As expected, Council members Thursday gave their unanimous blessing to Eugene Simor's plans to build an Alamo Beer Co. microbrewery on the east end of the historic Hays Street Bridge, despite a growing chorus of voices opposed to the project. The approval clears the way for the city to sell off a 1.69-acre lot of "surplus" city land to Alamo Beer, along with nearly $800,000 in incentives for the project.
The Hays Street Restoration Group deserves credit for bringing the historic bridge back to life, given its years-long effort that led to the bridge's re-opening in the summer of 2010 as a gateway from downtown to the East Side's Dignowitty Hill neighborhood. The restoration group, the loudest voice opposing Alamo Beer's development, says selling the land to Simor ruins plans for a neighborhood park (the idea
, while certainly pursued, was never written in stone when the land was donated to the city). Worse, they say, the city's letting private business encroach on public land.
The $7.5 million project, which Alamo Beer says should employ 10 people at the outset, was cheered by District 2 Councilwoman Ivy Taylor as a much needed investment in the city's too often neglected East Side.
The campaign to stop the development began in earnest in late June after the Restoration Group's concerns failed to sway the city's Planning Commission. They started filming, photographing, and petitioning visitors and cyclists gathered at the bridge on July 4th, when a crowd about 200 deep turned out to watch the downtown fireworks.
Sure enough, debate over the project was soon polarized into the usual, tired pro/anti-development tiff. When organizers, many with the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center
, began circling petitions, that's when we first heard opponents stretch the truth about what a microbrewery would mean for public access to the beloved bridge. As one organizer repeated while circling a group of cyclists: "You see everyone gathered here like this? They won't let this happen anymore if the plan goes through. You won't be able to bike here like this."
The truth is much more involved, and the microbrewery spat begs that uneasy question of how private development can change, for better or worse, the nature of a public space. Taylor, for her part, acknowledged fears over gentrification as the city fights to draw investment into an East Side that needs it. But this was neither the time nor place, she said at Thursday's council meeting. Let's save that discussion for another day.
"The neighborhood is changing. People are coming in and investing. Some folks are wrestling with the impact of that change," she said. But, "I don't believe we should derail this project for that reason."
Let's go over what council's approval for the microbrewery does mean.
In the package approved by the city today, Alamo Beer gets to buy a lot at the northeast corner of the bridge from the city for $295,000. In exchange, it gets an incentive package that far outweighs that cost: $794,000.
also gets to oversee the land under the bridge and approval to build a skyway connecting the multi-million-dollar development to the bridge. Granted, it will connect to the concrete approach on the east end, not the historic bridge deck itself. But the plan approved by council also lets Alamo Beer put up tables and chairs on a 1,190-square-foot slab of the bridge deck — all at no leasing cost for a decade.
It's not true that the skyway, and the private use of a sliver of the bridge deck, will "cut off public access to the bridge," as has been casually tossed out in the debate — city staff at Thursday's meeting stated that Hays is still a public right of way and will remain open to the public round-the-clock. But those new elements could serve to radically change the nature of what's grown into a cherished public gathering place. It's a concern that was never really breached in Council's discussion Thursday — sure, have your development, but why is the skyway necessary? And why hand over a portion of the public right of way to a private business? Hays isn't the River Walk, and shouldn't start to mimic it.
What makes many of those opposed to the microbrewery nervous is that Hays could become a space more regulated, more controlled, and sanitized, that gone will be the days of impromptu punk shows, of Lone-Star sipping poets gathering for readings at dusk. Arguments from pro-development voices that we need business to help clean up the "riff raff" that gather around the bridge should make us queasy. Since re-opening, Hays has been a place any group could bike to, sit back, crack open some beers with friends — all without being bothered. Throw commercial development into the mix, the environment changes.
Perhaps that's why someone this week climbed high atop the bridge's steel beams to drape a white banner scrawled with the words "KEEP BUSINESS OFF OUR BRIDGE." Soon enough, when you say "our bridge," that means Alamo Beer's bridge, too. Maybe that's why Facebook is already buzzing
with groups calling for mass gatherings at Hays — for final celebrations of what Hays has been for the past two years, before development inevitably changes it. — Michael Barajas