If I’ve omitted an obvious story from this list, there’s actually a legitimate excuse: The Heron launched in July. While I’ve been paying close attention to the goings on of downtown San Antonio most of the last 10 years, I kind of tuned things out at the beginning of 2018 while I was unemployed and trying to figure out my next career move.
That said, didn’t the year’s biggest events seem to happen in the second half of the year? It’s as if the Heron was launched just in time to join the news party.
With that, here are the top stories of 2018.
1. The Alamo plan
I cannot recall a more contentious topic the last decade than the Alamo plan. This was the reset year after the infamous glass walls of 2017 were shot down tommy gun-style by the public. While the 2018 version of the plan didn’t feel as widely panned, there was no question that it was very unpopular. There were, of course, the Texas heritage groups and Alamo defenders descendants who vehemently opposed moving the Cenotaph. But the opposition was much more diverse when you consider the San Antonio Conservation Society and a cadre of architects and urban planners took issue with the possibility of partial demolition of the Crockett, Palace and Woolworth buildings, and the enclosure of the area in front of the shrine during museum hours, respectively. In all fairness, there were many who sided with District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño, the plan’s most visible proponent, on his point about orienting visitors (taken from the vision and guiding principles) and enlarging Alamo Plaza by closing its streets. Mayor Ron Nirenberg appeared to oppose the plan’s larger points early on, but then he didn’t—even though this version of the plan didn’t change much from the time it was revealed to the public in June to the City Council vote on Oct. 19.
2. Center City Housing Incentive Policy (CCHIP)
The conversation about the role of housing incentives started when Nirenberg placed a moratorium on CCHIP in December 2017, but it flew mostly under the radar. It was a conversation had for most of the year behind closed doors as officials with the Center City Development and Operations Department met with for-profit and nonprofit developers on ways to tweak the policy so that it resulted in more affordable housing. As an answer to San Antonio’s inequality stigma, Nirenberg wanted affordability baked into the system, and city officials went to the developers, the experts on how residential projects are pieced together. The conversation was multifaceted and complicated and is impossible to recap here. But it had a lot to do with how much a city can demand from developers in exchange for tax breaks, and also with the definition of displacement and the true meaning of public process. The conversation got somewhat public when CCDO met with neighborhood associations and other groups in the fall. City Council would debate the issue twice in public settings. But the CCHIP awareness didn’t reach its peak until COPS/Metro Alliance held a press conference demanding more affordability the day before the council voted to reinstate the policy in December.
» Exclusive: In new policy, downtown housing incentives would spread to other parts of San Antonio, exclude ‘luxury’ developments
» Despite warnings, some Council members determined to squeeze more affordability from housing incentives program
» Are developers receiving incentives they don’t need?
» Downtown’s housing incentives are changing. Here’s why you should care.
3. Scooter invasion
While not as historic as the next story on this list, there’s no denying scooters had a profound impact on downtown San Antonio. Many of you rode them. But even if you didn’t, you were still affected whether it was because you had to throw yourself out of one’s path, or because you had to navigate around clusters of them while walking down the sidewalk. It all started in late June, when Bird dropped some 150 e-scooters on the streets of downtown. Lime, S.A.-based Blue Duck and Razor would soon follow. More dockless vehicle companies are incoming—surpassing the 10,000 mark when you factor in dockless bikes, according to the San Antonio Express-News. In early October, the City Council put some regulations in place, but they do not limit the number of dockless vehicles on the streets. This story won’t die—it’s only just beginning.
4. UTSA expansion
Though no dirt has been moved and the transformation of west downtown has yet to begin, the mere announcement of UTSA’s downtown expansion plans was historic. Previous attempts to revitalize west downtown had failed. And since UTSA opened the campus in 1997, it was always a commuter campus. So it was huge news when the UT system and UTSA announced its intention to quadruple the size of the campus complete with new schools and student and faculty housing. It was made possible by a $15 million contribution from philanthropist and developer Graham Weston, and the sale of key properties on Dolorosa Street owned by the city and county. In October, the Heron was the only news outlet to report that UTSA was interested in at least one more property it hadn’t announced at its big press conference in September, leaving one to wonder how big the university’s growth strategy really is. As many elected officials lauded UTSA’s planned investment into west downtown, the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center called for immediate community engagement with West Side residents who may be impacted, and potentially displaced, by the sudden growth. UTSA President Taylor Eighmy said that engagement will likely happen early this year.
5. Hays Street Bridge apartments
This was not a story that originated in 2018. The origins go back to 2012, when the Hays Street Bridge Restoration Group sued the city when it sold the land at 803 N. Cherry St. to Eugene Simor, owner of Alamo Beer Co. But some of this ongoing saga’s larger swings took place in 2018, including on March 9, when the Historic and Design Review Commission, for the second time, denied plans for the so-called Bridge Apartments development. On March 23, City Manager Sheryl Sculley, revived the plans by developer Mitch Meyer, which she has the power to do under the Unified Development Code, and presented 11 stipulations Meyer had to meet in order for his plan to go through. What followed was a series of neighborhood meetings and the continuation of infighting among the leaders of Dignowity Hill (which lead to the disbanding of the neighborhood’s architecture review committee by new neighborhood association president Chris Barrows). Ultimately, on July 3, Sculley granted Meyer’s development final approval. And in September, the Texas Supreme Court heard the case, which the city and Meyer contend was over a technicality that does not affect the land sale, but which the restoration group contends does. The reason this story makes the Top 5 list here is because it is the case study for how CCHIP impacts downtown’s surrounding neighborhoods. As all parties await a ruling from the court, construction on the Bridge Apartments has yet to begin.
In no particular order …
» Of course, Sculley’s retirement announcement on Nov. 29 was huge. As I laid out in this analysis in early December, she very much carried out the downtown agenda that Mayor Julián Castro had laid forth. Sculley pushed hard on development (see Bridge Apartments above). It’s been a given the past eight years that the city has embraced the challenge of reviving the downtown area, but that could change when Sculley leaves later this year and with the possibility of a new mayor elected May 6.
» San Pedro Creek Culture Park’s first phase opened to the public in May, which was news unto itself. But it made even more headlines when people were swimming in a section with high E. Coli levels that was intended for wading.
» The ongoing Soap Factory saga—also known as Soapworks—was repeatedly mentioned in discussions and debates throughout the year concerning housing and displacement. In August, the Heron reported that two households had received relocation assistance from the city. Many residents claim renovations by the complex’s Houston-based owner Barvin Group were forcing people out.
» It was also a big year for potential office space. The new Frost Tower began to take shape, construction began on the Credit Human headquarters on Broadway next to the Pearl, and USAA moved close to 300 tech employees to two properties it owns.