The area known today as the Lavaca neighborhood has a long history, likely even stretching back to the era prior to European settlement in south and central Texas. The earliest known physical traces of the neighborhood’s history are houses at the northern end that date to the period immediately after the US Civil War. These houses are the remnants of the first European and/or mestizo settlement outside of what is now downtown San Antonio, and form the core of the Lavaca Historic District.
So, Lavaca is a ‘historic’ neighborhood, but what does that actually mean? This is not a simple question to answer, given the overlapping and not-necessarily consistent descriptions of what area the neighborhood itself encompasses, as well as the various zoning districts that share its name and/or physical location. Having had a front row seat to the process of historic designation in Lavaca in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I hope to clarify what the current situation is, as well as to provide some ideas for the future protection of our neighborhood.
During the signature-gathering for the historic district, two areas within the boundaries of the Lavaca Neighborhood stood out in terms of lack of support for the historic designation:
The so-called “zipper” that included the mostly-commercial properties along S. Presa and S. St. Mary’s
The triangle of residential streets south of Carolina Street and east of S. Presa.
Two different outcomes resulted. The triangle below Carolina was not included in the creation of the Lavaca Historic District, and to this day only a few houses in that area have become historic landmarks. For the “zipper”, a different type of overlay zoning designation was used, the Neighborhood Conservation District (NCD), which had just been instituted in San Antonio.
There was support for the NCD, which we described to property and business owners as “historic district lite”, in that the requirements, particularly for new development, are less stringent than in historic districts proper, and serve to regulate the overall character of an area without stipulating too many aspects of design. Mostly confined to massing, height, building placement and parking lot design, the NCD designation brought with it a set of objective design standards to which any new construction in the NCD has to adhere.
With the establishment of the Lavaca Historic District and the NCD, almost all of Lavaca had some kind of overlay zoning, with the exceptions of the triangle below Carolina, and the former Victoria Courts redevelopment site. The results are clear to see, especially compared with other near-downtown neighborhoods whose character has been transformed in recent years by widespread demolition of older buildings followed by new development that has no overall consistency of density or design.
Granted, not every area can, or should be, a historic district, but more is lost in some of these transformed neighborhoods than just the old buildings. In Lavaca, revitalization and gentrification are occurring, but at a snail’s pace compared to other neighborhoods. Lone Star, Dignowity Hill, and others have little of their older urban fabric intact, and with that loss, the sense of community has been lost also.
By the late 1990s, it became apparent to many in the neighborhood that times were changing, and the stability of Lavaca as a residential neighborhood could no longer be taken for granted. Nationally, downtown areas that had depopulated in the mid to late 20th century were seeing signs of revitalization, mostly in and around areas that had retained their historic character, despite outward migration to the suburbs as well as ill-advised expansion of schools, hospitals and other large institutions into surrounding residential areas. This trend was late in arriving in San Antonio, though the King William neighborhood, well on its way to revitalization (and gentrification, of course) was already a poster child for successful historic preservation on a neighborhood scale.
Local factors contributed to renewed interest in Lavaca, along with other near-downtown neighborhoods: the construction of the Alamodome in the late 1980s; the demolition of the Victoria Courts and subsequent public debate about what should replace the 660+ public housing units on that site; and the formation of the Southtown organization as a means of bringing redevelopment to the commercial streets (S. Alamo, S. St. Mary’s, S. Presa) that run though the area.
As was obvious in other cities and also other near-downtown neighborhoods here in San Antonio, with renewed interest and new investment came the threat of demolition and insensitive new development. Some neighborhoods near downtown San Antonio even literally ceased to exist by the late 1990s. In particular, the western part of what is now known as Tobin Hill was systematically demolished by San Antonio College as it expanded its campus. To many, including myself, Lavaca seemed threatened by external forces, and solutions were sought to preserve the character, both social and physical, of the neighborhood.
King William became the first residential historic district in Texas in the 1970s, commensurate with its status as a showplace of Victorian architecture produced by some of the most prominent architects in San Antonio for some of the wealthiest local families. Lavaca, with its modest houses that in part were contemporary with those in King William, seemed unlikely as a potential historic district to some, but the protection from demolition and inappropriate new development afforded by historic designation seemed the only effective tool to preserve the neighborhood’s character.
Well-established legally in many parts of the United States, historic districts are considered a type of “overlay” zoning category, in the sense that the “base” zoning, which is common to every property in most cities, establishes permitted uses on a particular piece of property, while the historic district regulates form, materials and massing, regardless of use, as an “overlay” to the “base” zoning.
For the Lavaca neighborhood, the first piece of the puzzle was the designation of several dozen houses in the northern part of the neighborhood as the Lavaca National Register Historic District. This designation is quite an honor, and is reserved for the most historically significant structures and districts in the United States. However, inclusion on the National Register does not carry with it any real protection against demolition or inappropriate development — legally, protection for historic resources can only occur for and within locally designated structures and districts.
With the Lavaca National Register district as the nucleus, efforts soon began to incorporate it along with the surrounding neighborhood into a comprehensive historic district. To that end, a stalwart group of neighbors met with city staff from the Office of Historic Preservation for guidance, and, over about a two-year period, collected sufficient signatures from property owners to establish formally the Lavaca Historic District.
Our success in protecting the neighborhood from external forces has made the area even more desirable, as evidenced by the large number of short-term rentals in the area—many people who visit San Antonio want to stay in Lavaca, in part due to its close proximity to downtown, but also because it does retain the character that has been lost over and over again in older neighborhoods in cities across the United States. Success has bred its own problems, as short-term rentals crowd out long-term owners and renters alike, particularly in the northern end of Lavaca, but these issues can, and will be, mitigated. The neighborhood is resilient, and will rebound.
As of early 2022, there is interest in the membership of the Lavaca Neighborhood Association board, among others, to expand the Lavaca Historic District to encompass the area which is now the NCD, as well as the triangle below Carolina. The board is gearing up to gauge interest in the areas not currently in the historic district for becoming part of the Lavaca Historic District, and anticipates initiating the process in late 2022 or early 2023. We hope the evident success of the Lavaca Historic District as it now stands will inspire all of our neighbors to join us.
Darryl Ohlenbusch teaches architecture at UTSA and is active in neighborhood development issues.
So, Lavaca is a ‘historic’ neighborhood, but what does that actually mean? This is not a simple question to answer
Lavaca retains the character that has been lost over and over again in older neighborhoods in cities across the United States.