By Richard Webner | @RWebner | Heron contributor
Two envisioned projects for west downtown—one from a politician, the other from a firm led by one of San Antonio’s most powerful businessmen—could be competing head-to-head.
Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Calvert is pushing for the county and city to fund The Link, a linear park with a minimum eight-figure price tag that would connect the River Walk and San Pedro Creek Culture Park with a walking path along a stream flowing with recycled water from nearby buildings.
Meanwhile, Weston Urban, the firm headed by Rackspace founder Graham Weston, is looking to buy land along the creek to build a sports stadium. The details are spotty—the firm’s president, Randy Smith, hasn’t responded to requests for comment, including for this story—but one property owner whose father was approached by the firm said that a “triple-A team” was mentioned.
Both projects could be transformative for a stretch of downtown that has long suffered from a lack of investment, leaving it with empty sidewalks and block after block of parking lots. For its part, Weston Urban has not been shy about its ambition to acquire land and build structures taller than the five-story residential buildings ubiquitous in the downtown area since the development boom began 12 years ago.
The problem is that The Link and Weston Urban’s sports stadium seem intended for the same place: the southern half of the block bounded by Kingsbury, Camaron, West Martin and North Flores streets.
A map of The Link shows it cutting through a parking lot that Weston Urban is trying to buy and the vacant lot that the firm is set to acquire soon from the San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD).
On Thursday, after news broke about Weston Urban’s plans, Calvert declared his opposition to putting a stadium there, issuing a comment to the Heron that “spending taxpayer dollars on a minor league sports stadium does not make sense” when people are struggling with the high prices of housing and other essentials.
“There is no support from property owners for a stadium, and there are other places to build a stadium in Bexar County,” the statement said.
[ Exclusive: Weston Urban pursuing land for potential sports stadium | June 30, 2022 ]
In a second statement on Friday, Calvert suggested that The Link’s route could be adjusted, saying there are “route contingencies” allowing it “to interweave into the community.”
“Weston Urban has not reached out to me for support of a downtown baseball stadium, but my door is always open,” Calvert said.
Whether or not they’re at cross-purposes, both projects face political headwinds.
In a time of soaring housing prices, with unmet demand for infrastructure spending in neighborhoods around downtown, it’s uncertain whether either could attract the political support for the taxpayer funding that has been essential to such projects in the past.
“Honestly, the baseball stadium and The Link are exciting projects, but they aren’t projects I’m focused on,” said District 1 City Councilman Mario Bravo, whose district includes downtown. “We have a lot of competing priorities right now. Our city has a lot of needs.”
It’s worth noting how little is known about Weston Urban’s plans. The block where the company’s seeking to buy land was identified in a 2016 report as a favorable site for a minor-league baseball stadium, and property owners say that the firm’s executives have mentioned plans to build a stadium. Yet it’s unclear precisely what the firm is planning and whether it would ask for tax incentive dollars.
[ Download: 2016 Minor League Baseball Due Diligence Report | Barrett Sports Group, LLC | Prepared for City of San Antonio ]
The three latest stadiums to be built in San Antonio—Toyota Field, the AT&T Center and the Alamodome—each made use of millions of taxpayer dollars. The city of San Antonio and Bexar County each paid $9 million to buy Toyota Field to make it the home of the San Antonio FC soccer team. In the early 2000s, Bexar County paid $146.5 million to build the AT&T Center (the Spurs contributed $42.3 million). The $186 million Alamodome was built with funds from a half-cent sales tax; in 2015, the city of San Antonio funded $41 million in renovations.
County Judge Nelson Wolff, who is retiring at the end of this year, said he thought it likely that any stadium project would seek public funding.
“I’m sure they will,” Wolff said. “If we can work out the right sort of deal, it would have to be a partnership with the city” similar to Toyota Field, he said.
Asked whether he thought there would be political support for such a deal, he said, “All I can tell you, I’m not going to be here. That’s going to be somebody else’s problem.”
For The Link, Bexar County set aside $41.2 million in its fiscal year 2021-2022 budget, part of which is financing a preliminary engineering report that will determine the project’s total cost, county spokeswoman Monica Trevino-Ortega said.
In an interview, Calvert presented an $80 million total price tag—a number that will “get refined” in the engineering study, he said. He hopes to raise more through the county and the city’s next bond issue in 2027. Another possible source is the federal government, he said.
Calvert was unsuccessful in his attempt to get money from this year’s bond.
“You know, there was so much competition,” he said. “But there will be a lot of changes that will happen in three years’ time.”
For this year’s bond, District 5 Councilwoman Teri Castillo and District 10 Councilman Clayton Perry, among other council members, pushed back against proposed funding for greenway projects, asking that the funding be diverted to more utilitarian neighborhood infrastructure projects, according to reporting in the San Antonio Express-News. City staff met their concerns by decreasing the trails budget. One of the bond proposals impacted at the time was the housing bond, which city officials recommended decreased from $250 million to $150 million to help bolster parks funding, the San Antonio Report wrote. (At the time, officials said the city would still achieve its 10-year spending goal on housing [$300 million] as recommended by the mayor’s housing task force in 2016.)
“During the Decade of Downtown, there were a lot of investments in downtown and the urban core. When I came into office, the pendulum had swung the other way,” Bravo said. “What was found was a lot of interest in investing in the neighborhoods.”
Support for The Link?
Under current plans, The Link would begin at the River Walk level where Augusta meets Convent streets, gradually inclining to street level until it connects with the San Pedro Creek Culture Park trail, according to an interview with Brenda Vickrey Johnson, president of Vickrey & Associates, the engineering firm that took the idea for the park to Calvert around 2017 and is now leading the design.
The idea originated from an engineer named Al Groves, who designed the River Walk extension to the Convention Center in 1968, according to a press release from Calvert.
Calvert envisions the park working in tandem with a $400 million mixed-use development anchored by a Dream Hotel that is in the works beside the park’s path to create a kind of entertainment district. The park might include a “dancing fountain” to provide a spectacle for pedestrians, like the one outside the Bellagio in Las Vegas, he said.
“It’s going to be like, ‘Oh, San Antonio is stepping up its game,’” he said. “When you look at why Austin has gotten so many corporate relocations, I think quite frankly it’s because when people go there they have a really good time. They think, ‘Oh, I’d like to live here one day.’ We want them to have that same experience in San Antonio.”
It is notoriously difficult to build anything downtown, where construction teams digging underground often run into surprises that can hold up a project (see, for example, the discovery of the remains of the St. James African Methodist Church during work on the San Pedro Creek Culture Park).
Even by that standard, The Link project would present challenges, requiring a waterway to be built from scratch.
For roughly a third of its length, the park would replace the current Savings Street, which runs for only two blocks. It would pass underneath three cross-streets that would be turned into bridges: Soledad Street, North Main Avenue and North Flores Street, Johnson said.
The water in the stream would be run through a closed loop, she said; the water lost through evaporation would be replaced with condensate from the HVAC systems of nearby buildings.
There are stakeholders in west downtown who strongly support The Link, including Chuck Brehm, a Boerne-based developer among the investors planning to build the Dream Hotel development.
Another supporter is Riley Robinson, director of the Artpace San Antonio arts nonprofit. Weston Urban has offered to buy a parking lot that Artpace owns on the potential stadium site; in discussing why Artpace wanted to hold onto the property, Robinson mentioned his excitement for The Link, which would pass alongside it.
Yet some city leaders have expressed only tepid support for the project.
“I think The Link is an exciting project that could be catalytic, but it comes with a high price tag,” Bravo said. “At this particular point in time, I haven’t heard that it’s a top priority around City Hall.”
Much like with the stadiums, San Antonio’s recent river and creek improvement projects succeeded only with deep political support from city and county leaders, allowing them to overcome budgetary and engineering hurdles. County Judge Nelson Wolff offered strong backing to the ongoing San Pedro Creek project, whose budget has swelled from $175 million in 2013 to $260 million today.
Wolff was also a staunch supporter of the $271 million extension of the Mission Reach stretch of the River Walk—whose budget also swelled far beyond early estimates—and the $71.2 million Museum Reach extension of the River Walk, a legacy project for former Mayor Phil Hardberger.
Calvert said he’s confident he can see The Link project through.
“We’re only getting better at doing these projects, and we’re learning more,” he said. “It’s going to get done. We’ll get this done.”
Wolff is a supporter of the project, but he doesn’t see it as so much of a sure thing. “Hopefully we can make it happen,” he said.
“I like the idea of connecting” the River Walk and San Pedro Creek, Wolff said. “I guess some people somewhere drew up some pictures, I don’t know. There’s a lot of work that has to be done to know whether it’ll work or not. Particularly, the city has to be involved.”
Yet he also likes the idea of putting a stadium in the block targeted by Weston Urban.
“I think it’s a great place for a stadium,” Wolff said. “I like the fact that it’s sitting on the creek. We like to see investment go to where we’ve already put money.”
Richard Webner is a freelance journalist covering Austin and San Antonio, and a former San Antonio Express-News business reporter. Follow him at @RWebner on Twitter
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