Steve Yndo - a long-term view of the neighborhood

Updated: Mar 17

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.

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Steve and Belinda Yndo stand in front of the Lavaca home they are renovating
Steve and Belinda in front of their home-to-be on Barrera Street in Lavaca (Photo courtesy of Steve Yndo)

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.”

Business resurgence

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.

First Friday

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.

These photos of pre-renovation buildings are 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.”

Virtuous cycle

“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.