McCormack Baron Salazar, SAHA Open East Meadows
HUD Secretary Julian Castro speaks to media during a tour of the homes at East Meadows.
Posted: 10-14-2016, 5:04 p.m.
by Adolfo Pesquera
San Antonio (Bexar Co.) - There is a grand gathering on a crisp, cool Friday morning in October.
Exiting their vehicles, visitors look around in wonder. As soon as sight takes in the sheer mass of the acres of new residential construction, buildings in freshly painted warm colors, the nose picks up the smell of manure in the mulch, how it wafts about and how it makes that cognitive tie-in to what it represents—a nurturing foundation for young plumbago and lantana, newly planted mountain laurel.
The landscaping feels so out of place. This is a pocket of the East Side, after all, that rubs shoulders with an early 20th century railyard and the warehouses it sprouted. And it's not just the East Side but the heart of Harvard Place/Eastlawn, and the heart of that is Wheatley Courts, only it is not.
Not anymore. The small print on the sign under a welcoming tent reserved for officials of this grand opening ceremony says “Formerly Wheatley Courts,” and the larger font, where visitors are now? This is East Meadows, the nurturing foundation of the northeast quadrant of the old East Side.
Shut your eyes, old-timers. For those with long memories, what was is not, except in our heads. We look around. We do not recognize, we are in a transformed place and every scheduled speaker says as much.
Dr. Morris Stribling, chairman of the board of the San Antonio Housing Authority, tells of his first tour to Wheatley Courts, after he was sworn in as a board commissioner. The doctor visited in the home of a tenant who shared her reality.
“I can’t hang pictures, Dr. Stribling. My apartment’s made out of cinderblock. And I can’t cook on the inside in the summer because it gets too hot because I don’t have air conditioning,” she said.
But it was much worse then than just a place with cement walls and no AC.
“No American should be subject to that,” Stribling told his audience, for he spoke before 250 or so—a crowd made of former residents and the army of specialists from a dozen or more agencies and private enterprises that had a hand in what has taken Wheatley Court’s place.
This is East Meadows. Or at least a part, for it is not finished. They celebrated the opening of the first 215 family apartments—two and three story buildings all assembled with the most modern materials and appliances. No more cinderblock walls, every unit with a working thermostat.
This isn’t Wheatley Courts, with its Third World simplicity, a place barren of “amenities.” Amenities, there is a term now standardized to refer to upscale real estate features. But East Meadows has amenities, too.
A business center, central park, a gazebo. Picnic areas and what are picnic areas without green space? A playground, a swimming pool, parking for cars and bikes. Go inside, there’s a community room, a fitness center.
County Judge Nelson Wolff's turn at the podium came next to last. “We’re on the tomato-throwing end of the line-up.” Cue hysterical laughter. The joy of the crowd couldn’t be contained, irrepressible smiles all around. There is a lightness here that feels spiritual.
“This is indeed a day of rebirth, a day of hope. The turbulent days of the past are over and a beautiful rainbow is appearing,” he said.
For those who recollect of turbulent days, Wolff's words are a signal hand-clap—awake from that nightmare, be free of it. There were times when the violence was so pervasive, exposure to it could bring on shell-shock. It could be too much to process and many did not survive. Wheatley Courts had its place alongside urban gang war zones like San Juan Homes and Victoria Courts, all crime riddled hell blocks that couldn’t go under the bulldozer too soon.
“When a neighborhood gets stigmatized, it’s just a place of drugs and violence,” said another old-timer, Congressman Lloyd Doggett. “The success that is San Antonio becomes a little less because that neighborhood has been forgotten and left behind.
“We have today, not only a new name, but a new way of looking at this particular neighborhood,” the senior congressman said.
There came a diaspora. Wheatley Courts was torn asunder. And then a miracle. Harvard Place/Eastlawn is the only community in the nation to have received all four White House Neighborhood Revitalization initiative grants: Choice Neighborhoods, Promise Neighborhoods, Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation, and Promise Zone.
A public-private partnership pumped $100 million into this ground. When the carpenters finally leave, there will be 332 homes for families in one- to four-bedroom garden apartments, and 80 one and two bedroom homes for seniors, 412 in all. And it won’t be another Wheatley Courts; the formula changed from concentrating poverty to the more sustainable concept of mixed income neighbors.
What does mixed-income mean, asks Tony Salazar, president of the private equity partner McCormack Baron and Salazar. He points behind him to a unit that will rent at the market rate of $850 a month. Next to it, he points to a unit with tax credit financing the allows a $400 a month lease. Next door, a public housing unit that rents at 30 percent of whatever income the tenant has.
Salazar’s company came in as developer and property manager. McCormack Baron Salazar (MBS) went to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros with the idea of mixed-finance housing. It was 1994. San Antonio’s first HUD Secretary opened the way for two demonstration projects.
There was a road map for Julian Castro, the San Antonio mayor that became San Antonio’s second HUD Secretary. Along the way, MBS built over 10,000 units across the United States and Puerto Rico; eight of them Choice Neighborhoods like East Meadows.
Choice Neighborhoods, coined from the HUD Choice Neighborhoods Initiative, promotes comprehensive transformations of distressed areas of concentrated poverty into viable and sustained mixed-income neighborhoods by linking housing improvements with a wider variety of public services.
A wider variety of public services
- BiblioTech: A 4,200-square-foot digital library funded by Bexar County, scheduled to open February 2017.
- Good Samaritan Veterans Outreach and Transition Center: An adaptive reuse of a historic East Side building now under construction; a partnership between St. Philips College, SAHA, and a tax increment reinvestment zone.
- Menger Creek Linear Park: A $10 million park development north of East Meadows that is a collaboration between the city and county.
- Union Pacific Railyard: Bexar County Commissioners Court negotiated with Union Pacific the acquisition of a 10-acre portion of the retired railyard to expand on East Side urban renewal goals.
- University Health System: A $4 million investment for a family health clinic on two acres at Interstate 35 and Walters Street, its grand opening is next month.
Other public services include the opening next month of a workforce development training center and the expansion of Pre-K for East Side children.
Secretary Castro received a hero’s welcome. County Commissioner Tommy Calvert educated the crowd on Castro’s role in championing affordable housing for the East Side, first as mayor and then in Washington.
“Thank you for keeping your promise to look out for this side of town, a side of town that, frankly, almost nobody invested in before,” Calvert said. “You’re the reason we have the Choice Neighborhoods. You’re the reason we have the Promise Zone.”
There was little left for Castro to say, other than to thank everyone involved for playing their role as agents of change, and assuring those in the present—“It’s going to be well maintained.”
Now in the trust of SAHA and MBS, the former Wheatley Courts residents can come home to East Meadows. They will have new neighbors that will be vested in a community that has buried its past.
This is East Meadows, an engine that will assure the greater Harvard Place/Eastlawn neighborhoods will not be left behind.
“I’m confident it’s going to be a nice, high-quality community for years to come,” Castro said.
The Financial Partners and Development Team:
San Antonio Housing Authority; McCormack Baron Salazar; City of San Antonio; RBC Capital Markets; Capital One N.A.; Texas Department of Housing & Community Affairs; San Antonio Housing Facility Corp.; general contractor SLSCO Ltd.; architect KAI Texas
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.
- CENTRAL TX - Desperately Seeking Craftsmen - Construction Industry Labor Gaps Get Worse
- NORTH TX - Google AdWords: Aiming at the Misdirection Game
- CENTRAL TX - Tech Training for Building Trades Eyed, Rail Projects Threatened
- SOUTH TX - McCormack Baron Salazar, SAHA Open East Meadows
- CENTRAL TX - Genstar Capital, iSqFt sued by ex-BidClerk CEO for Breach of Merger Agreement