New residents nothing new for St. John’s Seminary property

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Catholic News Agency


SAN ANTONIO • A succession of people have called the land at the corner of Mission Road and East Mitchell Street “home” over the centuries, so the anticipated arrival of new residents with development of the former St. John’s Seminary into apartments is just another page in that rich history.

In the 1720s, the land was the original site of Mission San José, which later relocated farther south. Mission Concepción, first established in East Texas, was re-founded on the San Antonio River property in 1731, with some indigenous converts from the earlier site trekking with the Franciscan missionaries to the new one. And it was to this location that various tribes of the Coahuiltecan cultural era were invited to come live within the safety of the mission walls and learn about Christ, establishing farming communities in the process. Later, when an epidemic killed half the mission’s indigenous residents, evangelization focused on bringing the Karankawas into mission life there.

The missions were never intended to be permanent and when secularization began at Mission Concepción in 1794, mission surveyor/master craftsman Pedro Huizar divided the land into plats which were distributed among the mission residents. Over time, the compound’s walls began to crumble and their stones were used to build homes outside the compound. An expanding neighborhood formed around the old mission.

The Mexican War of Independence (1810-1821) saw the deteriorating mission property occupied by revolutionary forces attacking Presidio San Antonio de Béxar. In 1855, Bishop Jean Marie Odin turned over Concepción’s lands to the Marianists, who restored the old acequia and farmed the land to support what would later become St. Mary’s University. They established a novitiate at the mission but eventually moved on, relinquishing the property in 1911.

Franciscans returned to Concepción in 1929 as the diocese set about restoring the missions. An orphanage was established down the road (today’s St. PJ’s) and a new seminary, St. John’s, immediately northeast of the church. Its main building, Drossaerts Hall, was completed in 1920. With construction of Assumption Seminary on Woodlawn Avenue in 1952, the St. John’s property continued for a while as a pre-seminary boarding high school for boys, but that came to an end in 1970, and in July of 1971 the Patrician Movement, a substance abuse program, inhabited the campus until June of 2011.

In the meantime, the mission grounds immediately surrounding the church and extending to the west had become part of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park in 1978, with the Archdiocese of San Antonio retaining responsibility for the church itself and its parish.

The adjacent empty buildings of St. John’s, their last tenants gone, gradually began to draw some not-so-welcome inhabitants.

“It was sad to watch over the progression of time,” said Robert Holbrook, director of the Archdiocese of San Antonio’s Office of Construction and Real Estate. “Initially, they were more some homeless who would sleep in the buildings or just shelter from the cold.” Then remnants of food and bottles started to litter the grounds and the vandalism began, culminating in several small fires being set. Fortunately, these caused no structural damage, but it was disturbing to see this element of wanton destruction of good buildings taking place.

Now a new page is being turned that will see the former seminary transformed into a multi-family residential complex complementary to the nearby mission.

“We’ve entered into an agreement with 210 Developers for a long-term lease,” announced Rubén Hinojosa, Director of Administrative Services/CFO for the archdiocese. The 75-year, renewable lease is a win-win for all involved. “They’ve secured the property,” he said. “They’ve fenced the property, they have 24-hour security of the complex and they are working forward to get their approvals in line.” He anticipates the start of construction in March of next year.

The choice of 210 Developers was made after various Catholic organizations and other not-for-profits (among them, Catholic Charities, The Good Shepherd Network of Catholic Schools and the Daughters of the Republic of Texas) had looked into utilizing the facility. Its roughly 13-acre size and the expense of retrofitting the aged buildings proved prohibitive though.

After that, 13 requests for proposals were sent out to possible developers, with 210 Developers, whose stock-in-trade is the adaptable re-use of historic properties, proving to be the indisputable choice. Their past projects have included the Peanut Factory Lofts on South Frio, The Aviator (old officers’ quarters at Brooks City Base turned into an apartment complex) and the Aztec Theater downtown.

“We’ve been in discussion with them for well over a year,” related Hinojosa. “We’re very pleased that 210 Developers is moving forward with this project. We’ve long awaited doing something with this property.” The development will consist of 220 to 240 market-rate apartment units, constructed in both new and renovated buildings.

“It was an unusual proposition for the archdiocese,” noted Mark Tolley, vice president and director of residential services for 210 Developers. “I think they showed considerable foresight in moving forward with this plan because it really is a plan that, at no cost to the archdiocese, produces an income-producing asset for them and at the same time preserves deteriorating structures.” He added that “compared to rents in the downtown core and even on the south side of the downtown core, this project will be much, much more moderately priced and affordable.”

Internationally acclaimed architect Stefanos Polyzoides, a principal of California-based Moule & Polyzoides, Architects and Urbanists, was hired by 210 Developers to modify the original plans tentatively approved by the city’s Historic and Design Review Commission, which recently approved the modifications. Polyzoides is famous for what is called new urbanism and courtyard-style new urbanist architectural design. Chris Carson of Ford, Powell & Carson, the archdiocese’s architects for mission restoration, and B. & A. Architects, with an extensive background in multi-family residential design, are also involved in the project.

Polyzoides’ design for the St. John’s project introduces courtyard-style structures which will be built behind the existing historic seminary buildings that will serve as a buffer between the new construction and Mission Concepción. The 210 Developers will be adaptively reutilizing Drossaerts Hall, St. Mary’s Hall and Margil Hall, the three oldest buildings on the campus.

The archdiocese will retain the former chapel, cafeteria and convent for archdiocesan/parish use under Father David Garcia, director of the Old Spanish Missions and administrator of Mission Concepción Parish. No new buildings will be constructed on St. John’s spacious front lawn, avoiding interference with the mission’s viewshed.

“We are all working jointly and cooperatively to revitalize this entire campus,” said Tolley,” noting that some minor buildings will not be utilized. What they are trying to do, he explained, is
to emphasize the historic campus structures while supplementing the overall acreage with new construction.

“We’re honored and pleased to be working with this group,” said Holbrook. “It will be a very viable future use for that location. It will be great for the city, provide a tax revenue and it would be an enhancement of the Southside.”

It will also bring new people into residential proximity with the old mission church. “Out of those who live in the apartments,” he said, “we hope many of them will attend services.”