It was a frigid Wednesday night in late February when we held our first housing panel. The staff at Cherrity Bar erected a large tent with heaters, and Heron readers packed in so much we had to open the back of the tent to make a standing section. Among the speakers was Mayor Ron Nirenberg. I remember we cut the discussion short because he had to take a call. More than 200 American cruise ship passengers were under quarantine at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. At the time, it was the largest collection of coronavirus cases outside China.
Yes, 2020 was dominated by a once-in-a-hundred-years pandemic.
For San Antonio, that meant a struggling downtown economy. There were other, non-Covid-19 stories, as well. Here are the most newsworthy stories of 2020 for the downtown San Antonio area.
1. Coronavirus and the downtown economy
We’ve never seen downtown San Antonio as desolate as it was in late March when the spreading coronavirus brought life to a near standstill. You’d have to go back perhaps to 1918, during the Spanish flu, or maybe the 1920 flood, locally. It was eerie to see empty streets on spring afternoons when our downtown economy is usually booming. A person here or there in broad daylight, the sun beating down on unused pavement. On the River Walk, there were more ducks than people. On the weekend many hospitality workers got their final checks, all they kept saying was, “I’ve never seen it like this.”
Our downtown still hasn’t fully recovered, which is not surprising considering the crisis’ end is still many months away. But even today, still, you can walk around, and there’s no telling which businesses will be open, and which will not.
Nirenberg, then Gov. Greg Abbott, ordered bars and restaurants closed, along with many other businesses.
Many downtown businesses weathered the storm and survived long enough to see 2021. Others did not.
Most notably, Mexican Manhattan, a downtown staple and a place of fond memories for many San Antonians, closed in October after 62 years of business. It just couldn’t hold on. The Cadillac Bar, which had its own impressive run of 45 years, also closed due to the pandemic. And then there was Reyes Bar, which was reopened in 2019 by Catarino M. Reyes Jr., the son of the longtime proprietor. It, too, closed in 2020 because of Covid-19.
» Looking back: The week downtown San Antonio became a ghost town (March 23, 2020)
» Downtown economy struggles to return to the new norm, much less the normal norm (June 14, 2020)
» Downtown San Antonio restaurants navigate low tourism, financial losses (Sept. 30, 2020)
» Cadillac Bar, a 45-year institution, closes its doors following liquidation sale (Oct. 3, 2020)
» Mexican Manhattan Restaurant, downtown San Antonio staple for 62 years, permanently closes (Oct. 26, 2020)
2. San Antonio adapts housing assistance program
The city’s housing assistance program actually started in mid-2019, as an effort to mitigate displacement caused by gentrification in the downtown area. It was that foundation that allowed the city to scale up the program in response to the coronavirus as many San Antonians found themselves out of a job and unable to pay rent or their mortgage. A new version of the program, known as the Covid-19 Emergency Housing Assistance Program, was approved by the City Council in early June, and has since assisted more than 25,000 San Antonio households with rent payments, and other cost-of-living expenses.
City officials claim the $75 million earmarked for housing assistance is among the largest—if not, the largest—by any American city. In other words, few other American cities have done more to help keep their citizens housed, and away from eviction, than San Antonio has. And they’re probably right. Headlines coming from other major cities would boast certain amounts of millions of dollars in housing aid, and it paled in comparison to what San Antonio had allocated.
» For some renters, housing assistance from city taking more than a month to receive (July 2, 2020)
» San Antonio earmarks $21.9M for housing relief, but Councilman Treviño says city’s not doing enough (Sept. 15, 2020)
» City Council adds $24M to housing relief, but lessens benefits per San Antonio household (Sept. 18, 2020)
» San Antonio’s housing aid program surpasses 20K families served (Nov. 7, 2020)
3. Alamo Plaza master plan sidelined
There were other major coronavirus stories that made our Top 10 list. But we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the derailment of the Alamo Plaza master plan.
The current effort to makeover the plaza began in 2014, with the creation of a citizens advisory committee. The process slugged along, until 2018, when a conceptual plan was finally crafted and approved by the City Council and Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush after months of heated debate and pushback from various groups. Most notably, This Is Texas Freedom Force, which vehemently opposes the relocation of the 1930s-era Alamo Cenotaph, pushed back the hardest. City officials said the master plan revolved around relocating the Cenotaph. But The Conservation Society of San Antonio also took issue with the unwillingness of the plan’s leadership to proclaim the Woolworth building, one of the first lunch counters to desegregate in 1960 in San Antonio—and, therefore, in the U.S.—as safe from demolition.
Throughout 2019, and for much of 2020, things were relatively quiet. The city erected fencing around the plaza and quietly dismantled the gazebo and The Lady Bird Johnson fountain. Then in September, the Texas Historical Commission threw a wrench in the plans by denying the City of San Antonio’s permit request to repair and relocate the Cenotaph. The plan’s future, as it stands now, is completely up in the air.
Finally, after the Texas Historical Commission weighed in, Judge Nelson Wolff said in November he opposed the part of the plan that partially encloses the plaza.
» ‘We followed all the rules … and still fell victim to politics,’ Councilman Treviño on Alamo plan’s demise (Sept. 27, 2020)
» Express-News: San Antonio’s stalled Alamo makeover project is taking more fire (Nov. 19, 2020)
4. Fiesta, New Year’s Eve celebration canceled
It comes as no surprise that Fiesta, the downtown New Year’s Eve celebration, and nearly all other annual gatherings were canceled as we look back on the year, as coronavirus cases and deaths continue to rise. In March, local officials announced Fiesta would be postponed until November. In July, it was canceled for the first time since World War II.
“The highest priority is the health and safety of our Fiesta guests and volunteers,” the Fiesta Commission said at the time. “We recognize that the Covid-19 pandemic is not likely to subside sufficiently at any time in 2020 and, in light of public health directives from the Governor, Bexar County, and the City of San Antonio, so we must forego Fiesta 2020 in November.”
5. Alazan-Apache Courts battle heats up
Pushback by preservationists against the San Antonio Housing Authority’s plan to demolish the Alazan-Apache Courts dates back to 2017, when SAHA unsuccessfully applied for the federal Choice Neighborhood grant. The authority, at the time, was trying to mimic in large part the funding strategy it had employed with the Wheatley Courts, which was eventually demolished for the mixed-income East Meadows community in recent years. In 2020, however, the battle between preservationists and SAHA came to a head. This was the year the SAHA board voted to approve the redevelopment strategy, even if it wasn’t fully funded, which a variety of housing advocacy groups rebuked. The groups’ efforts were bolstered in September, when the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Alazan side of the property as one of “American’s 11 Most Endangered Places.” It turned personal for both sides in November, when a protest that included the Westside Preservation Alliance, the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center and the Texas Organizing Project started at SAHA headquarters on South Flores Street and ended up at nearby Steel House Lofts, where SAHA CEO David Nisivoccia lives.
» Alazan-Apache Courts named one of America’s most endangered historic places (Sept. 24, 2020)
» How to relocate Alazan Courts’ 1,200 residents? San Antonio Housing Authority says it’s complicated, critics say you don’t (Oct. 14, 2020)
» Housing activists take their protest to San Antonio Housing Authority CEO’s home (Nov. 22, 2020)
6. Black Lives Matter protests
The protests against police brutality and injustice started the last Saturday in May. As day turned to night, the gathering morphed into the biggest unrest San Antonio has seen in decades when a few agitators started rioting. It was a shock to downtown’s system as businesses boarded up their windows and the center city was stigmatized as being unsafe—this amid a pandemic that had already crippled the hospitality industry. The next day, the organizers of the march brought their followers downtown to help clean up. The Black Lives Matter marches continued the following weeks, as activists chanted the names Charles Roundtree, Antronie Scott and Marquise Jones, who were black men killed by San Antonio police officers.
» Black Lives Matter march shifts gears as it passes through Southtown to La Villita, Hemisfair (June 9, 2020)
» Protestors demand police reform from Mayor Nirenberg, city officials (June 5, 2020)
7. Weston Urban plans residential tower
Although Weston Urban’s plan to build a 32-story apartment tower on Soledad Street is two or three years away from becoming a reality, the mere surfacing of the plan was huge news for downtown. One, because downtown San Antonio has never seen anything like this. If built, the tower would be a game-changer for this city because San Antonio for the first time would have the type of large-scale multifamily development downtown’s in other cities boast. It would also infuse 351 apartments in the core. And two, because Weston Urban recently completed the Frost Tower, so the company has a track record—even if it’s just one building, it was significant as the first major addition to our skyline in 30 years.
» “Weston Urban plans 32-story apartment tower in downtown tech district” (Nov. 15, 2020)
» “Analysis: Weston Urban’s high-rise tower ‘blazes the trail’ for downtown growth” (Nov. 27, 2020)
8. Museum Reach Lofts opens
There’s been a lot of talk about the type of housing that should be deemed affordable, and the type that should not. Most of that debate has centered around government subsidized apartments priced for people making 80% of the area median income. With the Museum Reach Lofts, there is no debate. When nonprofit developer Alamo Community Group opened the lofts in December it marked the first time a new downtown apartment development was built with rents the vast majority of San Antonians would consider affordable. Efficiencies start at $290.
9. Weston Urban Park opens
Technically, Weston Urban’s park on West Houston Street wasn’t a new green space for downtown. There was a greensward there before when Frost Bank owned the property. But Weston Urban made that space into a park, compete with furniture, a curved berm that’s sure to be where people sit during concerts, and a widened Houston Street promenade with more seating. You can also envision how the park will be enclosed with tall buildings, assuming Weston Urban builds its planned 32-story apartment tower kitty-corner to the park, and on eventually constructs another building on the former Frost Bank parking lot across the park’s southwest corner, which Weston Urban also owns.
» ‘It was important for us to open the park to people right now’ (Nov. 25, 2020)
10. Government Hill battles commercial zoning
The controversy over two acres of land in Government Hill occupied by derelict homes began in late 2019, when the two property owners—a woman named Sara Martinez and a trust managed by Frost Bank—tried to convert the residential land into a QuikTrip. When homeowners within 200 feet objected, QuikTrip pulled out in early 2020, but that was just the beginning. Martinez and the trust at one point tried to get a Starbucks built on the property. But the majority of the nearby homeowners, fearing commercial encroachment into their neighborhood, fought that one, too. Eventually, the City Council weighed in, which resulted in two delayed votes and a rebuke by many on the council of District 2 Councilman Jada Andrews-Sullivan’s wishes for a wider form of commercial zoning. Andrews-Sullivan finally agreed to a less-obtrusive form of commercial, which had been the homeowners’ proposed compromise. The zoning case was one nearly all council members had opined on, because it symbolized the kind of commercial development that could eat away at any neighborhood in San Antonio.
» Flipping neighborhoods? Government Hill zoning case has San Antonio’s inner city communities worried (Sept. 27, 2020)
» City Council OKs rezoning residential land for commercial use in controversial Government Hill case (Aug. 20, 2020)
» Planning Commission recommends light commercial use for contentious Government Hill land (Aug. 13, 2020)
» Starbucks not opening on contentious Government Hill property (Aug. 6, 2020)
» City Council OKs zoning compromise in contentious Government Hill case (Nov. 8, 2020)
» Plans to demolish Government Hill homes for Starbucks denied (July 22, 2020)