Robert Rivard

Main Avenue south of downtown San Antonio isn’t Main Avenue anymore. It hasn’t been for years. It’s a short street, about 10 blocks long, with two personalities.

The southern reach from S. Alamo to E. Arsenal streets is lined with historic homes. From E. Arsenal into downtown the avenue is a remnant street with no residents that dead ends at E. Nueva Street. Unlike its historic surroundings, this stretch of S. Main wasn’t even built until the mid-20th century.

The block north of E. Nueva Street is closed and used as VIP parking for Bexar County officials. Then there is Main Plaza, which Main Avenue no longer passes through. Main Avenue is a real avenue only north of downtown.

S. Main Avenue at E. Nueva Street dead-ends into authorized parking for Bexar County officeholders. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
S. Main Avenue at E. Nueva Street dead-ends into authorized parking for Bexar County officeholders. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

People should walk or cycle the length of the truncated avenue, which very few actually do, and see if the experience changes their viewpoint.

H-E-B, of course, wants to close the block of S. Main Avenue between E. Arsenal Street and E. Cesar Chavez Boulevard. It wants the property for campus expansion and that means restricting public access. No bike lanes, no pedestrians, no seniors walking to the nearby Commander’s House Senior Center. Many, but not all, of the neighbors as well as the King William Historical Association oppose the closure.

Yet virtually everyone wants to see H-E-B open a vibrant downtown grocery store. Negotiations are under way between city officials and H-E-B executives to try to find a compromise acceptable to both sides. Most negotiations end with both sides compromising. No one gets everything they want. No one leaves happy.

City officials should consider giving H-E-B its closed block and then turning the remaining non-residential blocks of S. Main Avenue between E.  Cesar Chavez Boulevard and E. Nueva Street into a walkable extension of Main Plaza.

The red line on S. Main Avenue represents the one block closure being sought by H-E-B. The purple line represents the proposed new pedestrian way that would be closed to vehicle traffic. Image via Google Maps. NOTE: The Commander's House property extends to S. Main Avenue.
The red line on S. Main Avenue represents the one block closure being sought by H-E-B. The purple line represents the proposed new pedestrian way that would be closed to vehicle traffic. Image via Google Maps. NOTE: The Commander’s House property extends to S. Main Avenue.

Such a placemaking project aligns with the stated goals of Major Julián Castro, SA2020 and the Centro Partnership. Even as efforts to improve on the carnival atmosphere at Alamo Plaza elude city leaders, here is an opportunity to engage in transformative change in the historic core with far fewer roadblocks.

The residential stretch of S. Main Avenue between S. Alamo and E. Arsenal streets ought to have protected bike lanes to encourage safe cycling, jogging and pedestrian traffic.

Those very bike lanes could take riders west one block to S. Flores Street and north through downtown. City planners could accelerate work to make S. Flores and other near-downtown thoroughfares complete streets.

H-E-B headquarters looking north at the intersection of Main Avenue and Arsenal Street. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
H-E-B headquarters looking north from S. Main Avenue and E. Arsenal Street. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Interestingly, the 23rd annual King William Area Yard Sale will be held this Saturday, with 44 different garage sales planned between 9 a.m.-3 p.m. None of those sales will occur along S. Main Avenue north of E. Arsenal Street because there are no homes or people there.

The top image is the street-facing front of the proposed store. The bottom image is the parking-lot facing rear of the proposed store. Image from H-E-B’s proposal.
The top image is the street-facing front of the proposed store. The bottom image is the parking-lot facing rear of the proposed store. Image from H-E-B’s proposal. Click image to enlarge.

Ideally, my proposed S. Main Avenue pedestrian way would extend from Main Plaza all the way to King William and the San Antonio River, but H-E-B executives have stated that the future of its downtown headquarters hinges on the ability of the company to physically expand.

That’s a statement, however worded, that everyone ought to take seriously.

In my 24 years in this city, there have been uncounted occasions when H-E-B has been asked to give to the city and its people, and it has done so, to the tune of tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of dollars.

No other San Antonio company can match its record of giving. No other company has dedicated itself to improving inner city public education opportunities and outcomes. When there is a community need, H-E-B is the first to be asked and, as often as not, the first to give. No other company has created as many jobs, or paid more taxes in the district.

I can’t remember H-E-B ever asking for something in return. Now that it has, I wonder if opponents have fully considered the potential consequences of biting the hand that has fed this city for so long. H-E-B, like any other business, can leave if circumstances merit. H-E-B left Corpus Christi in order to grow and expand. I don’t believe there is a likelihood of that occurring, and I don’t like street closures, either, but I’ll go back to my point about negotiations: No one gets their way all the time.

One possible solution to impasse, then, is to give H-E-B one block of S. Main and give downtown workers and residents a wonderful new gathering place fashioned out of a remnant street that goes nowhere.

If local officials can close one block for H-E-B and already have closed one block for ranking county officials to park near the front door of the Bexar County Justice Center, than they certainly can close a few more fairly inactive blocks to vehicle traffic and give people a space to walk, visit a food truck and eat lunch, sit on a park bench under a shade tree, or ride a bike without fear of passing traffic.

Looking north on S. Main Avenue at the intersection of E. Arsenal Street. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Looking north on S. Main Avenue at the intersection of E. Arsenal Street. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

What should the City ask in return from H-E-B? Ideally, a 10-12,000 sq. ft. grocery store that would serve  the urban core from Broadway to Southtown.

Some opponents of the street closure are angry with H-E-B, a multi-billion dollar company, over the $1 million incentive. Criticism of the grocer on that count is misguided. The $1 million was a City of San Antonio incentive designed to entice a wide range of small and medium business people to give the downtown grocery store request for proposals (RFP) serious consideration.

The two sides could now agree at the negotiating table to use the $1 million to improve access on South Flores Street to the Commander’s House Senior Community Center –which would lose its S. Main Avenue entrance and would have to become more accessible from S. Flores Street. It is ringed by an unsightly chain link fence. The unused turf lawns could be converted to walking gardens that would give the property a park-like feel.

The future success of the H-E-B grocery doesn’t really hinge on the $1 million incentive. In lieu of cash, city officials could offer a multi-year tax abatement tied to sales and profits that might be worth more in the long run to H-E-B.

H-E-B executives believe the center city lacks sufficient residential density to make such a store profitable. Others, including Mayor Julián Castro, believe residential development will accelerate with the addition of a downtown grocery store.

There are those of us who think an artfully designed, well-stocked store will become an overnight success and attract customers on foot, bicycle, B-cycle with baskets, and yes, by car. Build it and we will come.

What about S. Main Avenue north of E. Cesar Chavez Boulevard and H-E-B’s headquarters? The street is home to a row of small law firms whose practices are built around the nearby county courthouse. Attorneys walk to the courts or nearby City Hall. Most of their clients and other courthouse-goers pay to park in nearby surface lots.

Law offices on South Main Avenue. Photos by Iris Dimmick.
Law offices on S. Main Avenue. Photos by Iris Dimmick.

The Heritage Plaza Office Building at 410 S. Main St. seems vacant. No one answers the building’s listed telephone number.

An employee of the building’s owner, developer Solomon Abdo’s Durango Properties, Ltd., did not return a call requesting details about plans for the building. It’s one of the many un attractive and under-utilized buildings that detract from the downtown’s vibrancy.

Heritage Plaza, a vacant office building, stretches north down South Main Avenue. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Heritage Plaza, a vacant office building, stretches north on South Main Avenue. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The northernmost blocks of S. Main Avenue lack retail businesses that could claim to be hurt by the street closure. A well-landscaped pedestrian mall surely would attract new shops and eateries.

I’ve heard residents complain that H-E-B’s proposed street closure will disrupt traffic flow, but as someone who is building a home on E. Arsenal Street one block from the proposed S. Main Avenue closure, I don’t see many neighbors using the block and I don’t worry about my property values.

Vehicle traffic already flows differently than it did before the north-south street closures at Main Plaza. A redeveloped S. Flores Street is the preferred route for drivers on the west side of downtown. It’s ideally suited to become a complete street with cycle tracks, and could easily host Síclovía. Most Southtown-downtown traffic flows along S. St. Mary’s and Navarro streets or S. Alamo Street.

Since the Mayor Hardberger era, when historic Main Plaza was restored as a pedestrian park with direct connections to San Fernando Cathedral and The San Antonio River Walk, Main Avenue has ceased to be a thoroughfare carrying people through downtown and northward. S. Main Avenue was once an artery that carried people on foot, horseback and in wagons or buggies to San Fernando. There’s a certain beauty to returning parts of the city to the pre-automobile era. Today the last few blocks of S. Main Avenue are an unappealing, lightly trafficked stretch that beckon neither locals nor visitors. This is a chance to change all that.

The current debate doesn’t have to end badly. The negotiations can become a conversation about making downtown San Antonio a better place to live, work and visit. Isn’t that everyone’s shared goal?

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

Full disclosure: H-E-B is a sponsor and advertiser on the Rivard Report, and the author is building a residence on E. Arsenal Street on a lot purchased from H-E-B several years ago.

Related Stories:

H-E-B Briefs King William Neighbors on Expansion, Proposed Block Closure

The Feed: Two Guys Aim for Downtown Grocery Stores

Small Footprints, Big Impact: How to Make a Million Dollars Stretch across Center City

State of the Center City: More Housing, Fewer Vacant Buildings

No to Downtown Subsidies: The View from District 9 and Councilwoman Chan

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor and publisher of the Rivard Report.