New plan for Alazán Courts comes into focus as San Antonio Housing Authority hires firm, seeks bond funds

Photo of Madison Iszler
Children play at the Alazan Courts on Sept. 24, 2020.

Children play at the Alazan Courts on Sept. 24, 2020.

Billy Calzada / San Antonio Express-News staff

After public pressure forced a retreat from plans to raze and replace the city’s oldest public housing complex — a move housing advocates said would displace most current residents — the San Antonio Housing Authority is working on a new proposal to overhaul Alazán Courts on the near West Side.

The authority’s board recently selected South Texas firm Able City to create a master plan for the complex, which encompasses 501 units near Sidney Lanier High School.

And it is seeking about $75 million for the project from the city’s upcoming $1.2 billion bond issue.

But redeveloping Alazán is expected to cost more than $300 million, CEO Ed Hinojosa Jr. wrote in an Aug. 23 letter to city officials. His agency’s bond request includes $40 million for constructing new units and $35.2 million for infrastructure improvements by the city, CPS Energy and San Antonio Water System.

“Given the toll of this historic pandemic on the residents of the community, including long-term credit damage and financial hardship, SAHA is committed to retaining — or increasing if possible — the existing 501 public housing units currently in the Alazán community,” he wrote.

“We envision a new community with high-quality, affordable, sustainable and with all the modern conveniences, such as central air conditioning, washer and dryer connections, spacious, livable spaces for families and adequate infrastructure below and above the ground.”

Future still unclear

Whether Alazán will be torn down and rebuilt, or existing apartments rehabilitated, has yet to be determined. Figuring that out is part of the master-planning process, which will be informed by community input, Hinojosa said in an interview.

“There are different opinions about how to move forward,” he said. “We want to make sure everybody’s voice is heard and considered.”

Many residents want the buildings to be refurbished rather than replaced, said Kayla Miranda, an Apache Courts tenant who opposed the agency’s previous plan to partner with a private developer to tear down Alazán and build mixed-income apartments.

Regardless of which option is decided upon, the redevelopment will be done in phases so residents can remain in the area.

“We made a commitment to residents that we will not force displacement out of the community,” Hinojosa said. “The architect will have to figure out the best way to phase construction … so that we can keep residents within the community.”

For the bond funding request, city officials met with Hinojosa and asked the housing authority to provide more details, including breaking out the improvements by utility, said spokeswoman Laura Mayes.

Its cost estimates for the project are based on the price tag for demolishing the Wheatley Courts on the East Side and replacing it with residences known as East Meadows.

The housing authority will provide final cost estimates for the city to review next year, and then the project will be evaluated for eligibility, Mayes said. Staff will also look into other financing sources.

The agency is evaluating selling vacant land to fund the Alazán project and has some funds it may also allocate, Hinojosa said. Traditional loans and tax credit equity are other options.

“It’s very early to be talking about how the project’s actually funded because, at this point, we still don’t know how we’re going to move forward and how many phases we’ll have and whether it’s going to be new construction or rehab,” he said.

Able City’s selection

Able City, the firm leading the master-planning process, has offices in San Antonio, Laredo and Mission and provides architecture, urban planning, economic development and community engagement services. It has worked on rehabilitation and historic preservation projects in South Texas, including housing and religious facilities, said co-founder Mario Pena.

Able City was selected to lead Alazán master-planning after a four-month selection process that involved input from West Side leaders, including District 5 Councilwoman Teri Castillo, the housing authority said. The firm is working with Alamo Architects and consultants Economic & Planning Systems Inc. on the project and will start by asking residents about meeting times and formats, Pena said.

“We lead with the intent of being proactive. That’s what makes community engagement work,” he said. “If you do it early enough where people feel they’re being proactive about decision-making, that’s really the key. We’re happy that we’re at a point where we have the opportunity to now be proactive with the community.”

Alazán Courts and the neighboring Apache Courts were built between 1939 and 1942, according to the Texas State Historical Association’s Handbook of Texas.

The apartments provided clean housing for Mexican American families on the West Side who were living in homes with tin roofs, dirt floors and no indoor plumbing. But the complex gradually fell into disrepair and lacks modern amenities.

By 1985, then-Mayor Henry Cisneros had proposed tearing down and replacing the Alazán and Apache buildings. But amid opposition, he instead supported renovations.

Plans to rebuild the complex came up again in 2017, when the housing authority sought but failed to get a federal grant for the project.

Two years later, the agency requested proposals from private developers and chose NRP Group, a Cleveland-based company that has built or managed over three dozen apartment complexes locally.

The developer proposed razing the Alazán Courts’ 501 units and replacing them with 648 units at a mix of income levels. A mere 10 percent were to be for families earning less than 30 percent of the area median income, or about $26,200 for a family of four.

That threshold was well above current residents’ means. On average, a family living at the Alazán Courts made $8,796 a year and paid $131 per month in rent, the housing authority said in 2020.

Tenants and housing advocates fought the plans, raising concerns about displacement and the loss of affordable housing.

The housing authority’s leadership changed, with CEO David Nisivoccia departing for the Denver Housing Authority and Hinojosa taking the reigns. In January, the agency scrapped the partnership with NRP Group and instead pledged to redevelop the Alazán Courts itself.

madison.iszler@express-news.net