Flasher, the Pearl, and Tobin Hill
Flasher Equipment Company is one of the largest landholders in Tobin Hill. The company operates on six acres of land immediately west of the San Antonio River. Their property is the linchpin to the next phase of changes coming to one of the city's rockstar urban redevelopment precincts; the block of property links the Tobin Hill Historic District to the river and the Pearl. It is, right now, the hole next to the heart of Tobin Hill. The unkempt industrial nature of the property has long contributed to a lack of investment in the immediate area, as people wanting to invest in the neighborhood have purchased in the historic district or in townhouse or condo developments instead.
Well, that's apparently changing. Flasher has purchased property outside the city center where they'll move operations, freeing up the site for redevelopment. Part of the parcel is currently up for rezoning. The new owners (Flasher SOJO, presumably a site-specific corporation controlled by the SOJO Development Group) have applied to change the current industrial zoning to IDZ, with uses allowed in MF-33. That is, they're looking to build condos or apartments.
So far, so good. Converting industrial uses to residential in this area makes good economic sense and works well for the neighborhood, too. Long-time residents won't have to listen to backup beepers on commercial trucks at 2:30 in the morning, and the sidewalks destroyed by decades of curb hopping will be rebuilt.
But thoughtful development is more than slapping up dense blocks of apartments. The Pearl is the city's shining example of how master planning an area creates something greater. It mixes commercial, residential, restaurant, and other uses to create a vibrant district that's more than the sum of its parts. So what should SOJO (or any other developer) do with a six-acre parcel of land immediately adjacent to the river, the Pearl, and a historic district?
1: Respond to your surroundings
I'm sure that a spreadsheet will show that maxing out residential density gives the best return. But that says nothing about quality of life, which is the very reason that investment has skyrocketed in the area.
This is dead simple. Part of the property is along commercial corridors (facing Pearl, along St. Mary's, Josephine). Put commercial there. A restaurant or two where it makes sense. Even better, put one-story commercial in with residential above. Mix in some nodes of taller commercial if there's a business case for it. Go ahead and densify -- more people is OK. But continue the city's historic patterns of development rather than just dropping in a blob of uniformly designed apartments.
Photo: Traditional mixed-use storefronts in Annapolis, Maryland. Retail below, residential above.
2: Strengthen corridors with site planning
Walking is a big deal down here now. It's even in the name: the genesis of everything is the extension of the River Walk. Pearl is a wonderful blend of transportation modes, but the pedestrian is primary. The Flasher property has two edges with bike routes (St. Mary's and Josephine) and one with a near-direct connection to the bridge across the river into Pearl (Locust).
Make something of that. Widen the sidewalks and plant street trees. Advocate for complete streets improvements adjacent to your property. Why doesn't St. Mary's have a planted median, for example? Why aren't there shade trees on Locust? Pay attention to making the edges work.
The first point touches on this, but let's say it explicitly, too. This isn't the suburbs, with acre upon acre of essentially identical tract homes. It's the city, and a historic part of the city. Housing types should be diverse (some apartments, some townhomes, some condos, and maybe even some new single-family housing in a spare corner or two) and design should be diverse, too. It's not necessary -- or desirable -- to go to the multiplicity of wild roofs and jutting projections that David Weekley Homes managed to jam onto their development on North St. Mary's, but neither should the development be another massive, dull Texas doughnut. Mix things up, think contextually about how the edges relate to what's around them, and it will happen naturally.
4: Stop taking advantage
Seriously, guys. I know people will buy whatever gets put up because they don't know better. But consider putting a little more money into building things that will outlast the 30-year light frame death horizon. How about a little steel structure and concrete at the commercial? Maybe some podium construction if you're going to go higher, and -- this is crazy talk -- metal studs? Maybe no OSB except for wall sheathing? Is that a possibility?
The bottom line is that if all a developer cares about is the bottom line, nothing great will happen. Depending on how sharp the developer's pencil is, there won't even be anything good.
This is a tremendous urban reclamation possibility. If developers think of it in terms of how to extend the momentum on the river, and how to transform something run down into something great, things will come out fine. It's rare to get an opportunity to impact the city positively like this.