Updated: Apr 3
Darryl Ohlenbusch isn't always in the neighborhood. We liked this photo from his Facebook page and got his permission to use it. It was taken in Grimma, Germany, Darryl explains, where one of his great-grandmothers was born.
Darryl Ohlenbusch has been active in the Lavaca neighborhood for almost three decades. Today, he teaches architecture at the downtown campus of UTSA and lives in a home on Labor Street that he designed and built in 2001.
He is also the Lavaca Neighborhood Association’s Zoning & Historic Preservation Director.
Lavaca and Friends had a wide-ranging conversation with Darryl recently to discuss neighborhood development — the factors that have shaped Lavaca’s development in recent decades and the changes — some of them controversial — that are now underway.
Darryl points to two critical events that are responsible for the shape of today’s Lavaca, both of which happened shortly after the turn of the century:
Achieving historic designation for the neighborhood
Successfully negotiating a master plan for the neighborhood with the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA)
The neighborhood has two levels of historic designation. The city gave historic status to Lavaca in 2001 (and added more territory to the designated area in 2002 and 2004). A smaller piece in the northwest corner of Lavaca was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2000.
Achieving the city’s designation required a lot of work by the neighborhood, with people going door-to-door getting neighbors to sign off on the plan. Darryl mentions his mother, Mary Ann Ohlenbusch, and long-time neighborhood activist Joan Carabin as two of the people who led that effort.
Historic designation, Darryl says, “was the only tool at our disposal back then for trying to maintain the scale of the neighborhood and the character of the neighborhood.”
Not every place needs to be a historic district, Darryl emphasizes, but he believes it has worked out well for Lavaca.
Historic designation has helped preserve the fabric of the neighborhood, in both commercial and residential areas.
Value of historic designation
“Historic designation has the intended effect of reducing speculation, where someone buys a residential lot, expecting they can tear down a house and build four, five, or six units on it. They can’t, so they’re not buying those houses. So there’s not the pressure for people to sell in those kinds of circumstances.”
“I think we’ve managed to preserve the social fabric of the neighborhood to a great extent. It doesn’t feel like the rampant gentrification that you see in Austin now. And that was deliberate.”
“In other neighborhoods, people are buying houses and tearing them down. That’s not happening here. So that new investment is ending up in the commercial corridors instead, and it’s mostly residential. Questions about property taxes and gentrification aside, I think most of us would agree that those are appropriate places for that kind of density.”
Darryl points out that the historic designation has had an impact on business real estate, too, especially on Alamo Street. Without that designation, he says, “you can imagine what would have happened. People would come in and aggregate four or five properties. They would probably tear down the building that Rosario’s is in now, and there’d be a drive-through Burger King or something.”
“But the buildings are small, so they’re not going to be attractive to a lot of business operators.”
Protecting historic designation
Darryl isn’t convinced that historic designation will continue to protect the neighborhood.
“I’m a little cynical about the degree of protection that historic designation gets us,” he says. “That partly has to do with our previous city manager, who was not really interested in historic designation at all, and she made her opinion about that known quite often.”
“If you had asked me four or five years ago, I would have said that I think we’re under threat. There was this push — from downtown outwards — to really densify and redevelop neighborhoods.”
During the city’s recent SA Tomorrow planning exercise, Darryl says, the neighborhood struggled with the city’s planning staff, because the city wanted to ‘up-zone’ the density in Lavaca, especially at the north end of the neighborhood, where the National Register historic district is located.
“We had to push back forcefully,” Darryl says. Upzoning, he says, incentivizes a developer to buy a house, let it deteriorate and fall down, and then replace it with more units. “We prevailed, and that northern area is a little island of lower density, surrounded by everything else.”
Replacing Victoria Courts
A looming reality for Lavaca is the San Antonio Housing Authority. SAHA controls a big chunk of land in the northeast corner of the neighborhood, and the use it makes of that land has had — and will continue to have — a very large impact.
Prior to 2000, that land was home to Victoria Courts, a public housing project opened in 1940. By the 1990s, Victoria Courts was rundown and had a reputation for being dangerous.
SAHA decided to tear it down.
Tearing down Victoria Courts, Darryl says, “was transformational, in a huge way.”
The neighborhood picked a plan: housing
“When they announced that the Courts were going to come down, everyone’s first question was ‘what’s going to replace them.’
At the time, Darryl says, he was on boards of both the Lavaca and King William neighborhood associations, as well as the Southtown Mainstreet Alliance. Recognizing that dealing with Victoria Courts issues would be a full-time task, he resigned from both the King William and the Southtown boards, to focus on Lavaca.
There were a variety of opinions about what should replace the Courts and who should be in charge of whatever happened there.
There were proposals to put in a retail development like the Quarry Market. There were conversations about building a Spurs arena on the land. A contingent in King William, according to Darryl, blamed the deterioration of Victoria Counts on SAHA mismanagement and argued that SAHA shouldn’t have any role in what happened to the property after the Courts came down.
There was a lot of discussion internally, led by Darryl, Penny Boyer, Michael Berrier, and others in the neighborhood.
Lavaca, Darryl says, came down on the side of building housing and keeping SAHA in charge.
“We can deal with the housing authority,” was the association’s feeling, he says. “They’re a political body. They’re subject to pressure from the city council. We knew some people on the SAHA board and felt we could work with them. If it was some other entity, who knows what we would get.”
“Better the devil you know.”
“We also supported them in their goal to provide affordable housing.”
“This was about the time of Henry Cisneros at HUD in Washington, and this kind of thing was starting to happen around the country, where these older public housing projects were being torn down. There was a program called Hope VI, which was a vision of redeveloping public housing sites — not solely with public housing, but with mixed income housing.”
“We latched onto that.”
Fighting for the plan
Getting it done was not, however, a slam dunk. There were a lot of voices and a lot of options on the table.
To hear all those voices and to hash out a plan, SAHA organized an off-site, multi-day retreat, held in a hotel in Kerrville. There were representatives from multiple points of view, including, Darryl recalls, three or four representatives of the Lavaca Neighborhood Association.
The neighborhood association team went into the meeting prepared to push for what they wanted.
Lavaca had drafted a plan for how the Victoria Courts site should be redeveloped, and, Darryl says, they got into the meeting room ahead of time and put copies of their plan on every chair.
“So we managed to steer the conversation,” he says. “People looked at the plan and said ‘hey, this is a good idea.’”
It took years before it was finally settled, but the essentials of the Lavaca plan were adopted, and — until recently — that plan has guided development.
Stated simply, the plan calls for the biggest and highest-density buildings to be built along César Chávez (then called Durango), stepping down to single-family homes along Leigh. And that’s what happened — the four-story-tall Hemisview apartments right on César Chávez, three-story Refugio Place immediately south of that, then the Artisan Park townhomes, and finally the new single-family homes on Leigh.
The plan is changing
The new plans from SAHA, introduced late last year, seem to depart dramatically from that earlier approach. Lavaca and Friends has heard concerns raised from neighbors about those plans — concerns that range from density to income diversity to destruction of a historic building and broken promises to the residents of the Artisan Park townhomes.
In its latest plans, SAHA calls for building Hemisview-scale apartment buildings on the storm water retention basins along the freeway, behind Refugio Place and the Artisan Park townhomes. They’re also talking about razing the YMCA building at Labor and Leigh and the old SAHA administration building at Labor and Refugio — replacing both of them with apartments. In total, Darryl says, it’s eight or nine hundred apartment units.
Darryl doesn’t consider the original plan to be sacred. “The plan is a plan,” he says, and plans can change. However, he feels that SAHA is trying to ‘squeeze every penny’ out of the property they control here by ‘wedging in everything they can’, and they’re losing focus on the needs of residents.
School District Property
Another big chunk of real estate that will be developed in the coming years is the space on the north side of Lavaca Street, running from South Alamo for a couple of blocks east, and occupied by school district buildings and parking.
The property is now owned by billionaire Kit Goldsbury’s Silver Ventures and leased back to the school district while the district completes construction of a new facility.
“The neighborhood association hasn’t heard from Silver Ventures recently,” Darryl says. “The last time we heard from them was almost a year ago.”
At that time, Silver Ventures told the association that they didn’t have any concrete plans yet.
“I think it’s going to be fairly high density,” Darryl says, “right there at the intersection.”
He expects maybe five or six stories at the South Alamo and César Chávez corner — a mixed use property with retail and restaurant space on the ground floor and upper floor apartments. He also expects it will step down in scale from there to the east.
Because it’s owned by Kit Goldsbury, Silver Ventures hasn’t shown the same pressure to maximize short-term profits.
“We hold out hope that, as a result, their decisions are going to be based on compatibility with the neighborhood.”
Another area that’s likely to be developed soon is the federal parking lots along César Chávez, east of the school district property.
“They’re building the new federal courthouse over there off of Nueva, and that’s probably a year away from being complete. At that point, those parking lots will have less of a purpose.”
A handful of other topics came up during our conversation.
Darryl points out that there’s quite a bit of stability in the neighborhood. Part of that is attributable to the historic designation, which prevents developers from buying up homes to tear them down. Another factor, Darryl believes, has been the historic redlining of the neighborhood for mortgages.
“It seems like the breakneck gentrification that you see in Austin isn’t happening here. It seems like the turnover is fairly organic. It’s like mom or dad gets too old to live in the house, and the kids don’t want to live there, so they put it on the market. Or the kids end up living there. A lot of the houses within a three or four block radius of where I am — it’s either the same people or the same family as when I first moved here.”
“And ten years ago, during the whole real estate crash, there were very few foreclosures in our neighborhood. I think it’s partly because there are still a lot of homesteads and partly because it was harder to borrow money, so people made other arrangements and weren’t affected by the crisis.”
He points to his aunt, who had to pay cash to buy a condo on Crofton in the eighties. “She had impeccable credit; she had cash galore in her bank accounts; but she couldn’t get financing. It was because of the location.”
“I don’t know how much of that still happens, but for a lot of lenders, this isn’t a homogenous suburban neighborhood. Here, every house is different.”
Darryl talks about the bigger picture in the neighborhood, of increasing activity in and around downtown, leading to higher prices for homes and — as a result — higher property taxes for those homes.
“I find myself in the uncomfortable position of almost not being able to afford my own house. I certainly wouldn’t be able to buy it on the market today for what it’s valued at, given my income. And twenty percent of my gross salary as a public university instructor goes to property taxes.”
“Property taxes, of course, are a statewide thing,” Darryl adds. “It’s affecting us here worse because our property values are higher, but it’s bad everywhere.”
“And with the political leadership we have in Austin, nothing’s going to change anytime soon.”
“First Friday probably started in 94, 95, after I got here. And I was never really a huge proponent of it as a revitalization strategy. I favored increased residential density where it was appropriate — something more sustainable than, you know, once a month people come to the neighborhood and everyone can pay their bills off of that one day of the month. But, for better for worse, first Friday is what it is.”
Changes are underway again
Historic designation and the razing of Victoria Counts took place a couple of decades ago, and the effects of those two events are still being felt in the Lavaca neighborhood.
With SAHA proposing major new development projects, the neighborhood is facing more changes now that could have an equivalent impact on its future. An active and engaged neighborhood helped drive and shape those events twenty years ago and can have a similar impact today.