Downtown Living

In an effort to make downtown more attractive to locals, Mayor Julián Castro made “The Decade of Downtown” an integral part of his SA 2020 vision. Though other major cities are well ahead of San Antonio when it comes to urban revitalization, we have nevertheless seen new residential buildings go up around downtown, and there are plans to turn HemisFair into a true urban park, as well as to lure businesses other than hotels back into the area. An increase in rental and affordable housing is also envisioned. For now, most new residences are high-end. A one-bedroom condo, for instance, may cost $230,000, while a three-bedroom unit can go as high as $700,000-plus. But people who have already made that move are more than happy with their new lifestyle. The ones we interviewed for this article agree that “If you can afford it, you are going to love it.” These are their stories.

European lifestyle

Ann Allega has always wanted to have a view but ended up with a balcony overlooking a parking lot. “It doesn’t matter, really,” says the enthusiastic downtown resident as we step onto the balcony of her Judson Candy Factory loft. “We sit here, have a glass of wine and watch people come and go. We know them all.” Pointing to a flower-bedecked balcony on the right, she adds, “They are our best friends here. If they need something, like a toilet paper roll, I can just toss it to them (from balcony to balcony). It’s like being in a small town.” That sense of living in a close-knit community is a big part of what Ann and her husband, Philip, like about their 2,000-square-foot condo in this renovated complex on South Flores Street. Consisting of three buildings — the former factory, its warehouse and a former Italian grocery store — the handsomely gentrified urban compound is within walking distance of the historic King William District and the River Walk and only a short trolley ride away from Houston and Commerce streets. The developer preserved elements of the original inside architecture as well, such as exposed concrete beam ceilings, and unplastered brick walls.

The Allegas’ two-story residence features some of that, but it also has polished wood floors, three full-size bathrooms, granite counters and two balconies. The slightly elevated ground floor holds an open living room-kitchen area, a bedroom and two bathrooms, while the downstairs features a multipurpose room, a large storage closet and their 5-year-old son’s bedroom with its own bath. Reflecting the places the owners have lived, the home’s décor mixes Texas, New Orleans and British themes. But Ann doesn’t claim any credit for the latter. “I couldn’t decorate a closet,” she jokes; “I have absolutely no talent for decorating.”
How the Allegas came to be living in downtown San Antonio is an interesting life story. A native San Antonian, Ann met California-bred Philip in Austin while she was working in sales/marketing for a major brewery. In 2000, her employer transferred her to Maumelle, Ark. — near Little Rock — where the couple promptly acquired “a monster house,” complete with a lawn, pool and two Labradors. They quickly discovered, though, that pool maintenance was a pain and “all that space” went largely unused. Three years later, the Allegas found themselves in a drastically different environment when Philip, a research analyst for the IT research and advisory firm Gartner, was transferred to London. As in all European capitals, people live in tighter, more densely packed quarters.

“We downsized to a much smaller place, a 1,300-square-foot duplex,” says Ann. “We had a garage and a garden, but it was all smaller. We lived there five years and did not have to drive anywhere. We got used to the convenience of having everything nearby, from a grocery store to restaurants, parks and everything else. And we used public transportation when we needed to.” On their visits back home, the pair found American freeways nerve-wracking and driving in general time-consuming. So when they came upon the more urban atmosphere in Southtown, both immediately knew that that was their kind of place. They later purchased the Judson loft sight unseen from London, based on pictures and the location. “The only reason we have a car nowadays is for grocery shopping and to visit Ann’s mom,” says Philip, who works from home. “If we get invited to a party somewhere around 1604, we don’t go,” he adds unapologetically. “I hardly ever drive.”
But they do go out a lot. With all the restaurants along South Alamo, the arts events at Blue Star and elsewhere in the area, and the proximity of the Majestic, Magik and Cameo theaters, why bother with Loopland? Ann opens her calendar to show me their busy schedule. There’s something just about every night. What’s more, as a member of several organizations, she has developed ties to the entire downtown community. She belongs to the King William Association and is also active in the Downtown Residents Association, both of which have social events on a regular basis. As a bonus, when he goes out, Philip can enjoy a few beers without worrying about it because he can walk home.

Contrary to what people assume, the environment is not kid unfriendly, both husband and wife point out. The Allegas’ son, Austin, attends the Bonham Academy, “the most sought-after school in the SAISD,” and there are plenty of kids in the wider neighborhood. “I pick up Austin from school, and we bike to the Friendly Spot (on South Alamo). It’s an old-style outdoor ice house that also has a play area for kids,” says Ann. “We are also part of the King William Area Kids, so he interacts with a lot of children his age.” It doesn’t hurt that HemisFair and the Children’s Museum are nearby, as well.

Though they admit that living in close proximity to others may mean that everyone knows your business, and it can be annoying when some residents don’t follow the rules, on the whole, the Allegas are so happy with their living arrangement that they intend to keep the Judson loft when they leave for London again in a few months. It’s another temporary transfer for Philip. He shows me a photo of the London complex where they will be living. It’s a repurposed former arsenal building that looks a lot like the Judson Factory Lofts.

HIGH-RISE HOME I

The Vidorra high-rise, near St. Paul Square, where Jennifer Barre has a cozy one-bedroom condo, is very different from the Judson complex. Entering the air-conditioned lobby, where a concierge sits 24/7, is a little like walking into a hotel. The 20-story edifice has hotel-like amenities, as well, including a business center and conference room, but it also has a saltwater pool, extra storage spaces for each condo and guest suites that residents can rent for their visitors. For Barre, the Vidorra combines comfort and convenience with security, which she felt she needed as a single woman. “I loved the fact that it had so much security. When you live alone that’s important,” she says. “The personnel are very friendly and helpful; they know you by name, and you get to know them. They’ll hold my key for me when I go out for a jog.” Another service that sold her on the Vidorra was the prompt availability of repairmen whenever equipment breaks down, something she already experienced when her AC misbehaved recently. “You feel so spoiled here.” Barre moved to San Antonio from Albuquerque a little over a year ago to take the job of quality assurance manager with DPT Labs, a contract developer and manufacturer of pharmaceuticals. It is her responsibility to make sure that all the testing has met requirements and the quality parameters have been met before a drug is released in the market. A musician both by inclination and education, Barre drifted into her present career 14 years ago, thanks to an internship at a pharmaceutical company, “and just worked from there. I grew up in the business,” she says. She also helped herself along the way by getting a business degree through an online program.

Looking for a change of environment after a divorce, in addition to career advancement, the Minnesota native arrived in the Alamo City without knowing much about it. Her first impression of our city was “humid but fun, and the food is all fattening,” she admits, laughing. She has since discovered healthier alternatives and keeps herself in shape by jogging and running. In fact, just the day before our interview, she had returned from running a half-marathon in Dallas with her San Antonio boyfriend, Mark, who lives in the suburbs. After a year of renting in Alamo Heights, Barre decided that she would rather not fight traffic every day. Being close to work was a big draw, but she also loves the energy of downtown, of the River Walk and the Pearl complex. Occasionally she jogs back home from DPT Labs and feels perfectly safe walking downtown by herself.

In her tastefully appointed condo — or unit, in developer parlance — the singer-songwriter has created a music niche that houses a keyboard, mike and sound equipment. Eventually, she expects to explore the local music scene and continue developing in what is effectively her second career. Back in Albuquerque, she performed fairly frequently, taught voice and gained statewide recognition by having two songs nominated in the New Mexico Music Awards competition. These days, Barre enjoys sitting in her living room on the 10th floor early in the morning, sipping coffee while watching the sun rise. The window blinds are never closed, she says. Though the view below is not particularly picturesque, from the sofa she is mostly seeing the sky. Things would be just about perfect if it weren’t for the piercing train siren that surprises her at odd hours. As if to illustrate her statement, one of those trains practically stops our conversation dead a few minutes later. Loud it certainly is. But Barre hopes to get used to it eventually. And it’s a lot better when the balcony door is closed.

Minor annoyances notwithstanding, Barre is glad she’s made the move south. New friends have come into her life both through work and the hiking and running clubs she has joined, and she has a new love. So I ask the obvious question: Would she be willing to move if she gets married? “Mark has three kids, so it may be difficult for him to relocate downtown,” she replies thoughtfully. “If married, I may have to compromise, but I do love the feel of downtown.”

HIGH-RISE HOME II

While the Vidorra is still in the process of selling its residential units, the 46 condos in another downtown high-rise, La Cascada, on Dwyer Avenue are all accounted for. The building is home to Greg and Teresa Johnson, who left their large house in the Stone Oak area to relocate here in 2006. A retired colonel who continues to work for the Army as a civilian employee, Greg has been the president of the homeowners association for several years. “One thing people should know is that once a building is 75-percent sold, the homeowners association takes over, and the developer no longer runs the building,” explains Greg, who has put in a lot of effort trying to figure out his and the HOA board’s responsibilities. “It’s all up to us. The board has a lot of fiduciary responsibilities. We have to hire a management company, a maintenance engineer, lawyers, landscaping people, housekeeping, and we have to make sure that residents pay the maintenance fee” (to cover all those costs). At La Cascada, that fee is $1,100 a month, but for that, homeowners get all the above services plus 24/7 security, with a guard in the lobby, attached parking, a manicured lawn overlooking the River Walk, a gym and party room and that urban view that everyone craves. Even dry cleaning can be delivered to your door. Failure to pay, however, may bring foreclosure. “It’s like not paying your mortgage,” says Greg, adding that condo HOAs “probably have more power than the neighborhood associations.” A current HOA project, for example, is to replace all lights in the communal areas with “green” T8 LED tubes.

Though the fee may scare some people, Greg points out that it’s probably only slightly higher than what folks spend to maintain their suburban lifestyle. Living where he lives, he doesn’t have to water the lawn, paint the house, replace the roof, cut trees or landscape, all of which cost money. What’s more, air-conditioning is one-third of what it was in his former house “because we don’t have a hot attic above us.” The Johnsons — who, like the Allegas — have lived in Europe and in Turkey, couldn’t wait to leave Stone Oak for downtown. The week their younger daughter left for college, they packed up, too. Their current home is basically as large as a comfortable three-bedroom house. Turkish elements are very much present in the décor, especially colorful old kilims — some as much as 100 years old — and even their quiet old cat hails from Turkey.

Both still use their cars daily, however, especially Teresa, who drives all around town and beyond, visiting customers in her role as treasury services vice president for Broadway Bank. Greg works at Fort Sam Houston as chief of policy and strategy for U.S. Army North. Still, their nonworking lives are downtown-centric. Living at La Cascada is “like being in a college dorm,” observes Teresa. “We call each other for dinner and go to First Friday together. Greg and I are not good at planning in advance, so it’s great to be able to call people just two hours before dinner and get together. We’ve never had any trouble to get someone to join us.” They also take part in the Downtown Residents Association events, and Teresa is a board member of the Paseo del Rio Association. The latter is cooking up the first-ever military parade on the river, she says, scheduled to take place in May.

The couple is optimistic about the future of the urban city core. With the mayor focusing on this issue, they expect to see more construction of affordable housing, more retail and many more businesses. “Nothing will make me happier than to look out there and see some cranes,” says Greg. “I think it’s going to boom as the economy improves.”

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