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Industry Leaders Talk Urban Infill

The San Antonio chapter of the Urban Land Institute hosted an infill development workshop on Oct. 7 at the Witte Museum. The workshop ended with a panel discussion about how well infill development has impacted the growth of San Antonio, especially the urban core. Lew Moorman – CEO of Scaleworks and board chair of the local advocacy group Tech Bloc said the city continues to figure out ways to better concentrate many of its economic and cultural strengths around the center city, especially as the local technology/downtown district is blossoming. Moorman applauded the increase in live/work opportunities in and around downtown, but sees parts of the area still needing more to build a consistent lively experience. “I wouldn’t consider downtown vibrant enough,” he added.

Assistant City Manager Lori Houston said the city has made strides in making it easier to redevelop the downtown area. Where Houston once worked, the Center City Development Office, it would typically take CCDO and other city employees on average nine months to sign off on a specific project. But even years ago, Houston was the lone staffer. Now, Center City Development Office has about 100 employees, and the department is more flexible and capable in reviewing several projects at a time, expediting the process. What also helps are the enhanced incentives the city has developed for attracting developers to the urban core. This is part of the larger effort to increase the city’s overall housing stock, with a focus on downtown.

So far, 60 percent of the SA 2020 goal for housing numbers citywide has been met. San Antonio expects another 1 million people to move here by 2040. But Houston said the city wouldn’t just let any project go anyplace. “We’re not going to incentivize retail on a corridor we know is going to fail,” she said.

David Adelman, founder and principal of AREA Real Estate, recalled how the 1221 Broadway lofts project got a huge shot in the arm earlier this decade. It was a floundering project then, when it was hard for commercial developers to secure loans. Adelman then was part of the development firm Cross and Co., which controlled the property.

1221 Broadway Lofts, Courtesy, 1221 Broadway
1221 Broadway Lofts, Courtesy, 1221 Broadway

Adelman has been instrumental with other downtown area redevelopments, including renovating an old office building into the Vistana Apartments, and now rehabilitating the historic Maverick building to provide additional downtown rental units and some retail space. Adelman credits the rise in number of tech-related workers who want to work in the downtown area, but also live there and enjoy the increasing regional recreational and retail opportunities. This, in turn, helps to lure more housing developers.

Houston added that such new housing attracts more millennials, which in turn helps the local workforce and economy. Answering an audience member’s question, Houston said the city remains committed to conserving the overall atmosphere of tier one neighborhoods — those that surround the downtown area. Many of these neighborhoods formed within San Antonio’s original 36 square miles in the first years following incorporation. Some of these neighborhoods, such as Monte Vista and King William, contain historic districts.

The Brackenridge Eight Forty condo project, 45 units on East Mulberry, is under development north of downtown.
The Brackenridge Eight Forty condo project, 45 units on East Mulberry, is under development north of downtown.

Houston said it is important to reassure such inner-city neighborhoods that they play a role in helping the city to build up a quality housing stock. This is especially critical as San Antonio still has a deficit in affordable housing citywide. Adelman said, however, such neighborhoods will see some change sooner than later. It would be better, he added, for long-time residents of these neighborhoods to be “rational” in their response — be open-minded to each project and communicative with developers and their city representatives.

San Antonio Economic Development Foundation President/CEO Jenna Saucedo-Herrera said it takes “risk-takers,” like developers such as Adelman and those who have moved to work and live in downtown, who help make San Antonio a “community of choice.”

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