Efforts on the West Side seek to balance economic development and culture-rich neighborhoods – San Antonio Report

An ambitious plan to revive what some call the corazón of San Antonio, a historic neighborhood characterized by both rich cultural attributes and economic decline, is unfolding alongside low-key but no less deliberate efforts to secure its past and future.

The Westside Legacy Fund, founded in recent months by former Mayor Henry Cisneros working with the agency Prosper West, is a new attempt at injecting economic development into the neighborhoods west of downtown San Antonio — while preserving neighborhood and housing stability. 

The fund is aimed at turning vacant and underused property into commercial enterprises that both make sense for the neighborhoods and preserves the character of the historically underinvested West Side, Cisneros said. 

The endeavor complements the work of others in legacy neighborhoods like Buena Vista who are seeking to make positive and relevant change using hammers and paintbrushes, relying on mutual support and no small amount of entrepreneurial spirit.  

‘Control of their destiny’

The Westside Legacy Fund is one element in the multipronged ESTAR West, part of a nationwide network of programs in collaboration with the nonprofit Aspen Institute, which is dedicated to high-level social change.

ESTAR stands for Entrepreneurs and Small Businesses Thriving Alongside Residents, a name that partially describes the goal of the fund.

Funded thus far by individuals and banks, the fund has a goal of $25 million, capital that will be used to acquire vacant and blighted Westside property at reasonable prices, said Cisneros, a former U.S. housing secretary and an investor and chairman of the advisory committee.

The property will then be improved and sold or leased to stimulate investment in the neighborhoods west of downtown San Antonio, ranked as the poorest and some of the oldest in San Antonio.

Ensuring that “people don’t get hurt” in the process — as has happened in other parts of the country — is a primary goal of the fund, Cisneros said. He doesn’t want to see a situation “where [people] were just losing control of their destiny, of their neighborhood, of their ambitions and their hopes because they could never match the money” of outside investors and speculators.

Instead, the fund will buy up property at reasonable prices for the purpose of “beneficial uses,” Cisneros said. Such uses could be commercial enterprises that enhance the quality of the neighborhood and provide needed goods and services, and are built in a way that enhances the area.

The fund’s founders are raising capital and identifying available land and vacant buildings along two main commercial corridors: West Commerce and Buena Vista streets.

To generate a return on the investment, property is acquired at the right price, Cisneros said, “and then you have to elevate it with an eye on the budget and sell it to people who can succeed.” He added that one such property is already under contract, but he declined to disclose the exact location.

OCI Group Partner Olivia Travieso moved her public affairs business and staff into offices on Buena Vista Street in 2021. She said Cisneros’ investment, and that of others, in the West Side made it possible.

“I think that’s what we’re hoping to cultivate at a much larger scale,” said Travieso, whose firm is assisting with the Westside Legacy Fund. ”To make sure that a decade from now, we look up at the Buena Vista and Commerce corridor and it’s something that we feel is reflective of our community and inclusive of the people around us.”

Cisneros said that’s why the fund won’t invest in property on residential streets, where property values — and tax valuations — could be affected, pricing people out of their homes.

“We are simultaneously working on anti-displacement and anti-gentrification strategies … to protect longtime residents and particularly elderly residents,” he said.

Historic homes and churches

At the core of the West Side is one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods.

Buena Vista is a blend of mom-and-pop restaurants and fast food chains, of pawnshops, the Mariachi Connection and H-E-B, and of stately churches, corner icehouses and schools. The Mexican American Unity Council is also there, along with a large number of single-family homes.

Houses that range in style from Spanish/Mission eclectic and Beaux Arts classicism to shotgun and bungalow, many built during the first half of the last century, are where people like Cisneros and celebrities like Carol Burnett spent idyllic childhoods.

Amber Wentworth also grew up in the neighborhood and said she spent many hours with her father and grandfather looking after the nine-unit Arlington Arms apartment building on Monterey Street.

Wentworth and her brothers own the property now and are working to improve it without raising the rents above what the residents can afford. “We want to continue the tradition of helping the community,” she said.

Across the street, Wendell Brown also is working on a newly acquired property next door to his Queen Anne-style two-story that was designated a historic landmark.

“We weren’t necessarily looking in this area when we were looking for a house to buy in 2019, but we saw this house and just couldn’t pass it up,” he said. But there are a lot of cute houses in the neighborhood, he said, and “with a little care and love, they really shine.”

A historic Queen Anne-style house near Buena Vista and South Trinity Street. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Brown supported a nomination in 2020 to designate the neighborhood a historic district, similar to King William or Tobin Hill, which can help to preserve local landmarks. Buena Vista qualified for the designation but the required number of residents failed to support it; the designation is now pending.

While there are a number of historic landmarks in the area, the nearest historic district to Buena Vista is the Rinconcito de Esperanza, a grouping of 11 structures on El Paso Street where the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center is located.

The Historic Westside Residents Association also backed the effort and would still like to see the area be designated.

“The reason we are pursuing or are interested in historic designation is because we’re trying to stave off the demolition that had been taking place in our neighborhood,” said Leticia Sanchez, co-chairwoman of the association.

But the group’s first priority, she said, is keeping residents from being displaced because they can no longer afford the taxes on their homes and are forced to sell to private investors, especially those from outside the community. The movement mi barrio no se vende was born out of this trend.

The neighborhood’s poor and elderly people need help to maintain their homes, she said.

‘Just not happening’

John Hernden, a developer, has long been struck by how many homes and other structures in the neighborhood need significant repair. It was his reaction to the blight that motivated Hernden to invest.

“I got kind of tired of seeing nothing get done over here for a long time,” he said. “I’ve made my living over here all my life and no matter how hard you try, it was just not happening.”

Developer John Hernden at The Parish, a former church turned creative studios.
Developer John Hernden helped turn this former church at 1624 Buena Vista St. into creative studios. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

In the past five years, he has bought four properties on the West Side, joined the board of Prosper West and, with the help of makeup artist Zach Smith, turned his buildings into artist studios.

Smith said he saw creative types like himself getting priced out of Southtown and other places as more artists moved in and the area redeveloped. The downtown campus of UTSA and other new development on the West Side drew him to Buena Vista, where he could foresee its potential as the next up-and-coming neighborhood.

About 50 artists now lease space in Hernden’s properties, the first of which was a 1950s-era former church building at 1624 Buena Vista St.

Hernden and Smith, who grew up on the near West Side, named it The Parish and did little to change the exterior of the building so as to preserve its character.

But the interior of the building is eclectic and vibrant, a labyrinth of art-filled hallways and small studios. Upstairs, the Christ Jesus in a stained-glass window presides over a space open to the rafters for photo shoots and gatherings.

On a recent morning, the space was staged for a tasting event hosted by tenant Casa Guipzot, a retailer of wines from Mexico owned by Salena and Eduardo Guipzot. People come and go from the building continually, Hernden said, one factor contributing to decreased vagrancy and crime in the area.

“When we were remodeling, there were big issues with vandalism,” Smith said. One day, he walked outside to find a teenager tagging the back fence.

“He was terrified [but] I said, ‘Why don’t we work a deal? If I buy you some paint, instead of painting on our fence, why don’t you paint on a piece of wood for us?’ And he did.”

That piece of art was put on exhibit in The Parish and the young man went on to do many other great pieces of art, Smith said.

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