment of Hemisfair Park comes into sharper focus in the next few years. When federal funds become available to construct the new San Antonio Federal Courthouse at the corner of Nueva Street and Santa Rosa Boulevard, the disposition of several HemisFair '68 buildings will have to be decided, with some advocating for their preservation and others for their demolition in favor of new design and construction.
City officials, perhaps, hope Rypkema can articulate a view that both sides can embrace as downtown development continues to accelerate.
"The timing is perfect and not just because of recent difficulties," said Shanon Shea Miller, director of the City's Office of Historic Preservation. "It just seems like the right time for our downtown. There is so much opportunity. I feel like we're on the verge of doing something fantastic in San Antonio. Donovan Rypkema offers another perspective, an economic perspective, on why using our vacant buildings downtown is so important. It's not just an economic argument, it's also a quality of life argument."
Rypkema will find in his latest visit to San Antonio that the public's focus is largely on a few of the more visible downtown projects, with little attention paid to the many boarded-up historic structures that sit undervalued on the tax rolls. Many owners, faced only with modest tax bills, have no serious plans to develop or sell, while other historic properties with code violations and unpaid back taxes make them uninviting properties for prospective new owners and developers.