Westside Residents Slam UTSA Officials During Downtown Campus Master Plan Meeting

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Graciela Sanchez, director of the Esperanza Center, looks at the renderings.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Graciela Sanchez, director of the Esperanza Center for Peace and Justice, looks at UTSA Downtown Campus renderings.

As a microphone was passed around Guadalupe Theater Monday evening, Kristel Orta-Puente stood up and shouted to be heard. The University of Texas at San Antonio senior challenged school officials to consider Westside residents’ apprehension about expanding the Downtown Campus.

“You can say you’re concerned about it, but it’s the residual effect,” she said. “UTSA has an intention, but those intentions have a consequence. The community wants to know that UTSA is on their side, advocating to save businesses and homes.” The people around her broke into applause.

Tensions rose Monday as attendees of a public forum discussing UTSA’s Downtown Campus master plan shared their misgivings about how development on the West Side of San Antonio may affect longtime residents of the area. More than 50 people showed up to participate in the discussion at the third and final public meeting about the master plan.

Several people criticized UTSA for not allowing Westside community members to be part of the planning process from the beginning. Others said expanding the Downtown Campus without putting policies in place to keep housing and rent prices down would drive residents and business tenants out of the neighborhood.

Veronica Mendez, vice president for business affairs at UTSA, said she thinks any conversation about the Downtown Campus’ impact on surrounding area needs more entities involved, including the City of San Antonio and local businesses.

“We can affect the area we own, but they’re talking about the ripple effect outside,” she said. “We want other people coming to the table. We’ll take that and see if we can do that.”

UTSA Provost Kimberly Espy assured forum attendees that the master plan would continue to be developed with their input. Even after the plan is finalized by the UT System Board of Regents, it would still have flexibility to evolve, she added.

“Our goal is to be a good neighbor,” she said. “We recognize the cultural assets and heritage and we want to be a part of that.”

As far as ensuring new development does not push out existing residents and businesses, she said UTSA would continue to be part of the conversation on how to address that. However, UTSA is only looking at publicly owned land and not private, she said.

“We are not a private developer,” she said. “We are in a market and we don’t control the market. We can enable college-going and access to a much greater degree. That’s what our goal is. I think we have many more shared interests where we can be an advocate and partner to our communities.”

Ryan Losch, a senior associate and urban designer with Austin-based firm Page, gave a brief overview of the new iteration of the master plan on Monday.

Losch said the current draft plan prioritizes community partnership, embracing the urban environment of San Antonio, improving pedestrian options through and to the campus, and creating a complete campus with affordable housing options and services that community members and UTSA staff and students can use.

Espy said she hopes that the expanded UTSA Downtown Campus will draw the community in, as well as encourage more students in the area to consider college after they finish high school.

UTSA professor Lilliana Saldaña said she was disappointed to see how few Westside students enrolled at the San Antonio university. There are currently 941 students from Westside ZIP codes, an increase of more than 126 since 2011. There are more than 30,000 students enrolled at UTSA.

“That’s dismal and concerns me as a faculty member,” she said. “It makes me upset as a San Antonian that in the 30 years we’ve been downtown, we’ve only been able to enroll that number of students from the West Side. We are not even a mile away from the Downtown Campus, and it’s upsetting to know we have not done enough.”

Espy said UTSA plans on increasing enrollment from Westside residents, especially as the Downtown Campus grows.

“[Enrollment numbers] could be better, but we hope by have a deeper engagement in Downtown Campus to increase that,” she said.

Renderings show the future of the UTSA Downtown Campus.

Courtesy / UTSA

A rendering shows the proposed future of the UTSA Downtown Campus.

Judit Vega, who brought her two young daughters with her to the meeting, dismissed the public forum as inauthentic community engagement.

“If you really are truly community-minded, you’re coming out to the Guadalupe Theater is not enough,” she said. “You have to go to church meetings, PTA meetings. That is authentic engagement, not this – in professional language that everyday people don’t understand.”

“You are using public land, public money against us and we are going to start organizing.”

Susana Segura echoed Vega’s criticisms.

“They’re just checking a box,” she said. “‘We went to a meeting. People showed up to a meeting. We did our due diligence.’”

The draft master plan will be published at utsa.edu/masterplan later this week. UTSA officials will take feedback from Monday’s meeting and one more meeting on Tuesday. Planners estimate the final master plan will be finished this summer. People may give more feedback by emailing masterplan@utsa.edu or texting 830-339-2252.

27 thoughts on “Westside Residents Slam UTSA Officials During Downtown Campus Master Plan Meeting

  1. Yeah let’s not change anything and let the west side continue to rot, decay, and add another generation of uneducated residents. The folks attending this meeting obviously care about their neighborhood. But UTSA can’t save them from higher property taxes, unfortunately none of us are exempt from that. We live in one of the fastest growing cities in the nation, neighborhoods WILL change, and hopefully through time our city center neighborhoods will be ignited as a vibrant area full of diversity that includes rich middle income and poor. Folks need to realize that this change can only happen through some gentrification. So displacement is inevitable. This has been a reality for more than a century in many major cities around the world, it’s just newer to SA.

    • Gentrification is a global phenomenon, and unfortunately what we’ve seen in a lot of development is that the most vulnerable are not advised until after the plans are pretty much final, and they usually do not benefit and are excluded even after well intentioned efforts such as open public amenities like UTSA is proposing. Everyone agrees that improved economic and educational opportunities and quality of life are needed and wanted, but public entities like UTSA must be accountable and committed to equitable development, and forming real relationships with the communities that they purport to help.

  2. And Sanchez will become a craft beer place ..yikes and a thousand ugly apartments will go up ..typical nonsense.. listen to the community really listen .. change is coming but make it positive..

  3. I go to these meetings all the time and notice the same people who are opposed to EVERYTHING. They don’t care what good may come to the neighborhood. I am beginning to wonder if they just want a cut of the money or they oppose it because they don’t have the power to control it.

  4. Geez! The near westside is full of generational poverty, violence, homelessness, and drug addiction. And and the residents are concerned about a public university. Neighborhoods evolve. This city is full of neighborhoods that were once good 20 to 30 years ago, but not anymore!

  5. Seeing all the blasé, flippant comments above shows that the developers are keenly watching this space. While change does happen everywhere, it is disingenuous to imply that it can only be in a way that overwhelmingly privileges the rich and white. I’m glad these folk stood up to force this project to consider its options carefully.

    • It would be one thing if we were talking about some big luxury hotel or something. This is UNIVERSITY who is investing in the Westside. There’s literally nothing that could be better for a neighborhood than expanding higher education’s footprint in the area. It means more students in the neighborhood giving back, interning, volunteering, and becoming patrons of Westside restaurants and other neighborhood retail… I understand the concern about gentrification, but complaining about a university expanding into the neighborhood is batty to me.

    • Veronica Mendez and Lilliana Saldaña. Two names very much associated with Anglo individuals. Great job bringing out the race since that’s all you got.

  6. Same people with the same complaints every time. They’re professional activists and when I say professional, I mean they’re on the City Payroll. Esparanza Peace and Justice(Graciela Sanchez, Orta-Puente et al) receive almost half a million dollars from the city every year to protest. I kid you not. Go look at the city budget. They also sue the city when their voice isn’t taken into account. Why taxpayer’s money gets funneled to these communists is anyone’s guess but I can guarantee you it isn’t on the up and up.

  7. Bill, I agree with you. They have an agenda and I do believe they are socialists. They care nothing about the city moving forward, changing, evolving. I grew up on the westside and took the bus from downtown through that area 40 years ago. I went to nearby Lanier H.S. And guess what? Its hasn’t changed. Still decaying, impoverished and plain ugly. UTSA is going to change that area of downtown forever. Do not let these radicals hinder you.

    • Have you stopped to consider why the opponents who spoke up at the meeting did so? There is collaborative community-led change and then there is developer-led change that resident feel is forced upon them. Do these people who currently live and own businesses in the affected areas not get a voice in how their neighborhood grows and changes? I don’t blame them for standing up to demand that their voices be included in the planning process.

      “Espy said she hopes that the expanded UTSA Downtown Campus will draw the community in, as well as encourage more students in the area to consider college after they finish high school.” If UTSA leadership is serious about the downtown campus drawing the community in and providing services that area residents will use, they have to actually speak to those area residents about what that looks like. It’s not good enough to say you want to engage with the community, you actually have to do the legwork that that involves.

  8. The last time I walked in that area was a couple of years ago. I got off the bus at the Via West Side Terminal and walked toward downtown with the intention of seeing the effects of the remodeling of Santa Rosa Hospital into The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio. The businesses I passed did not depend on persons living on the West Side because housing in that area is non-existent due to the rundown neighborhood and the construction years ago of so many county offices. (Housing starts several blocks to the west and to the south). I saw a man passed out on a bus bench with his arm extended and his telephone in his hand. A young man approached him, grabbed the phone and walked quickly away in the same direction I was walking. I walked faster to follow him, and he noticed me. He put the phone in a hole in the concrete sidewalk (maybe a hiding place he uses often when stealing) and started to walk away, but then he realized I would probably report it, so he returned, grabbed the phone, cut through a parking lot, and was out of my sight when he turned at the McDonald’s facing IH 10/35. I went to the door of the Texstar National Bank, and had to wait for the door to be buzzed open to enter. They had no interest in helping me report what happened. So I continued my walk wondering what would happen when the man on the bench realized he no longer had a phone. This is a neighborhood that NEEDS improvements. Right now, it has essentially no housing and is unlivable except by the homeless.

    • Why? Because the people people who could be negatively affected by the construction of those “nice things” have the temerity to make their voices heard?

      • Yes. Because those people that continue to make their voices heard do only that and nothing more. Just more noise. They expect everyone to do everything for them. Lots of noise and no action. The westside will always be a dump because the people there “pretend” to care, but don’t do anything about it. Get off your duffs and do something instead of just being “voices heard”.

  9. This discourse really highlights the mob mentality around “gentrification” and how little people truly understand what it means. The area around UTSA’s Downtown Campus is primarily owned by other public entities, not neighborhoods. While there are neighborhoods a mile or so away, that’s not the direction in which UTSA is expanding. They are expanding onto parcels of land that are vacant and serve as a gathering place for criminals. Further, UTSA’s campus and expansion is enclosed by Haven for Hope to the North, the jail and Alazan Creek to the West, and the highway to the South. Those provide a pretty significant buffer for gentrification.

    We can’t be afraid of any level of development because of “rising rates and taxes”. We need to protect our most vulnerable citizens from these realities, but the solution is not to lambaste UTSA for this–we need to work with the City to provide protection for these residents. UTSA is trying to improve an area of town that has been neglected for many years.

    Our most vulnerable residents deserve to be able to stay in their homes, but they also deserve a safe neighborhood and access to the education and facilities that UTSA will bring–what has ALWAYS been a part of the plan for the university. As part of this development, they are going to clean up the streets, add trees and repair sidewalks, and generally improve the neighborhood around them, not just build walled off educational buildings that are inaccessible to the neighborhood. One need only to look at Ms. Mendez’s achievements at her previous position in California or Dr. Eighmy’s in Arizona to see that they understand the importance of including the neighborhood in the University’s plans.

    This is an area of town that needs this investment. Higher education is one of the best kind of developments to bring to a neighborhood–to have that kind of access to education, internships and students is an amenity to the Westside, for certain. For people complaining about the lack of students from the Westside enrolled in UTSA–there are only a small percent of students who actually attend classes at the Downtown campus today, and it depends on what field you’re studying. With the expanded campus will come an expansion of the courses and curriculum Downtown, which will allow for greater access to classes for the Westside residents.

    This conflict really highlights the need for more education of our residents.

    • Well said! Many valid points made here, but I do tend to side with those touting the positive benefits that far outweigh the negative aspects. Insightful article and excited to see the Downtown Campus Master Plan continue to develop.

  10. St. Mary’s University partners with it’s surrounding neighborhood. It has helped with landscaping, bus shelters and business plans for existing and new businesses in the neighborhood. My graduate class directed by Dr. Vega planned and executed a neighborhood quality of life/needs assessment survey of actual residents. I would suggest this course of solution-based action instead of more useless bickering.

  11. This comes to mind: Much too little too late for mi vecinda.
    Change is inevitable.
    You can’t bring back the old days.
    Time marches on.

  12. Our forgotten communities in the west, east, and Southside need more institutions of higher learning. UTSA in the downtown is a positive thing these communities.

    Community leaders are within their right to voice their concerns for their community and UTSA should welcome their concerns and work with them to find common ground for the good of both sides.

    This is an opportunity for the community educator’s to connect their students with UTSA and an opportunity for UTSA to serve these forgotten communities better.

    Improving the area will also be a benefit for the westside. My recommendation is for more meetings to be schedule so both sides can work together to benefit or forgotten communities. The bottom line should be what is in the best interest of the students.

  13. I drove to the Downtown Campus a weekend to see what it’s all about and it didn’t take long to find a homeless person sleeping on a bus stop bench. After a few hours, I got lost driving around and didn’t take long for me to end up at the “Haven for Hope,” a shelter for the homeless, a couple of miles from the Downtown Campus. The homeless were everywhere; it was like driving through a third world country.

    I empathize with the local residents possibly being priced out of their homes if development continues in the Downtown Campus. But at the same time, I feel like the expansion of the university can bring much needed jobs and opportunity to the neighborhood. An increase in the student population would mean more jobs in the service industry, maybe just enough to help at least one person that’s homeless to get out of the lifestyle.

    St. Phillips College, part of the Alamo Colleges District, is also in a rough part of the city. I’m certain that construction of that small college helped bring crime down and introduced oppurtunity to those living nearby.

  14. In reaction to all of the back and forth, I propose UTSA construct a university entrance that would be dedicated in welcoming those who have traditionally been underrepresented in our local educational institutions. A statement that says “beinvenidos,” this is a public place that will change the vicious cycle of poverty

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