Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Striking a balance between economic development and housing opportunities and ensuring District 3's longtime residents and businesses continue to thrive are some of Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran's biggest challenges. In addition, the 2015 designation of the city’s Spanish-colonial Missions as a UNESCO World Heritage site has spurred interest from developers as well as worry from longtime residents fearing displacement.
"We're trying to find that balance," Viagran said Saturday during a conversation at Texas A&M University-San Antonio hosted by the Rivard Report. "We're finally getting those investments and those improvements that we've been needing for decades ... but we need to think of generational families who live there and how to create a tax relief or policy that balances that so they can stay and live through the revitalized times."
Viagran was joined onstage by Rivard Report Editor-in-Chief Beth Frerking, who moderated the discussion. The event Saturday was the first in the "Conversations with the Council" series aimed at promoting civic dialogue in all corners of the city. The next event will feature Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) and take place Monday, Oct. 16, at Our Lady of the Lake University. For more information, click here.
Several audience members' questions pertained to the challenge of balanced development in the district, including the protection of Mission Concepción and the three other Spanish-Colonial Missions there.
A proposal for a 228-unit apartment complex at the derelict St. John’s Catholic Seminary campus next to Mission Concepción has caused controversy in the district. In July, the Historic and Design Review Commission approved revised designs which exceeded the City’s overlay height limit after the project's developer asked for an exception, citing roofing and drainage issues.
"I am concerned about precedent ... What is that going to lead to next?" Viagran asked Frerking and an audience of about a dozen people. "We talked to the developers and HDRC as well as City staff, and I told them that we're going to be watching this very carefully. Something did need to happen with the vacant and vandalized property ... but we need to get it right."
Protecting the history of the district and maintaining authenticity is important when any new development comes to the area, Viagran said. Her staff tells developers they have to reach out to area neighbors and work with them to ensure the project respects the community, she added.
"We've raised the standards of doing business on the Southside," she said, and part of that involves asking families in the area to share their stories so historic districts can be preserved.
"It's going to take serious policy conversations at all levels" to ensure longtime residents can afford to stay in developing neighborhoods, Viagran said. "It's going to take the State, the County, our Bexar Appraisal District, and the City looking at whatever resources we have in our tool box."
With the exception of downtown, Viagran said District 3 will receive the most dollars designated in the 2017 $850 million bond. The City's $2.7 billion budget for 2018 is the first to use a so-called “equity lens,” which allocates more resources to areas that have been historically neglected. This means meaningful investment for her district, Viagran said.
"We would have never been able to catch up otherwise," she said, "and it helps put resources where there is the most need. It will be a catalyst for the future."
The new Harvey E. Najim YMCA, the Southside Lions Senior Center, and the forthcoming Methodist Healthcare Ministries clinic on East Southcross Boulevard are just a few developments that are fueling the momentum of revitalization in the district, Viagran said, adding that "many people don't know what we have in the community."
The district is not only home to the missions, but also to Brooks, the evolving Stinson Municipal Airport, HOLT CAT, Toyota Texas Manufacturing, Texas A&M University-San Antonio, and the University of the Incarnate Word School of Osteopathic Medicine.
One of her goals as Councilwoman includes addressing the food deserts in the district and advocating for better transportation options to and from the Texas A&M-San Antonio campus. It can take students who don't have cars and rely on bus service up to two hours to get to campus, Viagran said.
"We need rapid bus transit here and we need frequency for our students," she said, adding that a transportation town hall with VIA Metropolitan Transit and university students is currently in the works. "We need to get perspectives of what we need."
The university recently opened a new dormitory, but the area lacks healthy food options nearby, A&M student Alejandro Luna said. The university has a cafeteria and food trucks on site, but many students would like to see a healthy grocery store nearby, he added.
"We are working with a number of partners, and [A&M-San Antonio President] Dr. Cynthia Teniente-Matson is aware," Viagran said, enumerating options such as a farmers market on campus or a nearby H-E-B location in the near future. "We will work together."