The far Westside suburbs could start to look a lot more urban following the groundbreaking Thursday on San Antonio’s first neighborhood being built on New Urbanism principles.
At the intersection of West Military Drive and Potranco Road, less than a half-mile from Northwest Loop 410, a group of developers and city officials dipped shovels into a former cornfield to celebrate the start of Vicinia, a 97-acre mixed-use infill development.
The project, which could see construction start as soon as next year, is fulfilling the longtime dream of downtown developer Ed Cross to bring urban design and transit-oriented development to the suburbs.
“I’ve been involved with a lot of different development in my career, including land development,” said Cross, CEO of San Antonio Commercial Advisors. “And I’ve always hoped to have a chance to pursue a project like this.”
An urban design movement that began in the 1980s, New Urbanism promotes healthy and environmentally friendly development, walkable neighborhoods with smaller blocks and narrow streets, a wide range of housing types and prices, and transit-oriented development.
The concept began in the United States at Seaside, Florida, and has spread to other areas of the country, including Addison Circle in Dallas and the Mueller community in East Austin.
The name Vicinia comes from the Latin word for neighborhood.
“We wanted something that had some character to it, and I love Latin and Greek names. We put a lot of thought into that name,” Cross said, adding that images of corn figure into the logo design because the land was once the Persyn family farm.
Built around a town square, Vicinia also will be the first project developed under San Antonio’s Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) zoning code that encourages density near transit facilities. Plans call for mass transit facilities within the development that will connect it to other nodes of the city.
A group of developers led by Cross acquired from VIA Metropolitan Transit more than 59 acres of land assessed at $3.6 million in August 2017. Since then, the group bought up five smaller tracts surrounding the property.
“When we bought the tracts from VIA, we were very deliberate in our conversation,” Cross said. “We wanted them to be a partner with us on the development of the project. And in fact, when we had a charrette for the land plan, the first two people that that appeared were Jeff Arndt [president and CEO of VIA] and Brian Buchanan [former senior vice president of development at VIA].
“We’ve really been thoughtful about providing an alternative to being dependent on a car.”
The project is also unique, Cross said, in that it is an infill site, sandwiched amid suburban sprawl that stretches from Westover Hills to the city of Castroville – and the traffic tie-ups that come with it. But two major thoroughfares in the area also will be completed along with the project, opening new routes.
“The site had never been developed because it was a disproportionate burden on [the developer of] the site,” Cross said. “The cost to put in the streets was more than the land was worth.”
The developer received funding from the 2017 City bond program to finish and connect Ingram Road and West Military Drive, and contributed the land at no cost to the City, which budgeted $10 million for construction.
That work, along with infrastructure improvements to the site, has already begun. As the “horizontal developer” on the project, Cross said he hopes to begin selling plots to “vertical developers” in early 2020, “and sometime next year, you’ll see stuff going up.”
Vicinia is situated near the site of the National Security Agency (NSA)/Central Security Service, which moved from Lackland’s Medina Annex to the former Sony chip plant on West Military in 2007. Some reports estimate that NSA employs 3,000-4,000 cybersecurity workers at the campus.
“We hope to provide housing for a mix of ages and a mix of incomes,” Cross said. “We’re not focused on one job generator. We want this to be a new location where families, singles, retirees, a mix of incomes can find a place to live. So the fact that the NSA is right out the front door is just icing on the cake.”
Vicinia will offer single-family homes, townhomes, condos, and mixed-use buildings, many with ground-floor retail space. The town square is a major feature of the master plan and is intended to be the center of community life. A new transit center will be located adjacent to the square.
“Vicinia is a modern revival of how neighborhoods used to be and should be – walkable to everything that’s needed but with the addition of vehicular and mass transit options,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff stated.
But any comparison to the catalytic Pearl development isn’t accurate, Cross said. “The Pearl project is an existing urban environment,” he said. “The majority of the first buildings there were all renovations. So, I really don’t want to compare ourselves to the Pearl.”
The vision Cross has for Vicinia ultimately centers on the town square, not only for the benefit of the neighborhood, but for the surrounding area.
In describing the project to former District 6 Councilman Ray Lopez, Cross asked Lopez what he considered the center of the district to be. After some thought, his answer was the H-E-B parking lot on Culebra Road, Cross said. “That’s kudos to H-E-B, but that’s our goal, to provide a heart, a center for District 6.”
Melissa Cabello Havrda, the current councilwoman, said the development is an example of what “SA Tomorrow” can look like.
“Vicinia is providing a real alternative to typical suburban development models, helping to encourage walking and incorporate more diverse means of transportations into the design phase so that citizens can utilize healthier and more enjoyable ways to get where they need to go,” Havrda stated.
Cross’s interest in New Urbanism traces to his time on the City Planning Commission in the 1990s and a presentation he heard by architect and urban planner Andrés Duany.
To educate others in San Antonio on the concept, Cross invited Witold Rybczynski, professor emeritus of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Charleston Fancy: Little Houses and Big Dreams in the Holy City, for the groundbreaking and a lecture Thursday evening.
In Charleston Fancy, Rybczynski uses the story of a group of youthful architects, builders, and developers based in Charleston, S.C., to convey the importance of architecture and design and the role individuals play in transforming local urban landscapes.
“[New Urbanism] is not really new and a lot of people say it’s really the old urbanism,” Rybczynski said prior to the groundbreaking at Vicinia. “But it’s the older urbanism trying to deal with the new problems because the world has changed since then. We have a lot more cars. We have all sorts of different technology that we want to take advantage of. We have much smaller households and much more variety of households.
“And people want more choice.”