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Real Estate


Southtown renewal efforts spur rise in home prices

Web Posted: 04/20/2007 06:12 PM CDT

Rachel Stone
Express-News Business Writer

Jason Stevens didn't know about Roosevelt Park.

When he and his wife, Leslie Raymond, moved to San Antonio from Detroit in January 2006, they first looked for property north of downtown. But instead of competing with out-of-state buyers for renovation properties in more popular rehab neighborhoods, they turned their sights to the South Side.

The couple, both artists, loved the Roosevelt Park neighborhood from the start. It has a nice park, it's close to downtown, the real estate is cheap and it's rife with renovation opportunities.

They could tell the neighborhood was run-down, but they didn't know details of the area's pernicious past. Since the '80s, it's been known for prostitution, drugs, gangs and violence.

So they bought the old Guess Laundry building on Roosevelt Avenue, which includes a three-bedroom, three-bath apartment, 4,000 square feet of studio space and a 1,500-square-foot office space with two bathrooms, a break room and a reception area.

They're living in the apartment as they renovate it; they work in the studio; and they are seeking office tenants.

"I think I'm lucky that I bought it without knowing too much," Stevens said.

They might not have moved in if they'd known more about the neighborhood. But now that the couple is there, they have no intention of leaving the close-knit neighborhood that has become their home.

"There are a lot of people who love this neighborhood and have lived here all their lives," he said.

Roosevelt Park, the boundaries of which are debatable, is one of several neighborhoods bordering King William and Lavaca where adventurous prospectors are putting down stakes. New residents like Stevens and Raymond are on the front lines of renewal in those areas, many of which don't have official subdivision names.

The same sort of artist-led renewal that happened 50 years ago or so in King William is spreading farther into the South Side.

"The concentric rings of gentrification make for a situation where the periphery is more interesting than the center," said Darryl Ohlenbusch, an architect who has lived in Lavaca since 1994 and who also owns property in Roosevelt Park. "I'm watching that happen in Lavaca — the funky character is perhaps diminishing as the property values go up. Not that the people moving into Lavaca are problematic, but it's a different neighborhood than the one I moved into."

Artists and bohemians began moving to King William — the 150-year-old neighborhood of Victorian-style homes just south of downtown — in the '50s and '60s, when it was still something of a slum. It was one of the first neighborhoods in Texas to get a historical designation in 1968; and now, homes there sell for $200 to $425 per square foot, said real estate agent Laura Clark of King William Realty.

The Lavaca neighborhood, just east of King William, is the city's oldest existing residential neighborhood. It was divided into lots a few years before King William, according to the San Antonio Historic Design and Review Commission. Lavaca was a working-class neighborhood, while King William's grand residences housed more affluent families.

But now Lavaca homes are becoming almost as expensive as those in King William, nearing $200 per square foot. So now that those areas are too expensive for the artists and bohemians of the world, real estate agents have noticed that San Antonio's hipsters are moving farther south.

Home prices all around Southtown are creeping up, Clark said.

Houses in some nearby neighborhoods, such as a popular pocket of Riverside Park, near South Presa and Steves Avenue, are selling for as much as $185 per square foot, rivaling Lavaca.

"We're already seeing it happen," Clark said. "As prices go up in the Lavaca neighborhood, they are slowly picking up as you go south."

Many of the homes south and west of Southtown were built before World War II, and some are even older. It is hard to find anything that's already been renovated, Clark said.

They are neighborhoods for weekend DIY warriors, she said. And they're hard to pin down.

So many neighborhoods don't have names that buyers and real estate agents identify them by landmarks, such as "over by La Tuna," or "south of the Wiggle Room," which are references to a restaurant on East Cevallos and a club on South Presa Street near Grove Avenue, respectively.

"We have a lot of investors buying in the area, especially closer to downtown," said Olga Flores, a real estate agent who has lived in the area all her life. "They'll buy properties that normally would sit on the market because they're fixer-uppers."

She'd like to see more local families buying homes in the area. While it's nice to see people putting money into the neighborhoods, she fears the shift could push working-class families out of the area.

But in some cases, local families are the ones making changes.

Holly and John Mendoza were urban when urban wasn't cool. They've been living in a loft-style home on Nogalitos, between South Flores and Interstate 35, since 1991 — the same year the Blue Star apartments opened.

John Mendoza grew up in the neighborhood, which is near the Palm Heights neighborhood but doesn't have its own name, and he used to walk past the Graeber Lumber Co. building on his way to school at St. Henry's.

"He always admired this building," Holly Mendoza said. "It was one of those places that you see every day and you think, 'I'd like to have a place like that someday.'"

So when Mr. Graeber put it up for sale, the Mendozas didn't hesitate.

The old lumber warehouse was the perfect place to move their manufacturing business, The Original Corn Roast, where they make and sell corn-roasting machines that vendors use at street fairs and other outdoor events. The property also included a 3,500-square-foot living space that they renovated.

From their second-floor deck, they have a clear view of downtown and front-row seats to the New Year's Eve fireworks show.

The Mendozas, who have three children, want to move their home and business to the country for a change of pace. So their compound — which includes the home, the warehouse and a carport for about 10 vehicles, is on the market for $485,000. They bought the home for $105,000 and spent nearly $200,000 in improvements.They are attached to the house, which they consider a big part of their family's history, and it's painful to sell it, Holly Mendoza said. They thought about splitting their house, which has two full bathrooms, into two loft apartments or condos, and building several other loft-style apartments on the property and keeping it. But the job seemed too daunting.

"We're not developers," Holly Mendoza said.

But she's sure the property is perfect for somebody. While the area is far from "gentrified," Mendoza thinks its day is coming, and soon.

"It's so convenient to downtown and all the highways," she said. "A few blocks in any direction, and you can get on a highway to wherever you want to go."