SAHA / Victoria Commons Update

The Victoria Commons development project is generating a lot of discussion and comment. There have been several public meetings about the project, and SAHA has also met with smaller groups from the neighborhood.

The Artisan Park homeowners have been especially concerned about the part of the development that will be going in behind their townhomes. Originally, SAHA had planned to fill that entire area with additional townhomes. However, the initial phase didn’t sell out and the market has since turned down. So SAHA is now talking about putting rental units in that space, with some ownership units around the edges.

The Board of the Lavaca Neighborhood Association recently discussed the issue and asked me to speak with SAHA and ask some questions about that part of the development.

Following is the email that I drafted for the Board on Thursday, reporting on my conversation with SAHA’s Brad McMurray.

(Note: I ran my first draft of this email past Brad McMurray, to ensure that I hadn’t misunderstood anything. He did point out a couple of errors, which I corrected. So, while this is my distillation of the conversation, Brad feels it accurately represents what he told me.)

There’s a discussion of Victoria Commons ongoing within our private neighborhood social network, NextDoor Lavaca. You can also find SAHA’s latest presentation regarding the planned development here on the Lavaca Neighborhood Association web site.

– Jim Feuerstein

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Thursday, December 8, 2011

I spoke with Brad McMurray of SAHA on Wednesday morning to ask some of the questions raised by the Board at our meeting Tuesday evening. Brad and I spoke for slightly more than an hour, and this is a distillation of that conversation. In addition, Brad called me just before 5PM today (Thursday) to tell me that a developer has been selected, so I’ll include that update, too.

WHY THE MOVE FROM FOR-SALE TOWNHOMES TO MULTI-FAMILY RENTALS

There are essentially three reasons for the change in approach:

1. Financing. SAHA won’t be able to get financing to build for-sale townhomes. “Unless you have cash — and we don’t — you need to get financing.”

2. Market. Outside consultants have reported that there isn’t sufficient market for the for-sale townhomes. The market demand is for smaller rental units.

3. Experience. The existing townhomes didn’t sell, and that experience provides real-world information about what works and doesn’t work. In addtion, SAHA’s attempts to refinance the existing townhomes served to further emphasize the financing issues.

The plans that SAHA is proposing were based on an analysis of both financing and market realities. SAHA engaged outside consultants to do that analysis. Two consultants were hired to do separate, independent analyses, and a local expert was hired to challenge those analyses. The current plans were based on the results.

SAHA also faces some limitations imposed by its obligation to provide affordable housing. For example, Brad said, it might be possible to develop and sell less-dense luxury units, but that is outside SAHA’s mandate.

However, Brad told me that SAHA is looking at development of ownership units along Refugio and Santa Clara, possibly including both sides of Santa Clara all the way to Leigh, thus pushing the multi-family development further back.

If these ownership units are built in the near-term, they will very likely be rented initially and made available for sale at a later date. If they are built later, it’s possible that — with changes in the market — they could be built for immediate sale. In either case, however, SAHA is planning to build the units with eventual ownership in mind. That means, for example, that the units will have more square feet, more bedrooms, higher-quality finish, designated parking near the front door, and clearer individual identities than units intended only for rental.

DENSITY ISSUE

There are several issues relating to density that I raised with Brad, and he responded:

There are multiple reasons for the increase in planned density.

First, rentals generally require higher density than for-sale units, due to the need to provide resources and staffing. Those fixed costs need to be spread over more units.

Second, SAHA’s mandate includes invigorating the neighborhood. Higher density is required to support some other parts of the plan, including, for example, retail development, parks and parks programming, and a potential business incubator facility. (Brad pointed out, however, that the retail study hasn’t been completed yet, so SAHA doesn’t yet know exactly how the density / retail equation will work out. It’s currently just a general observation: population density supports retail.)

Third, this is part of a bigger picture of downtown development, and higher residential density is a goal of the city.

TRAFFIC AND PARKING

SAHA has commissioned a traffic study which looked at possible bottleneck points. The study isn’t complete (it’s expected before year-end), but preliminary results were available at the November meeting. That study didn’t look at traffic within the Refugio / Artisan Park area itself, only at possible choke-points in the overall neighborhood. Those results were positive and Brad says that, to some extent, you can assume that those results have some meaning for the interior of neighborhood as well.

At the same time, he recognizes that more residents will mean more traffic. To reduce the impact in the immediate area, SAHA is trying to get approval to break another street out into Leigh, thus providing another exit from the immediate neighborhood.

Brad also acknowledges that managing parking is an issue and one that’s not easily resolved as San Antonio develops downtown, urban residential living. SAHA plans to provide code-level parking, but does not plan to create a “suburban-style” development with parking to support two or three vehicles per family. Parking will be aimed at urban living patterns.

SAHA is participating in the City’s process to establish a car-share program, hoping to establish a car-share “pod” in Victoria Commons. Brad says that this is the City’s program, not SAHA’s, but that SAHA hopes to be a partner in the program. In addition, SAHA wants to include bike-sharing and street-car access in an overall “urban” approach to transportation.

According to Brad, the current plan for the streetscape is to emphasize front doors, windows, and gardens, while parking is moved out of view.

STATUS

SAHA recommended a developer to the board this afternoon, and that recommendation has been approved. The selected developer is McCormack Baron Salazar, an organization that — Brad reports — specializes in urban development and revitalization and infill development. He says that the company has done 29 “Hope VI” projects.

Here’s their web site: McCormack Baron Salazar

Now that the developer has been approved, there’s still a contract to be negotiated. Once the developer is in place, SAHA will work with that developer, with Artisan Park residents, and with Lavaca generally to refine the Master Plan with input from all of those parties.

Thus far, Brad says, the plans we’ve seen represent “conceptual massing” — that is, ‘coloring in’ blocks of space with a general concept of what will be developed there. The developer (1) will move to real ‘plans’ and (2) may disagree with the concepts as they stand.

Brad said that a key criteria in selecting the developer was their willingness to solicit and incorporate community input and their experience in doing so.

SAHA hopes to have a final master plan to present to the City in January, but getting the developer involved and getting the developer’s input could result in a delay. Still, Brad hopes that they’ll reach that point by the end of January, since the goal is to break ground on the commercial development (at Labor and Cézar Chávez) in 2012.

POSITION

Brad says that SAHA is trying to do what’s best for the neighborhood as a whole and is trying to do what will work financially and in the market. With that in mind, he says, SAHA is willing to listen to the Artisan Park residents, consider their input, and compromise where possible.

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