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Diego Bernal Wants to Occupy Downtown: Options for addressing vacant property problems

Photo: Photos by Ben Judson, License: N/A

Photos by Ben Judson

The Kress building’s vacant top floors at 311 E Houston

Photo: , License: N/A

The Hedrick building at 601 N St. Mary’s

As Heywood Sanders points out in this week’s Cityscrapes column, the vacant building has become almost as much a symbol of downtown San Antonio as the River Walk.

That’s hardly news, but the fact that the City is finally moving to address the problem is.

In his March 7 State of the Center City Luncheon (a $50 ticket affair that will be re-formatted for the less chi-chi at 7 p.m., March 27 at the Woodlawn Theater), District 1 city council member Diego Bernal teased the sold-out crowd with the promise of an empty building initiative, meant to counteract the 33.3 percent of office space that sat unused last year, but said that the solution was still being formulated.

While firmer policy suggestions likely won’t be unveiled until May, I wanted to get a sense of the particular problems that goaded Bernal and comrade-in-arms Lori Houston, director of COSA’s Center City Development Office, into action and the models they and their staff members are currently evaluating.

The problem, in a nutshell: Texas’ enshrinement of property owners’ rights, plus its favoring of relatively low property taxes, creates an environment ripe for real estate speculation. Such investment is not necessarily the evil here, but it does allow for property owners to sit on major buildings and sites for as long as they like without any requirement that they occupy, develop or rent out the space.

“In this state, property rights and property owners are on the top of the pyramid,” said Bernal by phone late last week, “but in this case it’s allowed … people to treat [vacant buildings] like an asset… they’re looking for a payday and they could care less about what it does for Downtown.”

And what does it do for Downtown? As Sanders noted, it first of all diminishes the potential activity by quite a margin. If that 33 percent of office space was occupied, that means many more people walking around, buying lunch, window-shopping, etc… during the day. Converting some of that vacant space into more residential units, another major goal of the so-called “Decade of Downtown,” would provide more activity on nights and weekends. All that buzz would then help to attract retailers, who don’t find our current tourist-centered Downtown mix amenable for businesses like, oh, a grocery store, and the other types of businesses attractive to residents over visitors.

“A vacant building in the Downtown area can usually hurt [our mission] by sending the message that the owner doesn’t care,” said Houston, also reached by phone last Friday. Bernal said, incisively, “It also betrays everything we’re trying to do and everything we say about there being a resurgence of Downtown.”

In the short-term, Bernal and Houston have spearheaded initiatives to occasionally spruce up such spaces, like X Marks the Art, in which artists take over the first floor of some of these vacant Downtown buildings for public installations, and OPEN, which Houston’s office started last year for the holiday season in order to get local retail entrepreneurs into vacant spaces for temporary pop-up shops. There’s also a similar “open house” initiative run by CCDO to turn such empty spaces into “vibrant community hub[s],” that could potentially spark redevelopment interest.

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