Paula Owen, president of the Southwest School of Art, believes the college's historic campus, originally home to the Ursuline Academy and Convent, could now serve as the catalyst for revival of the northern edge of downtown San Antonio.
Marshall Davidson Jr. and his team at KMD Studley have assembled multiple River Walk properties and buildings in the blocks around and near the Southwest School of Art. The firm is marketing the combined properties in one of the most ambitious real estate plays since then-Mayor Julián Castro declared The Decade of Downtown nearly five years ago.
Within a five-minute walk are the Southwest School of Art, Artpace, the Central Library, Bank of America Plaza, One Riverwalk, and the Tobin Center for Performing Arts. A majority of the blocks have direct access to the River Walk.
Davidson believes the right developers could transform the neighborhood into a thriving business, arts, entertainment and education district, alive by day with workers, residents and students, and thriving in the evening with people attending art openings, the performances arts, and concerts, and frequenting the growing number of restaurants, clubs, and bars.
The Southwest School of Art, which now offers a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, owns one of the largest of the six different parcels in the KMD Studley package – a full square block across Navarro Street from the school, bordered by North St. Mary's Street to the south, Augusta Street to the north, and Richmond Avenue to the east.
A few small buildings with no historical value are on the property, along with some surface parking.
Owen said the college is not interested in selling its land, and instead hopes to partner with a design-sensitive developer to build a parking structure with 16,000 square feet of ground-level classroom space. Davidson said a multi-storied parking garage would enable the development of apartments or a hotel across from the property on the vacant River Walk parcel formerly home to Channel 4 WOAI-TV.
"With the increase in construction costs, 10-15% last year alone, it becomes a lot more affordable to develop anything if you don't have to build parking underneath it," Davidson said.
Owen said the arts college needs 300 parking spaces, which would give the new River Walk development at least 400 spaces if the parking structure is about the same size as the Frost Bank garage.
"We're already pinched for parking, and ample parking is a strong motivator for students to attend school," Owen said. "Moreover, we want to be able to return the historic site to a more park-like setting by removing parking, which would allow us to envision new construction and green space."
Owen said the school's board wants to expand the art college without scaling back any of its well-established community arts programs. Additional classroom space across the street, she said, will make that possible.
"We are willing to entertain all sorts of partnerships," she added.
If it happens, it won't be the first time the historic campus has served as the catalyst for urban revival in the neighborhood.
Fifty years ago next year, the San Antonio Conservation Society purchased a portion of the abandoned Ursuline Academy and Convent, founded in 1851 by seven French nuns sent here to establish a Catholic school. Developers wanted to raze the limestone buildings, which were in a state of neglect. The 1965 purchase only covered part of the property but proved sufficient to block demolition of the remainder. The intervention proved to be one of the Conservation Society's most significant historical rescues.
Six years later, the organization invited the growing Southwest Craft Center, established in La Villita in 1965, to occupy the space. In the ensuing years, the Craft Center's founders, with the help of philanthropists, acquired the other portions of the Ursuline campus, all of which has been historically restored.
"About three years ago, as things began to turn around, I brought various stakeholders together for breakfast to explore how we could work together in this neighborhood of parking lots," Owen said. "We could become a catalyst for rebirth of the area once again."
Owen said the school "started to eyeball that property around 2003, when it was three parcels with three owners. We purchased the YMCA offices, and that gave us control of three corners of Augusta and Navarro with the Central Library on the fourth. Andrés Andujar (now CEO of the Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corp.) was the school’s chairman in 2000 when we undertook our master planning."
Owen, who has served as president of the school since 1996, cited three terms that have to be met in any deal: ground floor classroom space, adequate parking, and "design of the parking structure must be in keeping with the standards of the neighborhood."
The Southwest School of Art will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year, and the Conservation Society can celebrate the 50th anniversary of its preservation of the historic campus. It would be a fitting year to realize the start of a new chapter in the campus and school history and beyond in the neighborhood.
Of course, there is one other option: A benefactor could purchase the former WOAI-TV building and property and gift it to the school, allowing for a far more ambitious expansion of San Antonio's newest degree-granting institution of higher education.
*Featured/top image: The Southwest School of Art Ursuline Campus. Courtesy photo.