By Vianna Davila and John W. Gonzalez
San Antonio Express-News
January 15, 2013
Bexar County commissioners Tuesday previewed a project concept that incorporates public transit, retail and residential development at the struggling Wonderland of the Americas and authorized negotiations for a tax-incentive deal with the mall’s owners.
Much of the presentation at Commissioners Court referenced the plan, including a tie-in to VIA Prímo, Metropolitan Transit’s recently launched bus rapid transit service.
However, VIA’s interim President and CEO Jeff Arndt said talks are preliminary and that the agency board hasn’t voted on any aspect of the plan and that VIA officials weren’t informed about Tuesday’s presentation and weren’t present at Commissioners Court.
“As a potential partner, I would have liked to have been at least informed that there was going to be some public discussion about what was going on,” Arndt said. “I’m sure we’ll have a discussion with our partner to make sure we both operate in greater congruency.”
Arndt said VIA may build an enhanced VIA Prímo bus stop at Wonderland in Balcones Heights — the bus travels on the Fredericksburg Road corridor, past the mall — and will look at relocating an existing park-and-ride at the mall to somewhere else on the property.
Wonderland owner Crossroads Mall Partners, Ltd. has pledged to invest $8 million to renovate the third level of the building that houses Burlington Coat Factory, so the floor can be used for office retail space. Burlington would remain a tenant, said Ed Garza, a consultant for Crossroads, who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting.
The money also would go toward a new parking garage, with a possibility for an additional garage and more investment.
The deal would give mall owners the equivalent of a 10-year, 40 percent rebate on Bexar County property taxes. County Economic Development Director David Marquez said authorizing negotiations is “tantamount to approving” the incentives.
A contract will be brought back for commissioners’ approval probably within 60 to 120 days.
Balcones Heights already had approved an economic development deal with the mall owners for the equivalent of a 25-year, 100 percent property tax rebate — but it’s contingent on the mall owners incorporating transit-oriented and residential development on the site, Garza said.
The mall’s application for county incentives says VIA would “exchange and/or participate in a 250 unit market rate multi-family project” on the site.
Although Wonderland of the Americas does have some strong performing anchor tenants such as Target and Ross Dress for Less, it has struggled to find a niche that appeals to retailers and customers.
It’s possible that residential units could provide a customer base for the mall could draw from, said Kim Gatley, a vice president with commercial real estate firm NAI REOC.
“Bringing a residential component and the transit center could beef up traffic in that area for retailers,” Gatley said.
But Chuck Siegel, president of Rohde, Ottmers & Siegel Commercial & Investment Realtors, said resurrecting the site into a lifestyle shopping center is a tall order.