RIP Kelly Field, Make Way for Port San Antonio
Texas Construction News from Virtual Builders Exchange
Congressman Julian Castro praises the legacy and future of Port San Antonio, formerly Kelly AFB, as Juan Solis (right) and other port officials look on.
Posted: 1-26-2017, 4:34 p.m.
by Adolfo Pesquera
San Antonio (Bexar Co.) - After taking time to celebrate their youngster's centennial, the directors of Port San Antonio rolled the dice and moved forward with a speculative building project this month.
While time was allotted for honoring the past, the directors are ever pressed to reinvent the present. Or as Stephen King put it, "Sooner or later, everything old is new again."
The latest office building concept is referred to simply as Project Tech, and there’s been no definitive decision on its size or cost, despite the fact the project has been in design for a year. Board of Directors Chair Victoria Garcia had the project put on the Jan. 25 agenda to assess where the project was, to date, and allow a vote for a redesign.
Dan Ferris, the port’s chief financial and operating officer, launched into a briefing with the admonition that it was sometimes his job to deliver news no one wants to hear. While absolving Beaty Palmer Architects of fault, Ferris said the design envisioned 12 months ago was not exciting interest.
“When you build spec, you give up some leverage,” Ferris said by way of explaining that market demand can change between the time a spec project begins and is completed.
The port’s office of real estate development had been probing the market, looking to see what pre-lease interest there was for the original design—an 80,000-square-foot, three-story structure that is to be placed across the street from the Roberson Building in Kelly Center. It turned out there was no demand for what was on the draft board.
Kelly Center, still in the early stages of development, is planned to become a 400-acre mixed used development of office, residential, retail, hotel and restaurant venues.
Ferris assessed the poker chips the board was playing with and said they had $50 million in borrowing capacity and this one project was a $20 million commitment from that capacity.
“I think there is benefit in taking a little step back,” Ferris said.
The decision before the board was to give Beaty Palmer another two months to produce a design for a larger building—four stories and 100,000 square feet.
The current estimated project budget is $19.9 million, and the project would come back to the board in March. They will have the opportunity to vote then on whether to go with the larger building and take on the additional debt.
Shelving the project, however, does not appear to be in the cards. Roland Mower, the port’s chief executive officer, said a new building is badly needed, since the port has leased up, he emphasized, “every bit of space that we have available today.”
The estimated completion time was put at about 15 months, or the summer of 2018. SpawGlass was chosen last fall as the construction manager/contractor.
The proposed office building in the forefront is one phase of a master plan that could total more than 500,000 square feet of tech office space.
A 100-Year Legacy
The week before the vote, board members held a reunion with former board and staff, U.S. Air Force officers with the JBSA Kelly Field Annex, and local politicos. Kelly Field was founded in 1917 and the evening reception allowed them a moment for celebration. It was also a soft kick-off for a calendar of centennial events to take place from February to November.
In its heyday, Kelly AFB was the most important economic engine in southwest San Antonio. It employed 25,000 at its peak and had more than 12,000 employees when it was decommissioned in 1995.
When the based was handed over to the city and the Greater Kelly Development Corporation took over its governance, the assets of the new KellyUSA (predecessor to Port San Antonio) were for the most part a liability. Dozens of obsolete buildings needed to be demolished and new infrastructure installed to create the shovel-ready green spaces necessary for new development.
Private sector companies moved in and Port San Antonio is now able to boast a workforce comparable in numbers to what was in place 22 years ago. But Port San Antonio’s growth required pursuing high tech jobs and a more educated workforce. The city has not shared equally in its success.
West Southcross Boulevard, once the main street of South San Antonio, has yet to benefit from the resurgence of nearby Port San Antonio.
Juan Solis, a Port San Antonio board member and former city councilman, is well aware of the difference. His father worked at Kelly AFB and he recalled as a youngster how West Side and South Side neighbors enjoyed a sense of community and progress founded on Kelly AFB civil service jobs.
Solis was very much involved in the port’s redevelopment in the early days following the base closure. When asked where the workers of Port San Antonio live today, however, Solis had to point north.
The majority of the port’s workforce comes from across North Loop 1604, from council District 8, 9 and 10.
“They are white collar jobs,” Solis said. “So our job is to put a mix to that, so that you have opportunities for people all around the community.”
It is Solis’s hope that specialized educational programs will prepare young people that live in or want to live in the older inner-city neighborhoods near the port, raising the income base of those neighborhoods and thus generating an economic turnaround. As an example, he pointed to Alamo Academies Inc., a STEM-based instructional model that is driven by the aerospace industries invested in the port.
Solis noted that the majority of students recruited through Alamo Academies have come from school districts in the central, west and south side parts of the city.
The board has also made cyber security a high priority. Thanks to an Air Force decision to set up a Cyber Command at the port, the hope there is that private contractors will diversify their services and grow their businesses to include private sector clients.
“To a certain extent, we’re still Kelly Light. We’re too dependent on the military,” Solis said, but cyber is one way to develop a more balanced portfolio.
In a sense, the base closing led to a rebirth. Kelly Light, as he puts it, is an adolescent that has yet to muscle up. There are hundreds of acres within the port waiting to be developed and it is surrounded from neighborhoods cluttered with substandard housing that date back to the first half of the 20th century. It can be hard for the locals to see anything ever changing.
“It’s coming,” Solis said. “We are rehabbing. The bigger picture to me is that we put a stake in the ground and say, ‘This is the new generation. Here is the catalyst. Here is how it’s going to get done.’
“ If you don’t do that, when is it going to get done?”
Adolfo Pesquera is a veteran news journalist. He has previously worked for Hearst Corp., American Lawyer Media, News Corp and Freedom Communications. His work has been published in newspapers and magazines throughout the United States. He is a communications graduate of the University of Texas-PanAmerican.
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