Big Tex may see redevelopment

Big Tex revival getting new life

Visions of what a redeveloped site could become are aired at meeting.

By: Valentino Lucio for San Antonio Express-News

Map of Big Tex

Map of Big Tex

For years, there have been plans to renovate the abandoned Big Tex plant situated along the San Antonio River, near the Blue Star Arts Complex. While environmental issues and a down economy stalled the project, stakeholders are ready to breathe new life into it.

A dialogue started Monday when about 40 people gathered at Blue Star to share their vision for the 7.5-acre development.

Although the plan still is in its infancy and has no funding, the mixed-use development aims to incorporate a boutique hotel, 230 rental lofts, live-work space for artists, retail space, a conference center and a parking garage.

Plus, it would allow the 25-year-old Blue Star Contemporary Arts Center, the main gallery space at Blue Star, to expand from the 12,000-square-foot space it currently occupies and has outgrown. Plans call for it to occupy another 15,000 square feet at the new site, allowing for more space for art exhibits and educational classes.

“We’re practically hanging from the rafters in the facility we have now,” said Bill FitzGibbons, president and executive director for the arts center.

Irby Hightower, principal with Alamo Architects, the designer for the project, said that the existing silos and structures are stable and still can be utilized. The project’s design will resemble the original site, expanding on the industrial and warehouse feel. What could be different is that it could incorporate more outdoor space, which the original 135,000-square-foot arts complex lacks, he said.

The property’s owner,James Lifshutz, said the project still is in the site-planning stage and that there isn’t a timeline for development.

He anticipates the project could cost about $40 million, with funding coming from the public and private sectors. The hope, he added, is that the expansion project, like the original arts complex, could be the economic generator that continues to revitalize the area.

“The same way Blue Star anchored the commercial redevelopment south of Durango Street starting 25 years ago, I think we have the potential to have the same kind of leveraging affect with the Blue Star’s expansion,” he said.

At the meeting, stakeholders chimed in with ideas about what they would like to see at the site. Several suggestions were mentioned, including a farmers market, pharmacy, community garden, grocery store and restaurants.

And with the city’s efforts to redevelop the San Antonio River to the south, some stakeholders said that the expansion project could become the entry point to the San Antonio Missions.

While the future may be bright for the area, the project has had its troubles. In 2009, the Environment Protection Agency finished cleaning up about 2,000 tons of asbestos-contaminated soil from the site, which had been operated as a processing plant for vermiculite ore.

The cleanup cost about $2.75 million and the EPA is seeking reimbursement for the costs. While the project site has been deemed safe, Lifshutz said he hasn’t paid into the cleanup costs and was not aware of any previous owners contributing to the bill.

And with so much negativity connected to Big Tex, the processing plant’s original name, Lifshutz said he will drop that moniker and use Blue Star to refer the entire complex.Although the project still is a dream, Lifshutz said that community involvement in the process is essential to the project’s success.

“I don’t want to give the impression that it’s a done deal, ready to break ground,” Lifshutz said. “On the other hand … we’re trying to make sure that what we eventually design and build is something that will be not only well received by the community nearby but the entire South Side.”

Changes coming to HemisFair

HemisFair could see a major makeover
By: Vianna Davila for San Antonio Express-News

HemisFair Park Proposal

Consultants are proposing an ambitious plan to revitalize HemisFair Park that could include demolishing part of the Convention Center and relocating the Institute of Texan Cultures within the park.
Calling it a framework plan, consultants working with the HemisFair Park Area Redevelopment Corp. presented the proposals to a packed house Tuesday night at Sunset Station. It was the third such public meeting to discuss the future of the 78-acre park, whose redevelopment has become one of Mayor Julián Castro’s top priorities.
Castro could not be reached late Tuesday for comment on the proposal.
The suggested concepts include streetcar lines in and around the park, a marketplace and mixed-use residential areas.
But the night’s most dramatic proposal was the idea to raze the western, older part of the Convention Center, built in 1968, to clear that area for more green space, open up the park to downtown and expose the San Antonio River.
HemisFair today features 15 acres of dedicated parkland, but only 6.9 acres of that actually is used green space, said Andres Andujar, CEO of the HemisFair Park Revitalization Corp.
“I think you need to open up that corner,” said meeting attendee Gregg Moon with the EastWest Design Group, adding that the change will give the Convention Center, which he believes has limited public use, an urban function.
In exchange for removing the older part of the center facing South Alamo Street, with about 200,000 square feet of exhibit space, the center would be extended on its eastern half.
The plan, still in the early concept phase, includes no cost estimate. But it likely would carry a high price. Expansion of the Convention Center in 2001 cost $215 million.
The city has retained Populous, the Convention Center’s architectural planning consulting firm, to work with the city and the HemisFair redevelopment corporation to further explore the idea.
Populous had completed a facilities development study on the possibility of expanding the Convention Center around the same time the HemisFair Park visioning sessions began, said Michael Sawaya, director of the city’s Convention, Sports and Entertainment Facilities Department.
No funding has been identified to either demolish or extend the center, Sawaya said. Officials still need to determine how to achieve an expansion while keeping the Convention Center competitive.
“They’ve (Populous) got to put into place a plan that takes into account the economic impact, of any construction,” Sawaya said.
The plan, as presented Tuesday, also includes relocating the Institute of Texan Cultures to another spot within the park, possibly into a proposed cultural center linked to the Instituto Cultural de México and the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, both current HemisFair tenants.
That would mean razing the institute’s current facility, which is part of the University of Texas at San Antonio, according to Andujar. The removal could clear the way for more high density uses in the southeastern portion of the park, said David Alpaugh, with Johnson Fain, the main consultants working with the redevelopment corporation.
Andujar admitted the concepts are controversial. But a representative from UTSA was at Tuesday’s meeting.
“They’ve seen the plan,” Andujar said. “They’re here tonight.”
Jude Valdez, UTSA vice president of community services, said the university is interested in revitalizing the institute and is “very open to some of the ideas.”
“I think we’d consider moving within the park,” Valdez said.
The park was built for the 1968 World’s Fair and counts among its occupants some of the city’s most visited locations, including the Tower of the Americas and the Convention Center.
Despite vigorous efforts to use the space, such as relocating the city’s arts fair, Luminaria, exclusively to HemisFair this year, the park has largely been underutilized.
Over the past several months, the momentum for a renaissance in the park has built rapidly.
But Tuesday’s proposals gave some attendees pause, including former Mayor Lila Cockrell, who raised concerns about the financial undertaking required for the project.
“Overall, I think the concepts, the principles, are very fine,” said Cockrell, whose name is attached to a theater at the Convention Center. “I think it’s just really being realistic about the cost, how we will pay for some of the proposals.”
“We’re looking at some substantial public investment.”
So far, city leaders have cobbled together a little more than $20 million for the park, including $17.6 million in savings from the 2007 bond issue. The HemisFair redevelopment corporation expects to receive money from the 2012 bond issue. Officials also are looking to form public-private partnerships and a nonprofit.
The framework plan presented this week calls for an enhanced grocery store and marketplace that would be a place “where everyone wants to go and not has to go,” Alpaugh said. Water elements that reflect Spanish colonial acequias that once ran through the city also would be incorporated.
Durango and Alamo streets both would be enhanced to become more pedestrian friendly, a concept the HemisFair consultants called “humanizing.” The creation of mixed-use housing and reconnecting to both the East Side and the Lavaca neighborhood to the south, are encouraged.
The plan for streetcars would include a line that runs through the middle of the park, dips under Interstate 37 and connects to the Robert Thompson Transit Center beside the Alamodome.
But like the plan to raze part of the Convention Center, this idea remains conceptual: VIA Metropolitan Transit is studying a plan to bring streetcars to San Antonio, but the money for a complete streetcar line has yet to be secured.
“We are planning as if we controlled all these properties,” Andujar said. That may not be true today, but the corporation is working to see those partnerships happen, he said.
A draft master plan will be presented at the next HemisFair public meeting, which could happen in two to three months, Andujar said.
“It’s a dream, and it’s in our hands to execute,” he said.

King William Realty listing featured in Spaces

One of our King William Realty listings was recently featured in the San Antonio Express-News Spaces section. This is an amazing property!

Spaces: A multifamily mess transforms into a neoclassical gem

By Karen M. Davis   Photos by Jerry Lara
Friday, March 4, 2011

When Kevin Browne first saw the three-story neoclassical mansion in the area south of downtown often referred to as Baja King William, it was a far cry from the elegant residence built in 1907 by James Luby, a judge from Duval County.

Its three floors had been broken up into four apartments, with walls in places they weren’t meant to be. A former carriage house in the back had been divided into two small apartments. Both structures had been poorly maintained.

“It was a mess,” Browne says.

But he saw the possibilities and had the desire to bring the house back to its former glory. He bought it and hired an architect to draw up the plans. In July 2008, construction began.

Browne located descendants of the original owners, who gave him photos of the house in its heyday. After almost two years of construction, the renovations were finished last April. And the result is a 4,600-square-foot showplace that combines an early 1900s flavor with modern conveniences.

An old photograph of the home. Photo: SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS, JERRY LARA

An old photograph of the home. Photo: SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS, JERRY LARA

Outside, large, rounded porches are supported by tall cypress columns with carved capitals. Each floor has its own porch, and the upper porches offer great views of downtown.

The Brownes can relax and enjoy the view from the third-floor balcony. It faces downtown and offers a great view of New Year’s Eve fireworks. Photo: SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS, JERRY LARA

The Brownes can relax and enjoy the view from the third-floor balcony. It faces downtown and offers a great view of New Year’s Eve fireworks. Photo: SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS, JERRY LARA

Inside, Browne restored the original long-leaf pine floors. There are seven fireplaces. The high ceilings and large windows popular in an era before air conditioning give the interior an expansive feel.

The main staircase features detail crafted pillars. Photo: SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS, JERRY LARA

The main staircase features detail crafted pillars. Photo: SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS, JERRY LARA

The entry room’s fireplace has a marble surround that Browne ordered from New York to replace the original brick structure. Built-in storage benches flank the fireplace. A round table in the center of the room sits on a zebra-skin rug that Browne’s wife, Jody, bought at the annual Olé Marketplace.

The adjacent library has another fireplace, bookshelves and an antique Persian rug. Behind the library is the family room, featuring a chandelier a friend brought back from Morocco and a marble fireplace that once was in the Plaza Hotel in New York.

The sitting room is located between the library and the dining room and features a chandelier from Morocco. The marble fireplace originally was in New York’s Plaza Hotel. Photo: SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS, JERRY LARA

The sitting room is located between the library and the dining room and features a chandelier from Morocco. The marble fireplace originally was in New York’s Plaza Hotel. Photo: SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS, JERRY LARA

The library room is located to the left of the front entrance and features a fireplace. Photo: SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS, JERRY LARA

The library room is located to the left of the front entrance and features a fireplace. Photo: SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS, JERRY LARA

Behind the family room is the formal dining room — an oval room with a coved ceiling and a mahogany fireplace. The dining table is an antique purchased from a friend, and the chairs are a “vintage find,” Jody Browne says.

The formal dining room of Kevin and Jody Browne’s home is oval shaped and features the original windows and a mahogany fireplace. The table and chairs are antiques. Photo: SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS, JERRY LARA

The formal dining room of Kevin and Jody Browne’s home is oval shaped and features the original windows and a mahogany fireplace. The table and chairs are antiques. Photo: SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS, JERRY LARA

Off the dining room is the former butler’s pantry, which now is used as a breakfast room and wine storage and serving area. The adjacent kitchen has been updated with black soapstone counters, an island and walnut cabinets. A big Wolf stove dominates one wall.

A view of the kitchen. Photo: SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS, JERRY LARA

A view of the kitchen. Photo: SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS, JERRY LARA

On the second floor, a sign painted on one door says “smoking room.” It’s now used as a music room. An unusual feature is the triple-hung casement window that’s used instead of a door to access the second-floor porch.

Next to the music room is an office, also with its own fireplace, and the back of the house includes the master suite and an enclosed back porch that has space for a day bed, eating area and laundry. The master bath is done in limestone, with op-art tiles in the walk-in shower.

The master bath has a modern walk-in shower. Photo: SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS, JERRY LARA

The master bath has a modern walk-in shower. Photo: SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS, JERRY LARA

The third floor is an open area with large closets, a kitchen and a bathroom. It’s the domain of Jody’s 15-year-old son.

The third floor bath has hardwood floors and classic fixtures. Photo: SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS, JERRY LARA

The third floor bath has hardwood floors and classic fixtures. Photo: SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS, JERRY LARA

While the house is large, the rooms have been kept their original sizes.

“I love that,” Jody says. “It’s cozy, even though it looks so huge from the outside.”

Graffiti App created for City of San Antonio

Below is a press release sent out today describing the new app created on Android to allow for real-time and geo-specific reporting of graffiti sites in and around San Antonio. I just downloaded it for my HTC Incredible and will be testing it out very soon around Southtown. Together we can all help eliminate graffiti. (The iPhone app will be out in about six weeks.)

Release Date: February 18, 2011
City of San Antonio Communications Office: 207-7234
Now reporting graffiti is just an app away

Reporting graffiti in San Antonio just got a touch easier. The City’s Graffiti Abatement Program has teamed up with to create “mySanAntonioTX” smart phone application that will allow residents with Android phones to send real time graffiti information and photos to the department.

Android users can download the “mySanAntonioTX” application for free from the Android Market. Once installed, users simply open the application and follow the prompts to take a picture of the graffiti and then submit the information. Using a built-in global positioning system the application will attach a location to the picture and send the information to the Graffiti Abatement Program. The electronic submissions will then be routed to the appropriate City staff or outside agency. Residents can also choose to receive updates on the status of their request.

“This program will give many residents a new and more efficient way to inform the City about graffiti issues,” said David D. Garza, director, Code Enforcement Services Department. “By making the complaint identification process more convenient, we will be able to rid our neighborhoods of the blight even faster.”

The “mySanAntonioTX” application was created at no cost to the City. develops Smartphone apps with web interfaces for government and private industry customers throughout the United States.

Residents with iPhones are expected to be able to obtain the “mySanAntonioTX” within the next six weeks. For more information on this new program, call Lisa McKenzie, graffiti abatement coordinator, Code Enforcement Services Department at 207-5430.

Austin-San Antonio commuter rail line update

My favorite quote of the article, “The unfunded plans…are akin to discussing which topping will go on a pizza when no one has money to order.”

Hopes for a Austin-San Antonio commuter rail line get boost. Funding still far off for high-speed line.

By Jacob Dirr

Austin Business Journal
November 26, 2010
The Texas Transportation Commission approved a comprehensive, statewide rail plan this month that includes the Lone Star Rail plan, aimed at linking San Antonio and Austin with commuter rail.

At the same time, an internal TxDOT study is indicating that a high-speed rail system from Houston would be cheaper if it connected to Austin instead of San Antonio.

The unfunded plans, while an important step forward, are akin to discussing which toppings will go on a pizza when no one has money to order.

“We don’t want to raise expectations yet, because there is no money,” Alamo Regional Mobility Authority Vice Chairman Robert Thompson said. “Let’s be patient. It’s not time to order yet.”

The Texas rail plan, known as the 2035 Statewide Long-Range Transportation Plan, was adopted on Nov. 18 after an aggressive effort to finish before state lawmakers convene in January.

The plan was also given a push from the federal government, which left Texas in the dark regarding more than $8 billion in funding awards because the state did not have a cohesive plan.

Lone Star’s aligning
For the Lone Star rail plan, which has been under serious planning for years, inclusion in the Texas rail plan satisfied one of four conditions the Federal Railroad Administration said must be accomplished if local planners want the administration to take the lead, said Bill Glavin, TxDOT’s rail chief.

Three of the four conditions have now been met. The final is approval from the Surface Transportation Board, a federal regulatory agency charged with resolving railroad rate and service disputes and reviewing proposed railroad mergers.

Glavin said the STB review is under way.

The rail plan will also be included in a multiyear Texas-Oklahoma high-speed rail study announced in October.

In September, TxDOT also allocated $8.7 million for the second phase of a preliminary engineering study needed for Lone Star Rail.

The Houston connection
Apart from the Lone Star rail plan, two proposals have been floating around on a high-speed rail network connecting the Dallas, Houston and San Antonio-Austin regions.

One proposal, known as the “T-bone” or “wishbone,” runs a line from Dallas through Austin, to San Antonio.

The other part of the “bone” connects Houston to Temple — north of Austin.

Another plan proposes a triangle connecting the three large metros.

Whether San Antonio or Austin would be the third point of such a triangle is unknown.

Thompson said a study, complete or nearly complete, indicates it will be cheaper to connect Houston to Austin because less right of way would have to be bought.

“Being from San Antonio, I was not fond of that idea,” Thompson said. “In a friendly kind of debate, we will have to decide that.”

Glavin said that while Austin would appear cheaper, it is assumed that a line from Houston to San Antonio would have greater ridership.

More riders equals more money, which could offset the greater cost of connecting to San Antonio.

Amtrak already provides service between San Antonio and Houston, and that line, owned by Union Pacific Corp., could also be converted.

If the triangle plan eventually emerges as the favored plan, either Austin or San Antonio would receive an economic boost from the connection.

That question will be studied over the next two to three years, Galvin says.

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.”

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 and get reports on how many miles they have traveled, calories burned and reduction in carbon emissions.