This article was first published March 16, 2021, on the original 'Lavaca & Friends' website. It is one of several articles from that site that we have preserved and moved to the 'LNF Weekly' archive.
Lavaca and King William have changed dramatically over the past few decades.
Derelict houses have been cleaned up and sold. Rundown commercial buildings have been renovated and leased. Empty lots have sprouted construction. And lately, it seems that we’ve become surrounded by high-rise apartment complexes.
Oh yes, this too: Home prices have soared, and property taxes along with them.
All that change has some people worried about where we’re heading and what we can do to control that direction.
Lavaca and Friends is taking a look at that. We’re talking to people who have observed the changes, participated in the changes, and who have ideas about what happens next.
This is the first article in a series about those conversations.
We spoke a few weeks ago with local real estate developer Steve Yndo. Steve qualifies for comment based on all our criteria. He’s lived here, observing the changes, since the 1980s. He’s been an active participant in the changes, too, as a leader in neighborhood organizations and as a developer of disused and empty properties (see a list at the end of this article).
And, as both a resident and a developer, he thinks a lot about what makes our neighborhood what it is and how we can hang on to the good things.
Steve and Belinda in front of their home-to-be on Barrera Street in Lavaca (Photo courtesy of Steve Yndo)
Awakening of realtors
For a long time, there were only three real estate businesses selling in the neighborhood — Centro Properties, Southtown Realty, and Betty’s King William Realty. In general, realtors from elsewhere in the city ignored everything south of Monte Vista.
“Anybody who would come to San Antonio at that time, if they asked about living downtown, would be told no, you don’t want to live down there. It’s too dangerous, the schools are bad, etcetera, etcetera.”
What changed things, Steve believes, was the success of The Pearl, “both locally and nationally,” in 2006 and 2007.
“It kind of blew the lid off the idea that there was no housing downtown. So, at that point, other realtors in town could no longer redline and tell people there was nothing to look at.”
“The neighborhood was too well known, too popular. So they were forced either to learn it or refer business to somebody who knew it. Or lose their business.”
“Once you get to a tipping point,” Steve says, “it’s a virtuous cycle. We still have a lot of great people down here, interesting stuff. We’re the visual arts center of San Antonio. We’ve got the biggest concentration outside The Pearl of independently owned, chef-driven restaurants.”
“Once you get that critical mass of arts, restaurants and people down here, so it feels like there’s something going on, then you tend to get more people down here; the more people you get down here, retail directed at those people gets built, like the H-E-B Flores Street market. And it just feeds on itself.”
"And the trend nation-wide, at least for younger people and for older people who are empty nesters, they want to be where the action is. They — some of them; enough of them — don’t want to be in a generic disconnected neighborhood.”
“San Antonio is now at that point.”
The benefits of lagging
In real estate development, San Antonio tends to lag five or ten years behind the trends in other major Texas cities, Steve says.
“The same thing goes for the return to urban living. San Antonio lags what’s been going on in Dallas, Houston and Austin by a good ten years. So in my mind, we’re really just now getting started.”
It used to be that our economy was really insulated and unique, so development projects that might succeed in Dallas or Houston could either succeed or fail here, and there was no apparent rhyme or reason to it. “You just never knew.”
Because more corporations have grown here and brought people in, our economy and the makeup of our population has become much more like other cities.
“The key, though — while that’s happening — will be to not lose the good part of the culture that we have. So far we’ve done a pretty good job of hanging on to that.”
“Because San Antonio grows so slow — even now, it grows slower than other major Texas cities — we have a chance to see what is working or not working in other Texas cities and correct our path before it gets too far out of hand.”
Austin, on the other hand, has already changed beyond recovery, Steve says. He remembers Austin in the seventies, when he was a kid, and again in the eighties, when, he says, he was already ‘pissed off’ that it wasn’t like he remembered it from the seventies. And now, today, he describes it as the Singapore of Texas, and he doesn’t mean that in a good way.
Once again, people and culture are important to him.
Austin has become sort of a mini-Dallas, Steve says (with apologies to his friends and family who live there and still love it), where “everyone is into themselves” and you have conversations where people are primarily trying to impress each other. “It’s too often only about money and looks and appearance.”
San Antonio is not like that. It still has retained its culture, Steve says.
“You can move to town from somewhere else and within two months be totally tapped into whatever non-profit you want to work on, get invited to parties at a $4 million mansion and a $150,000 house on the same weekend. It’s just always been a great mix of that kind of thing.”
“King William and Lavaca are still a good mix of people. It’s intergenerational; it’s gay, straight, LGBT-friendly; you don’t have to have money in order to fit in, to talk with people and connect with people and make friends.”
“As long as you’re a nice person and relatively interesting, you can make twenty grand and have a nice life down here, go to great parties, and be treated just the same as everybody else.”
“What typically happens in a bigger community, a richer community — like Austin or Houston — when an area becomes hip, this is the place to be, it quickly becomes kind of a yuppie ghetto. People twenty and thirty years old who are making $150,000 a year in some tech business or whatever and that’s all it is. Good luck if you’re a sixty year old living amongst that — you won’t really feel like you’re part of the community. That hasn’t happened in San Antonio.”
Where are we headed
Many long-term neighbors worry that the things that make our neighborhood great are threatened by gentrification. People whose families have lived here for generations are being forced out by rising property taxes that track rising property values. Most of the funky retail stores on South Alamo have been replaced by restaurants and law offices. And neighborhood spots like Bite and Acapulco are disappearing, while ‘destination’ restaurants like Bliss and Battalion absorb prime real estate.
As those homeowners and businesses get forced out, the neighborhood changes. However, we’ve got some backstops, like historical districts and big chunks of government-owned property, and we’ve also got an activist community of neighborhood organizations and neighborhood-focused developers and businesses.
Steve cites two realities that give the neighborhood some protective inertia and control that is lacking elsewhere: our historic district designations and the substantial chunk of property controlled by the San Antonio Housing Authority.
Both Lavaca and King William acquired historic designations late in the twentieth century, thanks to hard work by dedicated community activists.
Today, you’ll hear complaints from people about how that designation makes it hard for them to renovate their homes exactly the way they’d like, but Steve considers that protection to be vital to preserving the uniqueness and value of the neighborhood’s culture and economy.
In addition, a significant chunk of Lavaca residential property is controlled by the San Antonio Housing authority, and SAHA has sought out and been responsive to neighborhood input on what it does with that property.
That property — in the corner of Lavaca closest to the Alamodome — was previously a public housing project called Victoria Courts. Built in 1940, Victoria Courts in the late twentieth century was old, rundown, and had a reputation for being dangerous. When SAHA demolished the housing in 2000, it worked with the neighborhood on plans for re-purposing that property.
SAHA hasn’t made everyone happy, but they’ve listened and incorporated neighborhood feedback in a way that a private developer might not.
One example, Steve points out, is the gradation of housing scale from César Chávez on the north edge of the SAHA property to Leigh Street on the south edge. Dense, multi-story apartments fill the first two blocks, less dense townhomes come next, and single-owner standalone houses line Leigh Street itself. That approach, Steve says, was an approach negotiated between the Lavaca neighborhood and SAHA.
At the same time, SAHA’s mission of supporting housing for lower-income residents has helped preserve the neighborhood’s income diversity. Both the Refugio and Hemisview apartments are a mix of market-rate and subsidized units. Many of the low-income renters are young families with children, which also supports generational diversity, something that can be missing from newer privately-developed apartment complexes.
What are Steve’s concerns
“The only thing that really has begun to concern me is that there are certain elements in the business community who have an attitude of ‘hey, we just need to knock stuff down and build new. We can’t just hang onto all these old buildings.’”
Steve says that this is ‘the exact opposite of what we need to be doing.”
“That’s the only thing that has kept San Antonio in the economic development game -- the fact that we’ve got all that historic structure and fabric that we’ve hung onto.”
Deciding that we’ve got too many old buildings and that "we should tear it down and build something new and cool like Austin or Dallas would be the death knell for San Antonio’s feeling.”
Gentrification and economic diversity
“I think we’ve still got economic diversity down here. San Antonio doesn’t have near the gentrification that other places do.”
“San Antonio is blessed in that our population recognizes that and tries to do something about it. As an example, Lavaca and the re-do of Victoria Commons. At least in the past, and I think still today, a majority of residents in Lavaca made a big push and demanded that it stay a mixed-income community and not become all market-rate.”
“Lavaca is not a NIMBY neighborhood.”
One topic that generates controversy in the neighborhood is density. Many neighbors oppose it. Steve says it’s a good thing.
“Back when we were doing St. Benedict’s, people were saying that we don’t need more development, it’s getting too crowded, there’s too much traffic.”
“I went back and looked at the demographics, and there were twice as many people living in King William as late as the 1970s and eighties as in 2000. Every other house in King William was made up of four or five apartments. All those are gone.”
And, of course, Victoria Courts is gone.
“I bet we’re still not back to the population numbers we had in this neighborhood in the sixties and seventies.”
“And if you’re going to get the Flores Street Market, if you’re going to get drug stores — all the stuff that people always bitch about not being down here — you’ve got to have people.”
“We still need a lot more density down here than we have.”
Steve ran into that attitude when developing his Cedar Street townhomes and his Madison Street project. The neighborhood pushed him to reduce density.
In the case of Madison Street, the original plan was to develop eight or nine townhomes, but he had to reduce the number of units and build garden homes instead.
The Cedar Street townhomes were originally designed for 21 or 22 homes, but “over the course of two years of negotiating with the neighborhood, we got a smaller number and a bigger square footage of units. Push, push, push down to where we got fourteen units.”
Fewer, larger units, of course, means a higher price tag per unit, which affects who can afford them and, for the developer, increases risk, since more expensive units usually sell more slowly. (In the case of Cedar Street, however, Steve says the higher priced units went first).
Steve’s commitment to the neighborhood is a personal one, not just a business commitment. The neighborhood reflects his values, and it’s where he wants to be.
And he’ll be here for a while.
He has just begun work renovating a home on Barrera Street in Lavaca, where he and his wife Belinda plan to relocate as soon as the work is done.
“I love this neighborhood,” Steve says. “This is where I want to be.”
Our conversation with Steve
Steve Yndo is not the kind of person who usually comes to mind when you hear the phrase ‘real estate developer’. But while real estate development is what he does, his values and his development projects have, at their core, a very San Antonio — and a very Lavaca-and-King-William — ethos.
That makes some sense, because this is his neighborhood, and it has been his neighborhood for a long time.
Steve grew up in San Antonio, on the north side, but his family moved to King William when he was away at college, back in the early eighties, and he joined the family here when he graduated.
The family’s move to King William was precipitated by his widowed father Mike’s marriage to Betty Gaddis, who would become a Southtown realtor and neighborhood promoter.
Arrival in the neighborhood
When Steve arrived in the neighborhood from college in the early eighties, it wasn’t anything like the place it is today.
Many of the big homes in King William were ‘flop houses’ in Steve’s words, broken up into for-rent rooms, and the perceived heart of Lavaca was decades-old government housing, Victoria Courts, although Lavaca also had a lot of small homes that had been in the same family for generations.
And most of the commercial real estate, Steve says, was either boarded up or a methadone clinic.
“Back then it was pretty rough. We had the highest concentration of methadone clinics in the city,” Steve told us. “What weren’t methadone clinics or other questionable operations were mostly vacant, boarded-up buildings.”
Bringing back the neighborhood
Bringing the neighborhood back was the project of a lot of individuals in both Lavaca and King William, and the San Antonio Housing Authority also played a role.
Steve points to people like his stepmother Betty and architect Lewis Fisher as examples of the individuals who worked to turn things around.
Betty, Steve says, was a fierce advocate for the neighborhood, both selling its properties and, when necessary, renovating them herself — buying homes that owners couldn’t sell and fixing them up for resale.
Back in the late eighties and early nineties, homes in the neighborhood were pretty affordable. In King William — excluding King William Street itself — Steve says that you could buy a 2,000 square foot home for $100,000. That same square footage in Lavaca might cost $40-50,000.
There was an opportunity to get into the neighborhood at a really affordable price, assuming you were willing to fix a place up.
The key to selling homes here, his stepmother Betty insisted, was to sell the neighborhood, not the property.
“You don’t have to do that as much anymore,” Steve said, “but back then you really had to sell people on the neighborhood.”
The pitch, he said, was partly the historic housing and the location next to downtown. But mostly it was the people.
“The people who live down here have always been the attraction in my mind,” Steve said. “It’s always been an interesting mix of people."
“It’s always been the highest concentration of artists who live here; architects; literary people; people who are well-traveled; people who have been in other cities and don’t want to live in a generic suburb.”
“It’s always been like that, even back in the eighties.”
While the residential portions of the neighborhood were slowly being revitalized back then, the commercial corridor was lagging behind.
That led to the formation of the Southtown Mainstreet Alliance, which Steve says grew out of the King William Association. Steve was president of that organization for a while.
A big struggle for the Alliance, Steve says was ‘trying to get small businesspeople together to cooperate with each other… trying to get people just to open regular hours from ten to six or ten to seven instead of ‘maybe they’re open, maybe they’re not’ or they’re shutting down at 3 PM.”
At least, however, there was still some interesting retail on South Alamo Street, thanks to cheap rents. There was a stationery and greeting card shop, a small jewelry and art store, even a used book store. Most of that, Steve says, has since been pushed out, leaving South Alamo as “kind of just restaurant and attorney row.”
Before that happened, however, the Alliance and the neighborhood tried some things to spark business. One thing was the First Friday Art Walk.
Back in the beginning — in 1999 and 2000 — First Friday was genuinely an art event. Galleries and artist studios in Blue Star were open and crowded with people. The Blue Star Contemporary art space put together innovative programs, including works that extended out of the Contemporary space itself and into the neighborhood. Art galleries and shops along South Alamo were open and seeing lots of foot traffic.
It was an ebullient event.
But over time it soured.
“About 2002 was when it got to the point where it was just totally out of control,” Steve says. “Regular businesses started to shut their doors because it was turning into a drunk fest, basically.”
“Before, everybody had their doors open, everybody had free wine, hors d’oeuvres, that kind of thing.”
“Then it got to the point where all of a sudden you had people coming in who were just coming for the free liquor. So you stopped that. Then it got to the point where you got a mass of people who had been drinking inside and outside your place. So you shut your doors. And then all it was… everybody had a band, everybody had a food booth. The place would be trashed on Saturday morning. And that’s when the Southtown Alliance really started to work with the neighborhood to kind of reform it.”
Still, before it soured, it did introduce a lot of people from outside the neighborhood to the liveliness and excitement that was beginning to define the neighborhood.
Here’s a chronological listing of Steve’s development projects over the years.
King William Lofts
923 S. Alamo and 212 Madison Street (1999 - 2000)
This was a conversion of the former Samuels Glass Company building into eleven residential condominium lofts, including three live/work units along South Alamo. The condos were sold as shell units with each unit then being designed and built out by the purchaser. The project was undertaken by Steve and partners Dan and Linda Rutherford. Poteet Architects did the overall design and the majority of the buyers’ interior designs.
South St. Mary’s Commercial Conversion
1119 and 1127 South St. Mary's (2003)
This was a two-part conversion: a former construction office and shop was converted into live/work apartment and office space, and the former Sunglo convenience store was converted into restaurant space. The space was initially occupied by Espuma Coffee after it's relocation from South Alamo Street and then by the Southtown Cafe. The space was sold to Stacey Hill in 2008 for further conversion to The Monterrey Restaurant and later The Good Kind. Steve’s partner in this project was James Lifshutz.
Southtown Pizzeria Conversion
728 S. Presa Street (2004)
This was the conversion of a former tire shop into the El Sol Bakery; the building was later sold by El Sol to Southtown Pizzeria.
South St. Mary’s Office Conversion
1114 South St. Mary's Street (2006)
This was a renovation of two buildings totaling 11,000 square feet that had been occupied by Bexar County MHMR as a methadone clinic. The buildings were converted into two live-work units and office space. Some initial tenants included the Shambhalah Meditation Center, The Bower Art Gallery, Robot Creative and Poteet Architects. Steve’s partner and architect in this project was Jim Poteet.
South Presa Retail Conversion
812 South Presa Street (2007)
This was the conversion of the former Postal Workers Union Hall into office and retail space. The converted space was initially occupied by NAPA Paint and used for sales of auto paint. It later became a juice shop. Steve’s partner in this project was Mike Villarreal.
St. Benedict’s Lofts
1111 South Alamo (2007 - 2009)
This was the conversion of the former St. Benedict's Hospital into sixty-seven units of residential condominiums and live/work/retail space. The project developers, in addition to Steve, were Chris Hill and James Lifshutz. Davis Sprinkle was the architect.
The present Liberty Bar building was originally part of the St. Benedict’s complex — it was a convent that housed the nuns who operated the St. Benedict’s hospital. It was sold to Liberty Bar’s owner Dwight Hobart, who undertook the renovation himself, also using Davis Sprinkle as the architect.
Madison Street Garden Homes
200 Block of Madison Street (2010 - 2014)
This project was the development of six garden home lots on land from the back of the St. Benedict’s project. Five garden homes of 2,700-2,900 square feet were built by Jim Nelson and Steve Yndo using insulated concrete form (ICF) construction and aerated concrete blocks. One of those homes achieved LEED Silver certification. Jim Poteet did the original design and site planning, and later home design modifications were made by Darryl Ohlenbusch and Billy Lambert. The sixth home, built on the corner lot, was constructed by an individual with a design by Candid Rogers.
Cedar Street Townhomes
Cedar Street at Pereida Street (2018 - 2020)
This was new, in-fill construction of fourteen townhomes on the former site of the Children’s Shelter (which relocated to a larger facility on the west side). The development was by SOJO Urban Development (Steve, Mike Melson, and Frank Pakuszewski) with architecture by Alamo Architects.
The Pearl (2012 and later)
Steve, along with his SOJO Urban Development partners, has also done work in recent years in The Pearl. Projects include the East Quincy Townhomes (in 2012), followed by SOJO Crossing Townhomes and SOJO Commons Townhomes. Each project was about twenty-seven total units with sizes ranging from 950 square feet to 3,900 square feet. The East Quincy project was one of the first for-sale, attached townhome projects in San Antonio, Steve says.
Jim Feuerstein is co-editor of LNF Weekly; he also designs and manages the website.
These photos of pre-renovation buildings are courtesy of Steve Yndo.