In June 1947 after World War II, Congressman Paul Kilday, San Antonio Mayor Alfred Callaghan, and a citizens group called “The South Siders” advocated for the opening of South Main Ave. through the Arsenal property. The street was needed for the immediate relief of traffic congestion on the south side of the city. The city council agreed and S. Main Ave. opened.
Now 65 years later, HEB is requesting that the city of San Antonio convey to them S. Main Ave. between East Arsenal St. and East César Chávez Boulevard. (formerly Durango Boulevard.) in perpetuity in exchange for a small grocery store at the corner of South Flores St. and E. César Chávez Blvd. HEB will also be receiving a $1 million dollar bonus incentive.
I can’t think of any company demonstrating good citizenship and generosity more than HEB. I grew up in Corpus Christi. As a boy in the 1950s, I saw how HEB treated their neighbors and workers. They were the best grocery store in town. In San Antonio, HEB has positively impacted so many people and causes—education, support for the Food Bank, arts, humanities and museums, etc. Downtown residents are fortunate to have them as our neighbors. Saying all that, good citizenship and success is not the test for acquisition of an important public street for private use.
South Main Avenue is not an insignificant or “surplus” street, but is located in one of the oldest historic neighborhoods in San Antonio and connects our citizens from south (Alamo Street) and north (Chavez) into downtown and the courthouse. Hundreds of cars and trucks travel up and down S. Main Ave. every day. Many bicycles, buses, trolleys, pedestrians, and wheelchair-users also share S. Main Ave.
It is important to visualize this street closure to understand the larger debate and consequences: There are only two streets west of King William and the San Antonio River that connect our citizens to and through downtown: S. Flores St. and S. Main Ave. (Santa Rosa Street dead ends at E. Arsenal Street/El Paso St. it connects to Laredo, so it doesn’t look on a map like it dead ends.)
If HEB is successful in closing S. Main Ave. all traffic would be restricted to just one street, S. Flores. HEB’s proposal to build a small grocery store and gas station at this very corner, (S. Flores and Chavez) will contribute enormously to heavy traffic congestion and periods of downtown gridlock. Where will the traffic go? It will naturally flow into the King William neighborhoods and down S. Flores.
Any serious restriction of flow –whether to the heart, lungs, rivers, power lines or downtown streets has serious consequences. City planners around the country understand that if you eliminate or restrict traffic flow, the health and vibrancy of a downtown is diminished. I would suggest we look at this issue from a longer perspective. What are the consequences in 10 or 50 years? It is a very serious decision for our city to convey a public street to any private company for their own utility and at the same time cut off access to its citizens that need it most. This is not a neighborhood issue, this is a city-wide issue.
South of downtown is booming – condos, apartments, bicycles pouring into the neighborhoods. At a time when we need more throughways – HEB is asking to eliminate one. My wife Naomi and I have lived on S. Main Ave. for 34 years. There are more than 250 single/multifamily residents that live on S. Main, City, Arsenal, Sweet, Daniel, Rische and in the new apartments and condos near Alamo Street. We have always worked out solutions with our neighbors. We negotiated with the San Antonio Housing Authority on S. Flores St. to create a park instead of warehouses on S. Main Avenue. We worked with the Pioneer Flour Mill when they tried to acquire historic homes on both sides of S. Main near Alamo street. We repeatedly stopped doctors, attorneys and other businesses who tried to change residential zoning on S. Main Ave. to commercial.
HEB moved into our neighborhood with the full understanding that they were moving into a complex downtown environment, into a particular history and thoroughfares that we all share. They understood that there are competing interests, diversity among businesses, neighborhoods and family life. The fact that their growth is restricted was foreseeable. Dya Campos, representative for HEB, said, in a public meeting last summer (before the city selected HEB to build a downtown store) that HEB would petition to acquire that portion of South Main Ave regardless of whether a store was built because it would be a part of their overall growth plan. They said they need more space to grow. Closing South Main was negotiated in private without consulting their neighbors.
If HEB acquires our street, what precedent are we setting? If HEB were Wal-Mart, would we have the same attitude? Todd Piland, HEB’s executive vice president of real estate and facilities, said their proposal for a 6,000-8,000 sq. ft. store will go to the city council in November for approval. This final vote is being rushed through. Building a grocery store downtown and closing an important public street should not be connected.
We want to work with HEB. We admire HEB’s contribution to our city. We are proud to have them as our neighbors.
There is a compromise solution:
Many are supporting the idea of HEB owning the air space above S. Main Ave. from Arsenal to Chávez in exchange for building a grocery store and keeping S. Main Ave. open to all of the citizens of San Antonio. It has been done in many large downtown cities. HEB could create an appealing architecturally dazzling over-the-street building which connects both side of their campus, including elevator and crosswalk. An ultra-modern building linked to the historic Arsenal and Commander’s House buildings could be much more attractive for their campus. Consider the innovations of the High Line in New York City (walking trail and train track goes through a building.) Robert Hammond from San Antonio was a co-founder.
HEB could build something special above Main Ave. and this would allow HEB to achieve their goal of a owning and operating a unified secure headquarters and allowing citizens of San Antonio to have access to downtown.
In less than two weeks, a grass-roots organization called Main Access has gathered over 900 signatures (paper and on-line) opposing the closure of S. Main Ave. by H-E-B. Maria Berriozábal, former city councilwoman, wrote on the group’s petition: “This is one of the oldest and most historic streets in our city. It virtually crosses the oldest areas of the city from south to north. It is a public space that our government officials should not turn over to private interests. We, the People, have the right to our city!
Downtown residents want a grocery store, but the cost of losing our street is too high. We all own a tiny piece of S. Main Ave. We were entrusted by past generations to take care of this public access and pass it on to the next generation. It really bothers me that any company could acquire a public street especially in a busy downtown area. It is not in the best interests of our city to lose this accessible connection, this part of our special downtown.
Michael Nye, attorney and photographer, creates photography and audio documentaries. Find more at michaelnye.org.