Once there lived a River Walk duck named George, and when she was murdered she was immortalized in paintings, posters, poetry and a Fiesta medal, and downtowners missed her very much (2013). Among George’s friends were the squirrels who two years prior gnawed through the LED Christmas lights in protest of the city abandoning the incandescent lights (2011), and the River Walk during the holidays hasn’t glowed as warmly since. Six years later, the city and H-E-B moved the 50-foot Christmas tree from Alamo Plaza to Travis Park, and some protested with miniature trees.
The decade started with B-cycle (2011), a ride sharing concept locals were enthused about, and ended with e-scooters (2018), a ride sharing concept locals were ravenous for. The name of Durango Boulevard, one of San Antonio’s original thoroughfares, officially became César E. Chávez Boulevard, and an angered San Antonio Conservation Society sued the city (2011). Historic architecture in the Univision building (2013) and the Wolfson building (2011) were lost; Municipal Auditorium was demolished for the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts (2014). Centro San Antonio had not one (2012), but two (2018) big controversies. The city cleaned up Travis Park (2014), then moved its Confederate monument (2017).
UTSA Roadrunner football was born, as was Geekdom and the tech district (2011). The Pearl matured. Whataburger opened. The Esquire Tavern reopened (2011). The culinary scene soared. Craft cocktails and breweries started to become a thing here. As did food trucks.
And a whole lot of tax payer-backed bond money, roughly $265 million, was pumped into downtown streets and sidewalks.
While downtown had its share of noteworthy stories in the 2010s, these weren’t the biggest. Before we settle back into our workweek on Monday, which seems like the official start of the 2020s, I thought I’d look back at the 2010s. A theme you’ll find in these stories is one of progress vs. preservation. The debate seems to be contained in the past decade: We weren’t talking about the new replacing the old much—at least not as intensely in recent memory—before the 2010s, and, now, after.
Last decade I worked for three local publications. Though I wasn’t reporting on downtown every year, I was there, front row, for most of it. Here are my Top 10 stories of the 2010s. If I missed anything major, please let me know in the comments.
1. Gentrification and the rise of housing incentives
If you’ve paid any attention to how downtown has changed the last 10 years, either through personal experience or through media reports, then you’re well acquainted with this story. I recapped it pretty extensively in my last post. It goes like this:
Julián Castro became mayor of San Antonio in 2009, and quickly declared “The Decade of Downtown.” In an attempt to revitalize downtown, the city created a housing incentives policy in 2012, which offered tax breaks, fee waivers and loans, and apartment development began to boom north and south of downtown. Urban neighborhoods changed, some more than others. Near East Side communities gentrified. Mission Trails mobile home park on the South Side, along the Mission Reach, was completely wiped out—its residents uprooted in late 2014, early 2015 to make room for luxury apartments. A year later, the city scaled back its housing incentives policy in an attempt to prevent more direct displacement. Meanwhile, nobody was really sure how incentives worked.
Other forms of incentives nobody knew about called public facility corporations (PFCs) were in effect all this time. The Cevallos Lofts, which was built early in the decade by NRP Group, received a full property tax exemption, worth many millions of dollars in revenue not going to various taxing districts, including schools, thanks to the city’s PFC. In return, NRP Group offered half of the rents, at least, at affordable prices. Several PFC projects followed. Most people didn’t know about PFCs until former Express-News reporter Richard Webner started asking questions eight years later. Meanwhile, Bexar County was offering its own tax breaks, which were very public.
Seven years after it launched its housing incentives program, the city finally made the database available online. Meanwhile, areas like the Pearl and Southtown were becoming wildly popular as residents moved into new digs and fancy restaurants continued to open. The downtown area as a whole became more popular as more events popped up, and developers and companies (USAA) began to invest in office space. The figures as of late 2018: $102 million in estimated incentives doled out to 64 projects, which resulted in 6,810 units and $1.4 billion in private investment (or the cost to build the developments), according to the city.
At the end of 2017, Mayor Ron Nirenberg put the brakes on the program because it was yielding mostly luxury apartments, and not enough affordable housing. A year later, the policy was tweaked and reinstated in an attempt to generate more affordable housing.
» San Antonio Heron: City Council reinstates downtown housing incentives policy after one-year hiatus (2018)
2. Alamo controversy after Alamo controversy
The Alamo master planning process, which began in 2014, really started to heat up in 2017 when aspects of the plan were unveiled to the public. In particular, people were outraged at glass walls that would replicate the former fort’s perimeter, as well as plans to move the Cenotaph a few blocks south next to the River Walk. A year later, Alamo planners did away with the walls concept (electing to not commit to a specific barrier type) and offered to move the Cenotaph to in front of the Menger, to reclaim the original Alamo footprint. What ensued was a public process that was antagonistic throughout as the plan drew opposition from Alamo defender descendants and Texas pride groups, who demanded the Cenotaph remain at its spot in front of the Long Barracks; groups representing indigenous peoples buried on the grounds; conservationists who oppose the demolition of the Woolworth building, which was among the first lunch counters to peacefully desegregate in San Antonio; and from some architects and urban planners, who said the plaza should remain open and not sectioned off, even if the barriers become porous during non-museum hours. In October, this version was approved by City Council. Two lawsuits have been filed, and the fight continues.
But wait, there’s more.
Who can forget this was the decade the Daughters of the Republic of Texas lost control of the Alamo to the Texas General Land Office in 2015? Before that there was much infighting between the Daughters, which had been the Alamo’s custodian since 1905. There were other minor controversies, including one, in 2010, over the size and location of a banner commemorating the 175th anniversary of the famous battle. The one historic event everyone united for was the return of William Barret Travis’ “victory of death” letter in 2013. “The document is a bit faded, but you can plainly see where Travis wrote ‘Victory or Death’ and underlined the words three times. Three times! And that’s when it kind of hit me. This is the very ground he wrote it, outnumbered,” I wrote then. Here’s a play-by-play of the letter’s return.
3. The Frost Tower rises
You can’t significantly alter San Antonio’s skyline and not get in the Top 3. The Frost Tower alone, its 24 stories of new-smelling Class A office space enclosed in glass which spikes at the top, is significant as the first high-rise office building in San Antonio since the Weston Centre opened in 1988. Frost Bank moved its headquarters from across Houston Street, making room for the city of San Antonio to renovate the old Frost and move its administrative workers in. Driving around downtown, the Frost Tower stands out for its chameleon-like quality of mirroring whatever mood the sky is in during the day, and for its laser-like lights that outline the building’s corners at night. But the tower, which formally opened in October 2019, also serves as the flashy and dramatic opening sequence to Weston Urban’s plans for west downtown. The local developer, who co-built the Frost Tower along with KDC of Dallas, owns several parcels in the area, including some it received from the bank and the city in the 2015 partnership deal that resulted in the creation of the tower. That larger deal still puts into question whether the city will come out ahead, cost neutral or lose money on the cost to renovate the former Frost mid-rise on West Houston Street.
» San Antonio Express-News: Weston Urban, Frost, city of San Antonio agree on new tower deal (2015)
» Heron: View from the top: Touring the 24-story Frost Tower (2019)
Editor’s note: Not included in this post is UTSA’s announcement in 2019 that it plans to quadruple the size of its downtown campus in the next 10 years. I excluded it because it was just an announcement. This would be a good place to mention that Weston Urban plans to synch its development with that of UTSA’s. Read more.
4. Streetcar approved, then canceled
Exactly 10 years after San Antonians vehemently shot down plans for a citywide light rail system, the concept of a streetcar system, last seen here in the 1930s, entered the public debate. And as heatedly. In summary, some people liked it, others were lukewarm toward it, and many loathed it. It was too expensive, they said, costing some $280 million to build and $8.5 million to maintain annually (estimates at one point). It was too antiquated, others said. Public officials, mainly with VIA Metropolitan Transit, and Castro and council members, did a poor job of being open about what streetcar was really about: warming up San Antonians to the idea that this city needs to diversify how it moves its people around. Instead, many saw the system as one that catered mostly to tourists and downtowners, which it would have at first. In 2011, City Council pledged $40 million to the plan despite opponents demanding the issue be brought to a public vote. A few years of more rancor and debate went by, and VIA’s board ultimately approved a version of the starter system in late 2013. But the pushback never waned. Castro, who was preparing to leave San Antonio to become President Barack Obama’s housing secretary, sensed the streetcar plan might collapse in his absence, and made a speech just before he left with the sole purpose of bolstering streetcar one last time. It didn’t work. Shortly after he left, in mid-2014, Mayor Ivy Taylor and Judge Nelson Wolff announced the plan was to be shelved indefinitely amid public criticism.
» Express-News: New mayor says ‘pause’ not end of steetcar (August 2014)
» Express-News: Streetcar routes eliminated (May 2014)
» Express-News: Opponents of streetcar project demonstrate (February 2014)
» Express-News: First phase of streetcar approved (December 2013)
» Express-News: Streetcar route gets trustees approval (September 2013)
» Express-News: Expensive streetcare route leaves VIA $70 million short (September 2013)
5. Hays Street Bridge saga
Oh, where to begin. This saga dates back nearly two decades to a 2002 memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the city of San Antonio and the Hays Street Bridge Restoration Group, which had worked to reopened the bridge in 2010 as a pedestrian walkway connecting east downtown to the Dignowity Hill neighborhood. A piece of vacant land 1.7 acres in size on North Cherry Street, next to the bridge, which had been donated by Budco, Ltd., was to complement the bridge. The group contended the land was meant to be a park. The city pointed out that the MOU never mentions the word “park” and, in 2012, attempted to sell the property to Eugene Simor, owner of Alamo Beer Co., for his brewery. That’s when the group, as well as members of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, sued the city, claiming the city reneged on the 2002 MOU. Years of litigation followed. Simor, not wanting to waste time in court, decided to build his brewery on land he already owned on Burnet Street, with plans to eventually build apartments and a restaurant on the property in question. In September 2014, a district court made an ambiguous ruling, and both sides—the city and the restoration group—claimed victory. The city sold the property to Simor, and more litigation followed—to the Fourth Court of Appeals and to the Texas Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the apartment building that Simor, along with developer Mitch Meyer, were planning stirred its own controversy as it brought to the forefront the city’s role, in terms of issuing incentives, in exacerbating the gentrification of San Antonio’s urban neighborhoods, Dignowity Hill being ground zero of such change. In the end, the Texas Supreme Court made a ruling that favored the restoration group, and Nirenberg and the City Council eventually struck a deal with the group, as well as with Meyer, that will ultimately make the land into a park.
» Express-News: Hays Street bridge dispute flares up again (2014)
» Heron: Texas Supreme Court rules in favor of Hays Street Bridge group (2019)
» Heron: City nears Hays Street Bridge land deal, but is it what the restoration group’s been fighting for? (2019)
» Heron: Land next to Hays Street Bridge will become a park, after all (2019)
» The Rivard Report: Community applauds design for park next to Hays Street Bridge (2019)
6. Redefining Hemisfair
In late 2009, the Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation was formed by City Council and for much of the decade, skeptics believed this attempt to revitalize the park would end up like previous attempts: shelved. That skepticism was finally put to rest in October 2015 as Yanaguana Garden, the first of three phases of the new Hemisfair, first opened to the public at the corner of South Alamo Street and East César E. Chávez. Though the restaurants and eateries that have since moved into historic homes there are a tad pricier compared to elsewhere in the city, Yanaguana Garden has become the symbol for how a public amenity that’s truly for everyone is created. Literally families from all ZIP codes have come down—by car, by bus, etc.—to splash around or climb the various jungle gym structures.
Which is all fine and dandy, but who can forget Hemisfair’s more controversial moments?
For starters, there was the time in 2013 when local hotel industry reps and construction giant David Zachry lobbied the Texas Legislature to tweak proposed bills that would allow a hotel to be built at the park. Zachry’s grandfather, H.B. Zachry, built the Hilton Palacio del Rio hotel for the ’68 World’s Fair across Alamo Street from where the younger Zachry had envisioned his hotel. Some folks hated the idea of a hotel being built on public land, but Hemisfair planners said it was necessary to build up a tax base, which would help sustain the park, as well as create a safer environment with its 24/7 presence. Others saw it as politics as usual, the fact that Zachry, a major donor to council campaigns, had so much influence. After Texas legislators couldn’t agree on the language to allow a hotel, Castro stepped in and assured them he would lead the effort at the local level to amend deed restrictions to allow for the hotel.
Then, in 2015, eight months before Yanaguana Garden opened, Hemisfair planners dismantled the old “HemisFair Park” arch, which angered many.
» Express-News: Hemisfair hotel restrictions now in City Council hands (2013)
» Express-News: Zachry boss is targeting HemisFair hotel rules (2013)
» Express-News: HemisFair archway comes down for now (2013)
» Express-News: First phase of Hemisfair finally launches (2015)
7. Joske’s tower controversy
In 2013, New York-based Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp., owner of Rivercenter mall, proposed a 26-story hotel and time-share tower on the Joske’s location. This, to me, was when the preservation vs. progress debate reached its apogee. There were the folks who felt San Antonio needed a new addition to its skyline ASAP, then there were conservationists who felt the building was too large for the adjacent Alamo Plaza, and therefore could endanger San Antonio’s Spanish Colonial missions, the Alamo included, from gaining World Heritage Site status. This was the first of two times former City Manager Sheryl Sculley reversed a recommendation by the Historic and Design Review Commission, which denied Ashkenazy’s plans (the second time being Meyer’s development next to the Hays Street Bridge). In the end, Ashkenazy settled for what is there now: an extension of the mall.
» Express-News: HDRC hears proposed Joske’s hotel
8. H-E-B closes Main Avenue, opens SoFlo Market
Before people began going bonkers for the H-E-B South Flores Market’s pizza-and-two beers-for-$10-happy hour-special—heck, before SoFlo market was even conceived—all downtowners, seemingly the whole city, could talk about was a downtown grocery store. There had been several attempts, which ultimately failed: Hippo’s Grocery and Deli in the Wyndham La Cascada, Delivery Market on East Houston Street and Main Plaza Grocery in the Morris Building, among others. Even County Commissioner Kevin Wolff once had plans to build one near 1221 Broadway, and La Fiesta was thinking about opening a store in one of SAHA’s new developments.
All the talk lead to Castro offering up a $1 million cash incentive for a company to build a downtown grocery store. H-E-B applied and won. A debate followed that involved H-E-B wanting to close North Main Avenue, from East Arsenal Street to Chávez Boulevard, which connected Southtown to downtown. When people, mainly Southtowners, aired their concerns, H-E-B revealed a master plan for its downtown headquarters, as well as its decision to not accept the $1 million incentive. In exchange for closing the street, it would build the SoFlo market. If only people knew about the $10 pizza and two beers special, maybe the street closure wouldn’t have been so testy.
» Express-News: Council likely to approve H-E-B’s proposal (2013)
» Express-News: Main Avenue group willing to sue over possible street closure (2013)
» Express-News: Poll: Should South Main block be closed for H-E-B expansion?” (2013)
» Express-News: H-E-B plans $100 million investment around downtown store (2013)
9. San Pedro Creek is reborn
This is the major public project that has received almost no scrutiny since the process began in 2014. Talks of San Pedro Creek began at the Bexar County level early on in the decade, as early as 2012. By 2014, public meetings were being held. And by May 2018, the first phase, which ran from the tunnel inlet behind the Fox Tech campus to Houston Street, opened. Early last year, we reported certain segments of the project were already 10 percent above their original cost and that the overall project has cost $178 million to date. There were, however, some unintended consequences. Shortly after the creek was completed in 2018, renamed San Pedro Creek Culture Park, the Barvin Group of Houston, which owns the apartments formerly known as Soap Works, renovated the property and hiked up rents. This lead to the displacement of some of the residents, who chose SoapWorks for its affordability.
10. Convention Center expands
The expansion of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, the city of San Antonio’s largest capital project, was projected to cost $325 million when construction began in February 2014. The city is using revenue from the hotel occupancy tax to pay back bonds used to finance the project. Despite some question about the legitimacy of the contractor selection process, and over its design, the expanded convention center opened in 2016, exactly two years later, when it hosted the Texas Music Educators Association.