Univision selling major site for development downtown

Univision is seeking buyer for its River Walk property
By: Tracy Lynn Silva
San Antonio Business Journal
December 10, 2010

The search is on for a new owner for a piece of land along San Antonio’s renowned River Walk.

Univision Communications Inc. has hired the local office of New York real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL) to market the sale of its downtown real estate property — a total of 4.34 acres of land at 411 East Durango.

The asking price was not disclosed. The property is currently valued at roughly $2 million, according to information from the Bexar Appraisal District.

For Univision, the sale would provide a financial vehicle for the media firm’s plans to consolidate its various divisions — including its television operations, which are currently located at the Durango site, and its radio and ad sales departments. The latter two are located in separate office buildings in North Central San Antonio.

For San Antonio, the sale could serve to spur some new development activity in the center city.

The land is zoned for mixed-use development, explains John Taylor, senior vice president of capital markets for JLL. Taylor and Elysia Ragusa, senior managing director of the commercial brokerage firm, are heading up the Univision assignment.

Taylor adds that the land would be ideal for a mix of retail, multifamily and office development, and even a structured parking lot.

Even the seller sees the potential for such a project.

“(The site) is very well located in the heart of San Antonio,” notes Luis Patino, vice president and general manager for Univision San Antonio. “It’s convenient to all of the venues downtown, and very accessible to the major expressways in San Antonio.”

It is simply more land than Univision needs, or wants, to own, explains JLL’s Taylor.

At present, the media company utilizes about one third of its Durango land — namely a two-story building measuring 21,000 square feet that houses all of the departments for KWEX-TV — the local Univision affiliate.

Meanwhile, Univision Radio has its offices at 1777 N.E. Loop 410. The Univision Spot Office, or ad sales office, is located at 70 N.E. Loop 410.

Univision leases roughly 20,000 square feet between the two properties.

The goal now is to bring all of Unvision’s functions under one roof, says Patino, who adds that the company is leaning toward leasing, rather than owning, such a space.

Univision, however, does not plan to vacate the Durango site right away, says Taylor. For a new owner, that means an opportunity for “immediate income as the final designs and permitting on the project are completed,” he adds.

As for where Univision will ultimately land, “They would like to be downtown, if they could find the right place,” Taylor continues.

Could that plan involve staying at Durango as a tenant in a mixed-use project?

“We will consider all scenarios that make operational and economic sense for Univision,” Patino says.

The property has already garnered interest from a mix of local, regional and national developers, Taylor says.

The investment side of the real estate market has not exactly been a hotbed of activity of late.

Still, the political climate of San Antonio makes it an opportune time for putting the Univision tract on the market, Taylor continues.

That climate, he adds, is one that has city leaders looking at ways to bring more life back into the center of the city.

“It is a phenomenal opportunity for mixed-use development,” says Ben Brewer, president of Downtown Alliance San Antonio, of the Univision land.

Prime location
At 4.34 acres, the Univision site is one of the larger tracts of land still available in the downtown area. Its size, Brewer continues, lends itself to a developer that can bring some new retail and residential to the central business district.

“Definitely, it ought to have a multifamily component,” says Brewer, who has been very vocal about the vital link between residential development and the center city’s revitalization.

High density is key to a successful development, continues Brewer, who adds that he and other stakeholders would like to see something in the “New Urbanism vernacular.” That would involve a project with a mix of uses, built around a pedestrian friendly environment.

Given the high visibility of the Univison land, such a project could also serve as a model for other developments in the New Urbanism vein. “This is an opportunity for a great model for that kind of development we’d like to see downtown,” Brewer says. “Get it in the right hands of a good developer, this could be one of those sites we tout as a great opportunity for downtown.”

Downtown Parcels Make SAHA Major Development Player

Housing agency one of downtown’s biggest developers
By Jennifer Hiller/jhiller@express-news.net

Published: Sunday, December 12, 2010

Photos: Bob Owen

Not too long ago, vacant downtown property owned by the San Antonio Housing Authority seemed unimpressive: a few acres along a weedy ditch and another site that was a blighted, notorious public housing project.

That was then.

Today, SAHA finds itself in command of some properties that private developers would envy.

The largest chunks of remaining vacant land it holds are about 3 acres of River Walk property in the rejuvenated Museum Reach section and 2 1/2 acres on Durango across from HemisFair Park, with a view of the Tower of the Americas. These are suddenly prime sites that the city desperately wants redeveloped.

SAHA's Downtown Land Holdings

But even with a shortage of downtown rental units, SAHA’s role in building more downtown housing — particularly market-rate rentals — is not without debate.

Its core mission is building and maintaining affordable housing, and it serves about 65,000 adults and children — with a waiting list of thousands more. So the agency walks a fine line as it tries to mix up the socioeconomics of its properties by adding market-rate units downtown that compete with private businesses during a tough economy.

“When they put units on the ground, it’s like any other project,” developer Steve Yndo said. “They compete with your project.”

The agency has no solid plans or a timeline for what it will do with its remaining vacant urban sites.

However, given the slow economy and ongoing difficulty in securing construction financing for private projects, SAHA finds itself among the few downtown players positioned to move forward.

“Business leaders have told us they want to attract more jobs and people downtown,” said Lourdes Castro Ramirez, president and CEO of SAHA. “We’re at a point where we know we all have a role to play.”

Last week, SAHA belatedly celebrated the summer opening of HemisView Village, a mixed-income apartment complex that’s part of the Victoria Commons development — where the crime-ridden Victoria Courts public housing used to stand.

SAHA's HemisView Village is a mixed-income apartment complex that's part of the Victoria Commons development where the crime-ridden Victoria Courts public housing used to stand.

Of 245 apartments at HemisView, 12 are affordable units and 49 are public housing units.

The remaining 75 percent, or 184 units, are market rate, with rents between $741 and $1,264 and renters who don’t qualify for any sort of public subsidy.

Mayor Julián Castro wants the agency to keep building.

“As a public entity, SAHA in some ways is more nimble during a downturn,” Castro said. “SAHA’s primary mission is to create quality, affordable housing. While it’s doing that, it can serve as a powerful economic revitalization tool.”

Debating market rate

The biggest potential threat SAHA poses to private developers: It owns land outright, doesn’t pay taxes and receives government subsidies.

Meanwhile, developers struggle to get loans in the tight credit market.

Although high for San Antonio, downtown rents already border on the low side for developers to make a successful project, given the higher costs of working in urban areas. Many projects are on hold.

And thanks to changed mortgage-lending guidelines, some condo projects have switched to rentals, including one that Yndo helped develop, the St. Benedicts lofts.

With city and civic leaders pushing for thousands more downtown residents, developer David Adelman, partner at Cross & Co., said SAHA can help keep a diverse income mix downtown, which he believes makes for the best kind of neighborhood.

“We think the market is better served by more units,” he said. “I’m all for development if they can figure out how to get it going and done.”

But SAHA’s market-rate units make developers nervous.

SAHA’s approximate market-rate rent is a little more than $1 per square foot at HemisView, according to data compiled by Cross & Co.

Most other new, market-rate properties charge between about $1.30 and $1.50. The highest rents are at the Pearl Brewery, and average between $1.50 and $1.65.

“The problem is if they undercut rents,” Adelman said. “SAHA has to be careful not to use their advantage to suppress rents. It would establish the market at a rate below our ability to compete.”

On the other end of the spectrum, advocates for affordable housing don’t want to see SAHA sacrifice safe, work-force housing to add market-rate units.

Community activist and former City Councilwoman Patti Radle said she’s concerned that SAHA’s market-rate units are supplanting too many affordable apartments.

“It’s a real philosophical premise. Is San Antonio for everybody or is it for a certain sector?” Radle asked. “What happened with Victoria Courts did erase a lot of the affordable housing. (Downtown) is a very helpful location for people who are on low incomes. It makes the city more accessible.”

At the same time, Radle said she understands why SAHA wants to add some market-rate units to its projects.

“I don’t want to create poverty pockets,” she said. “I appreciate that and I think that’s important.”

Victoria Courts once had about 660 units. At the renamed Victoria Commons, where HemisView was built, another rental unit SAHA opened in 2004, Refugio Place, has 50 units of public housing, 55 of affordable housing and 105 at market rates.

Ramirez said SAHA never can meet the demand for housing, but wants residents to socialize across socioeconomic groups. Creating mixed-income communities avoids problems historically associated with isolated islands of public housing, she said.

Yndo said he doesn’t think SAHA has undercut the market so far, and the bigger issue for downtown redevelopment is attracting more high-quality jobs and small companies.

“The market is $1.30 to $1.35, which is hard to do anyway, but that’s San Antonio,” he said. “Unless we get quality jobs and people who are making $50,000 to $60,000 a year out of college or by their late 20s or early 30s, it’s going to be hard to build units.”


Some say that even when SAHA does market-rate units, it’s not really in direct competition with private projects, which lately have offered amenities such as Pilates studios and sleek, industrial interior finishes with concrete floors, expansive windows and exposed ductwork.

HemisView does have amenities such as a pool, a secure parking garage and the like, but it’s not apples-to-apples with some of the luxury amenities at other communities.

“They don’t have all of the high-end amenities,” Yndo said.

Sandra Valadez moved into HemisView in July with her boyfriend after searching for rentals mostly in Alamo Heights.

At more than $1,200 a month, the rent was a stretch, but Valadez said they couldn’t resist the views. “We looked at each other and said, ‘This is out of our price range, but we’re going to do it.’ ”

Despite HemisView’s Tower views, Irby Hightower, principal at Alamo Architects, said SAHA probably won’t ever threaten other developers.

“They’re a public agency. It just doesn’t happen,” he said. “The hardest thing for SAHA to do is build real market-rate units with nice materials and expensive fixtures and so on.”

But SAHA can do projects that others can’t.

“No one else right now is really building,” Hightower said.

Because commercial financing depends heavily on what’s happening nearby and pioneering developments make lenders wary, SAHA’s downtown work could prove a viable market exists.

“A typical commercial developer can’t be first,” he said. “They’re not allowed to be first.”

River plans

SAHA’s river property occupies a prime position in River North, a light-industrial area the city wants to see turned into a mixed-use mecca with residential, retail and office space.

SAHA owns land at left that overlooks the locks on the Museum Reach segment of the river.

A master plan adopted last year looked at the 377-acre area along the refurbished 1 1/2-mile Museum Reach river segment as one of the best places to add more local people — not hotels — downtown.

Prior to the river face-lift, the gritty area largely was overlooked. SAHA in 1940 built the Rex Apartments at St. Mary’s and Brooklyn streets, backing up to the San Antonio River. Seniors lived in the 89-unit subsidized housing complex.

In the 1940s, SAHA built the Rex Apartments on the land that's now next to the locks and dam on the San Antonio River. When renovation proved too costly, the housing authority razed the complex in 1999.

In the late 1990s, SAHA tried to sell the aging property. Then it switched course and wanted to renovate, but that proved too costly, and the project was torn down in 1999.

Today, it has a direct view of the river’s new lock-and-dam system and is a short walk from the San Antonio Museum of Art and Municipal Auditorium.

Ramirez said the agency has “kicked around some ideas” about what to do there. “It’s prime property,” she said.

Ben Brewer, president of the Downtown Alliance, thinks the property could support between 200 and 300 housing units.

“They realize it’s one of the best locations on the river,” he said.

But Brewer is among those who would rather see SAHA sell the property for a fair price and use the proceeds to build on a different site.

Developer James Lifshutz, too, believes the property is simply too excellent.

“The site deserves a much higher-end residential product than SAHA has experience building,” Lifshutz said by e-mail. “Thus, in my opinion, they should sell that site and use the proceeds to further their mission elsewhere.”

Ramirez said SAHA hasn’t had any purchase offers in recent years, but emphasized that whatever it does with the land will happen with community involvement.

“We have no concrete plans,” Ramirez said. “We want to begin a very open, transparent process to determine what to do with that property.”

But before the river property, Ramirez said SAHA’s immediate goals include the construction of homes for first-time buyers at Victoria Commons and completing a plan to articulate what the agency wants in new developments.

It’s also using federal stimulus funds to renovate several aging facilities.

Then it will return to the river site.

“I think the Rex property is tied in with the whole River North area,” she said. “There are a lot of key players. We have to figure out what can be reasonably achieved in the next five years or the next 10 years.”

Potential plans

Immediately next to HemisView, SAHA has 21/2 vacant acres left to develop, which it has designated for commercial use.

The Lavaca Neighborhood Association wants a grocery store there, and that parcel will be considered during the master planning process for HemisFair, which recently started.

SAHA won’t necessarily have to follow the HemisFair plan, but Ramirez said the agency has met with the planners and wants to participate in the process.

It’s a different approach than the agency might have taken a few years ago.

Prior to the arrival of SAHA board Chairman Ramiro Cavazos and Ramirez, previous SAHA leaders had a turbulent relationship with residents and neighbors.

“I think the agency was more isolated,” Ramirez said. “We have a different approach now.”

That new attitude has left many optimistic, but cautious.

Yndo said he is in favor of good SAHA developments but that history shows that’s a struggle.

“The HemisView and Victoria Courts turned out real well, but it took the neighborhood and a lot of the architects who live in the neighborhood to hold their feet to the fire to make sure they did a quality job instead of a standard-issue suburban project,” Yndo said.

Seahn Lobb-Barrera, president emeritus of the Lavaca Neighborhood Association, said the success of HemisView — already 85 percent leased — and SAHA’s vastly improved community relationships have given him confidence in the agency’s ability to develop downtown.

“It’s like night and day, to put it quite frankly,” he said.

The new approach is this: “There is no ‘they,’” Lobb-Barrera said. “It’s ‘we.’ We’re their neighbors as much as they are our neighbors. It’s, ‘What do we want to do in our neighborhood?’”

Downtown plan is crucial, contends exiting Convention & Visitors Bureau boss

This is a great article recently written by W.Scott Bailey and posted in the San Antonio Business Journal on November 5, 2010. Scott White and others make the strong case that while San Antonio thrives on tourism we need to be deliberate in creating a more “authentic” feel with greater emphasis on local neighborhoods and local artists in places like Southtown.

Scott White, outgoing director of the San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau, says the Alamo City can boost its hospitality industry if local leaders can create a master plan for downtown that better connects and utilizes existing assets and which lures more residents.

White, who is leaving later this month to become president and CEO of the Palm Springs Desert Resorts Convention and Visitors Authority in California, says hospitality industry officials must also work with government officials to integrate tourism with economic development.

“These things are interconnected and I really think the tourism leaders understand that and support that,” White says.

Tourism is a multibillion-dollar industry in San Antonio. But the Alamo City faces increased competition as other markets continue to make investments in their infrastructure and changes to their game plans.

One of the things San Antonio needs if it hopes to continue to grow its hospitality industry, White maintains, is a “master plan for downtown.”

Ben Brewer, president of Downtown Alliance San Antonio, agrees. And he says that plan should call for a “substantial addition” of new residential units. He says that component is necessary for center city revitalization and sustainability and to further reinforce San Antonio as a world class destination.

“Great downtowns are lived in, and ours should be no exception,” he says.

White says San Antonio must address the migration of people and businesses to suburbia.

“It’s happened in a number of cities,” he explains. “The further out you go, the land becomes cheaper. Developers take advantage of that.”

White says its “vital” that San Antonio leaders work to reverse that trend, that they come up with a way to attract residents to the center city.

More authenticity
Robert Thrailkill, general manager of the Hilton Palacio del Rio hotel, says San Antonio does indeed need a cohesive plan for downtown so it can attract more residents and visitors to the city’s center.

“It’s a very important priority,” he says. “We’ve got to do this.”

Thrailkill says the residential component is important because it’s the livability factor which can attract more visitors to an urban area.

“It’s about creating more authenticity,” he says. “That’s what people are looking for in great cities.”

One way San Antonio can entice more of its people to move downtown is to encourage more of its larger employers to move their operations to the center city.

“My hope is that we get our act together and determine what it will take to bring some corporations downtown,” he says. “It’s critical.”

White says San Antonio can grow its hospitality industry by better leveraging some of its existing downtown assets. He points to the Southtown arts district and historic St. Paul Square as examples of urban areas more people, including cultural tourists, would want to explore if they were more visible and accessible.

“What a difference that could make,” White says.

San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro is optimistic that local leaders will find ways to breathe new life into this city’s historic downtown.

In fact, Castro has referred to this as the “decade of downtown,” while pushing for the redevelopment of HemisFair Park and for other infrastructure needed to grow the residential population in the center city.

Connecting the dots
White says Centro Partnership, a new nonprofit corporation tasked with creating public-private support for downtown improvements, could be instrumental in helping bring about necessary changes.

“You’ve just got to create the vehicle that can cut through the red tape,” he says. “Hopefully this (partnership) won’t get mired in politics.”

Hixon Properties Inc.’s Jack Spector, one of the “incorporators” who filed documents with the State of Texas in July establishing Centro Partnership, says San Antonio has lacked a “unified vision” for downtown. But Spector believes the new partnership can be an “agent for change.”

San Antonio has lured millions of visitors annually to its River Walk because of its unique appeal. Local leaders would like to create more foot traffic at the street level.

“San Antonio needs to figure out what it can do at the street level to complement (the River Walk),” White says.

He believes San Antonio should develop more creative spaces at the street level for artists and musicians.

“Visitors are attracted to places that are real and not contrived,” Brewer contends. “By growing the downtown neighborhood, real places that are frequented by locals from the center city and the suburbs will be established. That is where our visitors coming to San Antonio will choose to hang and dine and frequent.”

White believes the Alamo City has the leadership in place that is needed to create and carry out a comprehensive plan for downtown San Antonio.

“The next 10 years for San Antonio are critical,” he says. “There are so many opportunities. The assets are all there. San Antonio just needs to connect them all.”

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B-cycle bike share is coming to S.A.

By Colin McDonald – San Antonio Express-News

With the help of a new bike-share program, the mayor thinks San Antonio is closer to becoming a cool city.
City officials on Friday previewed San Antonio B-cycle, which will start in early 2011 with 140 bikes available for checkout from 14 bike stations spread across downtown.

For Mayor Julián Castro, the program will add to the city’s quality of life and help make it a more attractive and hipper place.

“San Antonio is going to be the most bike-friendly city in the country in the years to come,” he said. “We want to get off the fattest list and onto the fittest.”

The goal of bike sharing is to get more people using bikes for transportation. In two years the nonprofit running the program plans to expand to 500 bikes at 50 stations.

The system is designed to provide bikes for short trips, like an office worker going to lunch or picking up documents at the courthouse or a tourist going from the Alamo to Market Square.

“We want to see multimodal transportation,” City Manager Sheryl Sculley said. “We don’t all need to get into cars to drive across downtown.”

Access to the bikes is made available through a membership card that can be purchased by the day, week or year. The bikes are checked out and returned at any station. There is no charge to use the bike for a half-hour at a time. Each subsequent half-hour costs $2.

In the last year, Denver, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., have launched bike-share programs to promote cycling, reduce congestion and improve air quality and public health.

Once we get in the habit of cycling downtown, we will wonder why we didn’t do this sooner,” Sculley said.

Last summer, Sculley got excited about the potential for bike sharing in San Antonio when she saw a similar program in Montreal and sent photos of it to her staff. Bike-share programs have been common in Europe for years.

Denver’s program launched in April with 500 bikes that have logged 190,000 miles and helped riders burn more than 5 million calories, said Bob Burns, president of B-cycle, the company that makes the bikes used for the rental program.

The 45-pound, three-speed cruiser-style bikes are equipped with a large front basket, a light and reflectors, a bell, a lock, full fenders and an adjustable seat so anyone can ride safely in almost any weather. Riders use the bikes at their own risk and are asked to provide their own helmet.

Those with annual membership will be able to track their use via the website sanantoniobikeshare.org and get reports on how many miles they have traveled, calories burned and reduction in carbon emissions.

King William eying a smaller expansion

Proposed King William Historic District Expansion

Proposed King William Historic District Expansion

By Scott Huddleston – Express-News

Efforts to expand the King William Historic District will resume this week, but with a smaller area affected downtown.
The area now targeted for extension of the district is roughly one-third the size it was in August, when condominium and business owners along South Flores Street balked at the proposal. Their frustration was fueled in part by a recent code change that shifted the burden of petition to those who oppose historic designation.

“The response was pretty scorching. The combined sentiment was that this was not welcome,” said Martha McCabe, a resident and condo owner west of Flores.

But McCabe said she’s happy that the city and the King William Association, which requested the expansion, removed her street. The houses and other properties that remain in the proposed area are a better fit for King William, she said.

A meeting on the proposal is set for 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Development & Business Services Center, 1901 S. Alamo. Those opposing the expansion then will have 90 days to gather signatures from 51 percent of property owners to halt the process.

Before a code change adopted by the City Council in June, a designation process could be initiated only with signatures from 51 percent of homeowners who favored designation.

Dick Davis, King William Association president, said the group erred in asking the city to move the district’s western edge to San Pedro Creek in order to protect the area from high-rises, aluminum windows, chain-link fencing and other materials that diminish a historic neighborhood’s beauty and authenticity.

“It probably was a mistake,” he said, to target a large area, especially after the code change.

Although some have raised concerns about taxes and restrictions on exterior improvements, many of the nearly 100 property owners affected could receive a break on city taxes if the district is enlarged.

Rumors had circulated that the association wanted to enlarge the district so it could move part of the annual King William Fair. After surveying residents, “we decided to keep the fair pretty much as it is,” Davis said.

McCabe, a retired lawyer, suggested that the city use a mediator to negotiate with property owners before any future designation processes begin.

“When property owners face a fight-or-flight dilemma, most are going to stay and fight,” she said.

Shanon Wasielewski, the city’s historic preservation officer, said the city is encouraging neighborhoods “more strongly” to hold informal meetings on a designation before a formal process begins.

“There’s always going to be somebody at that first meeting wondering why they didn’t know about it earlier,” she said.

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