The announcement by organizers that the March 30 Síclovía will move from Broadway to the Southside for the first time in the event’s two-and-a-half year existence is good news for the city’s cycling community.
If you missed the Wednesday announcement and press conference, you can read details in our story written by Randy Bear, “Síclovía Heads to the Southside.”
The move to a Southside route that starts on South St. Mary’s Street and Cesar Chavez Boulevard and then heads south to Mission Concepción will highlight one of the city’s best opportunities to turn urban blight on Roosevelt Avenue into a showcase complete street. I can’t think of a better way to enhance San Antonio’s bid for World Heritage site status for the historic Missions.
The $245.7 million San Antonio River Mission Reach Improvement Project is nature’s artery through the city’s reborn Southside, but it’s not the way most visitors and residents will travel to the historic Missions.
We are still a city of motorists. Most residents and visitors will travel to the Missions by car, bus, or taxi. The more adventurous will experience the Mission Reach on a B-cycle, but for years to come, cyclists will be a distinct minority, especially during the long, hot summer. To get serious about San Antonio’s World Heritage Site bid, then, let’s look beyond the Mission Reach at one of the long-neglected streetscapes connecting downtown and the Missions.
The three miles-plus stretch of Roosevelt Avenue from Lone Star Boulevard to Mission San Jose, the “Queen of the Missions,” is the shortest route from Point A to Point B. It’s a study in unrealized potential: vacant factories, warehouses and apartments, seedy motels, overgrown empty lots and poorly maintained sidewalks, shuttered bars and family businesses, and everywhere, land and buildings for sale. So far, there are still more sellers than takers. It’s not a street you’d want to show to World Heritage judges.
South St. Mary’s Street takes visitors out of downtown San Antonio and through Southtown. Once past Brackenridge High School and Lone Star Boulevard, the street becomes Roosevelt Avenue, with the city’s well-tended but poorly lighted Roosevelt Park on the right and the recently sold former San Antonio Firemen and Police Pension Building with its spreading triangle of lawn and mature shade trees, on the left.
Past the park, the once-abandoned Rolling Home Trailer Court was recently cleared and is now a construction site, the future home of residential condominiums.
The sale of the two properties underscores the many opportunities along the route for urban pioneers and infill developers to continue the rejuvenation of near-Southside neighborhoods, but public improvements will have to come first. By all accounts, they are coming, and none too soon.
City officials have a number of tools they can use to accelerate transformation of Roosevelt Avenue: stricter code compliance enforcement and/or condemnation against absentee landlords who have allowed properties to deteriorate. TIRZ zones and relaxed redevelopment codes can help investors and buyers design more affordable rehab and conversion projects along the former industrial corridor. It’s a matter of deploying scarce resources and making the avenue’s rejuvenation a priority.
The number of street prostitutes in the neighborhood has diminished as the Lone Star neighborhood has welcomed increased residential and pedestrian activity. The avenue is still populated with low-cost motels, which appeal to budget-conscious travelers arriving from the south with their familiar bilingual signage, and to customers in a hurry. I found rooms for $20-35 a night at places with names like Relax Inn, Royal Inn, Paradise Motel, and El Tejano.
“How long you need it for, just an hour or overnight?” asked one clerk I called, still operating on the two-tier pricing model.
The first mile of this route to Mission San Jose is the worst. It leaves an impression hard to shake. When Roosevelt reaches the Riverside Golf Club, with its mature pecans and oaks and rolling fairways, the possibilities stir the imagination. But across the street, an empty factory sits for sale, graffiti scrawled across its facade, flood waters pooling in the street more than a week after a rain storm.
The handsome San Antonio Lighthouse for the Blind stands out for its attractive buildings and landscaping, and then there is the crossing of the San Antonio River. Unfortunately, there is no place for the motorist to stop. There is no bike lane and no pedestrian sidewalk. Nothing to allow people to pause and appreciate the rejuvenated river below.
“Sidewalk gaps are a real problem, all along Roosevelt and South Presa,” District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran said. “The poor quality of many of the VIA bus stops is another issue that has to be addressed.”
Once past the bridge, the avenue widens to the south. One can envision a complete street easily accommodating bike lanes and sidewalks with trees, planters or other dividers protecting people from vehicle traffic, which can and should be slowed on this stretch.
There is still a light industrial presence that is not likely to move until public improvements and private investment drive up prices as old buildings are given new life and new construction begins to fill in some of the many holes. Many Mom and Pop businesses still operate along the route. A little paint, clean-up and landscaping would go a long way to preserving and showcasing the character of the neighborhood.
There are plenty of properties for sale: single family homes, free-standing buildings that once housed family retail businesses, whole industrial buildings, and even one three-acre green site less than a half mile from the restored Mission Drive-In, the new Mission Branch Library, and Mission San Jose. Once public investment takes root, private investors are sure to follow.
“So much is needed down Roosevelt, it’s such a wide street,” Viagran said. “People can go from Mission San Jose to downtown on Roosevelt in a matter of minutes. We need to protect the small businesses on Roosevelt, but we also want to make sure Roosevelt is pleasing to the eye. We want to draw more people to Mission Library, eating at Nicha’s, and Frutería La Mission across the street.
“The majority of Roosevelt has belonged to the state,” Viagran said. “With the roads being turned back to the city, it will take a lot of coordination with the state to make Roosevelt a priority. Síclovía is a great start. Sandy (Morander) at The Y and Kate (Rogers) at H-E-B have set a high bar, calling for 100,000 people. I’d like to up the ante: I want to see even more people out there enjoying themselves.”
Roosevelt Avenue will show new life on a single Sunday when it’s closed to traffic and Síclovía transforms it into a street festival teeming with thousands, but the next day it will be business as usual. San Antonio needs to get serious about rethinking how some of the main thoroughfares leading in and out of downtown can be reconfigured to accommodate cyclists, joggers and pedestrians not just for one day, but for every day.