Bekah S. McNeel

On May 1, 2013 there was only one place to be for those with vested interest in San Antonio’s Eastside. Leaders of every stripe – elected, financial, and community – gathered at The Spire at Historic Sunset Station for the San Antonio for Growth on the Eastside (SAGE) business briefing.

The panel discussion, moderated by Travis Wiltshire of CNG Engineering, was kept on a strict schedule, as SAGE Executive Director Jackie Gorman is a stickler for punctuality. Not an easy feat when the panel consists of six business leaders who, for reasons idealistic and visionary, have chosen to “risk their hard-earned dollars,” by investing in an area that many still approach with a wait-and-see attitude.

SAGE Executive Director Jackie Gorman looks out over the Eastside. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
SAGE Executive Director Jackie Gorman looks out over the Eastside. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

As an Eastside homeowner, I sympathize with those who bumped up against the time limit. It would be difficult to deliver a two minute answer to any of the questions. Those who are invested have a lot to say. One would hope.

The panelists represented the various fronts of business development, from real estate to a brewery to small enterprises. They were each asked four questions, and required to limit their answers to two minutes.

Question 1: What development opportunities do you see on the Eastside?

Charlie Turner of TerraMark gave the city planner’s dream answer, that his company is focused on in-fill development. Continuous reference was made to empty lots, derelict buildings, and boarded up houses throughout the discussion. Businessmen like Turner look at the gap-toothed grin of Cherry Street and see opportunity.

Michael B. Kennedy of KAI Texas sees opportunity in the scarcity of downtown neighborhoods, close to the center of commerce. “You can only go so far North,” Kennedy said, “You can only make the lanes so wide.” With the housing stock in Dignowity Hill and Denver Heights, a little problem solving would go a long way to reveal the resource in downtown’s backyard.

new house contrasts house that needs work on Dignowty Hill
Many homes on Dignowty Hill are ripe for rehab, while others are fully revitalized. Photo by Iris Dimmick

He’s right. People want to live close to work. Since we discovered the tax rebate for biking to work, our incentives have only increased to stick close to downtown. Of course, more workplaces located downtown would be key to the success of this plan.

Michael Westheimer of Pumpkin Holdings and Cold Water Ventures is a resident of Denver Heights. He sees opportunity and development as the byproducts of neighborhoods … and neighbors. “The only things that improves a community is having good people owning homes,” he said.

Speaking to those neighbors, Charles Williams admonished the present neighbors, those whose interests in the neighborhoods are as often agents of stagnation as catalysts for progress.

“We’ve got to stop fighting, citizens!” Williams said, in what was to be the most spirited moment from the panel (though Eugene Simor of Alamo Beer did earn the moniker “Mr. Frank” from Wiltshire for his uninhibited responses).

Question 2: What are the development challenges on the Eastside?

Here, the answers varied widely. Kennedy and Westheimer agreed that some serious rebranding was necessary, to attract the pioneers. I personally would have preferred a land grab a la Oregon Trail, but living in a “hip” neighborhood is good, too.

Pushcart Derby
Our hip neighborhood. Photo by Rachel Chaney Credit: Courtesy / Rachel Chaney

Simor countered that simple rebranding would be ineffective unless it was backed up by solutions to the real problems (i.e. the stray pitbull that chased me down the street on my bike yesterday). Problems which, Turner reminded the attendees, include schools and infrastructure (i.e. the fact that three blocks from my house there are no sidewalks).

Simor and Westheimer did agree on one thing, that the neighborhood associations of the Eastside can be – in the worst cases* –  very unwelcoming, unproductive, and intimidating places for businessmen with good intentions – which gets back to Williams’s answer to Question 1.

I personally have watched Simor navigate the choppy waters of these neighborhood meetings before. He did so with commendable diplomacy for such a straight shooter. Neighborhood associations – though I love mine dearly and consider it quite welcoming – are messy and democratic by nature.* I do cringe watching once-eager investors pale as they imagine spending the next three years listening to us hem and haw over every phase of their construction, but that’s our job. To keep citizens involved.*

But a note to any investor out there trembling at the thought of running a project through such an association: Once you’ve won them over, you will find no greater partner.*

Question 3: When it comes to housing, which should it be: subsidized, affordable workforce, or market rate?

In summary, they answered: “Yes.”

Kennedy and Turner suggested “all three.”

Simor chose the term, “mixed-income.”

The Circle School's "Neighborhoods are People" float for the 2012 King William Fair parade was built in the Southtown workshop of Katie Pell and Peter Zubiate. Many current Bonham Academy students are former Circle Schoolers. Photo by Peter French
The Circle School’s “Neighborhoods are People” float for the 2012 King William Fair parade.  Photo by Peter French.

Westheimer disputed the question saying, “Market rate should be affordable.”

Rene Garcia, of Zachry Real Estate, suggested that people of any income are looking for a live/work/play environment.

It was Williams, however, who offered the real takeaway: Whatever kind of housing we build, it’s doomed without the cooperation of  the Realtors. Time and time again people testify that their real estate agent knew very little about the downtown neighborhoods.

[A hint to anyone on the market for a house in the transitional neighborhoods of the Eastside: Sylvie Shugot and Jeff Vollmer are two agents with a great grasp on the topic.]

Question 4: Which comes first: new housing, residents, or retail?

Simor continued to beat the “fix the real problems” drum (rightfully, as it can be easily forgotten when we start getting eloquent about neighborhood improvement*) before pointing out that development happens differently in different places. In King William it started with housing stock. At Pearl it started with retail. His research shows that in many places is started with breweries.

Westheimer suggested again that revitalization begins with homeowners, but acknowledged that something still lacks in this specific instance. The general consensus seemed to be that a “deficit of trust” existed between businesses and the Eastside. All agreed that the deficit could be recovered by incentive. Business leaders need to feel that the benefit outweighs the risk.

For those following Eastside revitalization efforts, none of the answers were anything new, but it’s always good to hear. What did strike me was that at two separate times, two different panelists called for a Starbucks to be built on the Eastside.

Not that anyone wants to be overrun by ubiquity or yuppiness … but where else in the nation does getting a Starbucks sound like such a giant leap of progress?

One thing was not in doubt among the panelists. The Eastside is developing. Things are changing. At my table was a young city employee who closed on a house in Dignowity Hill the day before. The pioneers are here, looking for a cup of coffee.

*AUTHOR’S NOTE: Upon realizing that my stance on neighborhood associations and development is unclear (along with many other things in this article), I have amended the article in hopes to communicate that NA’s are essential to healthy, active, involved neighborhoods. I love mine…which is why I serve as Vice President of its board, and do my own fair share of hemming, hawing, and advocating for a brewery. 

Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy and frequent contributor to the Rivard Report. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.