With EZ bonds, the City could develop a college district downtown
Veronica Torres and Efrain Torres have several things in common besides the same last name. The two friends graduated from Harlandale High School. They live at home on the City's South Side and commute to classes at UTSA's downtown campus. And the two Torreses say that if the UT Board of Regents had built student housing on or near the downtown campus when they registered to attend classes, they would have been interested in living there.
"I wanted to live on campus, but (student housing) is way over on the north side," on the Loop 1604 campus, says Veronica. "Being able to live downtown would be cool."
Efrain adds that he would like to see a coffeehouse, a bookstore, clothing stores, "definitely some restaurants, and throw in an arcade and a pool hall," in the neighborhood surrounding the downtown campus. The UTSA students who commute to class are "dying to have something to do" near campus.
Veronica would add a gym to the mix. And how about a Laundromat?
The possibility exists for San Antonio visionaries and investors to develop the area along Frio Street into a vibrant college district, a la Guadalupe Street in Austin. As an enticement, the City has access to millions of dollars in federal funds to accomplish such a goal.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has allocated $230 million in Empowerment Zone Facility bonds to the Alamo City. City staff is reviewing proposals from three large hotel development corporations to build a convention center headquarters hotel adjacent to HemisFair Plaza, which could tap $130 million of those funds. And Council recently committed $40 million in EZ bonds to Rick Drury of Drury Inn & Suites to refurbish the Aztec Theater and the Alamo Bank Building.
These tax-exempt bonds have lower interest rates than conventional financing, and a business can receive numerous tax breaks if it complies with requirements to hire 35 percent of its staff from within the empowerment zones for three years. There are limitations on the types of businesses that can be financed through EZ bonds, but allowable development includes hotels, food production facilities, distribution, manufacturing, retail/mixed use, and recreational projects.
The area surrounding UTSA contains empty lots, Cattleman Square properties, and numerous empty warehouses - plenty of fodder for EZ bond financing.
A developing UTSA master plan aims to build a "college town" on property it just obtained in a land swap deal with the City, which received a HemisFair Park property in return. UTSA also received the title to the Business Technology Center property, located across from the downtown campus. The university's architecture department has moved into the center, and classes are conducted in one of the main buildings, with a junior/senior level architecture laboratory across I-35, on Urban Loop.
The development would include a first-floor retail section, a second-floor set of faculty offices and classrooms, and student housing on its upper floors, says David Gable of the university's public information department.
Gable says an informal poll of architecture students, who spend most of their time on campus, reveals that a majority favors downtown housing. "They would be keenly interested in housing on the downtown campus."
Development of a neighborhood that would resemble a college district, Gable says, depends on university partnerships with the business sector, the city, the county, and the state.
Various people are discussing the idea, although some property owners around Frio Street aren't aware of EZ bond availability. UTSA's architecture students seem overlooked as a catalyst or resource for development of a college culture along Frio Street and in Cattleman Square.
"Downtown has the soul of what I like about San Antonio," says Wanira Oliveira, a graduate student of architecture, and teaching assistant at UTSA downtown. She hails from Belem, Brazil, a Portugese colonial city on the Amazon River Delta.
"In South American cities, we do live downtown. We don't sprawl to suburbia." Oliveira says that when she first arrived in the United States, she pondered living in Houston with her sister and attending a university there. But the absence of people on the streets and the frenetic pace of motorists was depressing, so she moved to a downtown San Antonio apartment, and walked to class.
"In Houston, people don't even look at you," Oliveira says, "and so much time in cars, the traffic drives you crazy. There are a lot of successful communities that allow people to walk. We need, not a city for cars, but a city for people."
Al García, a junior in UTSA's architecture school, suggested City leaders visit his classes and get the students involved in developing a community that would appeal to a college crowd. "When you come down here, there's so much to work with. We are at the center of cultures here."
Architecture professor Vincent Canizaro echoes that sentiment. "It's hard to have a campus life when the students can't live there." He says the quality of life in the heart of the city is better than that in suburban areas.
Canizaro, one of the first faculty members to move to the downtown campus, warns that too long of a delay on the part of the university, private investors, and government could put future students into a commuting-state-of-mind concerning UTSA downtown. "Everyone is waiting. That teaches students to commute to class, and go home."
Adrian Perez, economic development specialist with the City's Economic Development Department, says the City is appointing 17 citizens to an Empowerment Zone Facility Bonds governance board this week, which will focus on "pointed outreach" to the community to apprise potential business developers of the availability of the funds. The department also plans to add a staffer to concentrate on the EZ Bond program.
So far, the word has spread in piecemeal fashion about EZ Bonds, but Perez says that soon will change. He was receptive to the idea of developing a college district around downtown UTSA, and passed the suggestion along in his department. Perhaps someone will take the hint from the numerous students who said they would live, work, and play in a community surrounding their campus, if someone has the vision to build what they need to have such a lifestyle in downtown San Antonio. •
By Michael Cary