$13 million to land A&M?

By Greg Jefferson
San Antonio Express-News

City officials could spend more than $13 million to acquire about 400 acres on the South Side, clear the land of homes and businesses, and turn it over to the Texas A&M University System for a campus.

The City Council will decide today whether to negotiate an agreement with A&M officials to donate the land by December 2006.

Council members also will consider an incentive program to sweeten the deal for property owners in the area.

But if the property owners refuse to sell, the city ultimately could condemn their properties, using its right of eminent domain.

Assistant City Manager Jelynne Burley said the city is looking to buy out nearly 100 property owners in the area, mostly homeowners.

"It's not an eminent domain case right now," Burley said. "It's the city trying to acquire the property."

The city's estimate of $13 million-plus includes legal bills and the expense of buying properties and clearing the land for A&M, which hopes to open a four-year campus here in 2009.

University officials have said the campus would educate as many as 25,000 students over 25 years.

Supporters believe it could become one of the engines propelling City South, the initiative seeking to channel development to the South Side.

Burley declined to pinpoint where the 400 acres are located. But the land is believed to sit on the southwest corner of Loop 410 South and Roosevelt Avenue (U.S. 281).

Esequiel Campos' family has owned Nick's Auto Parts in that area since his father, Nick, started the business in 1949.

After Nick's death in 1995, control of the 12-acre salvage yard fell to wife Manuela, who lives in a house close by, and son Alfredo.

Despite the family's history on Roosevelt Avenue, Esequiel Campos, the family members' spokesman, said they probably would seriously consider an offer from the city — if it comes.

"Since it's a family business, we'd like it to stay forever," Campos said, "but nothing is forever."

However, he rankled at the prospect of condemnation.

"I don't like nobody pushing me around," he said.

The nearby neighborhood, sandwiched between Roosevelt to the east and the city's police training academy to the west, is a mix of manufactured housing, small ramshackle houses and some neatly kept properties.

Rusted shells of automobiles, piles of parts and debris mar a few of the yards.

Campos said an A&M campus could stop the neighborhood's deterioration.

"First of all, it would clean up the area," he said. "And it would bring development to a part of town that hasn't had a lot of it."

Under current plans, the city-donated property would make up the university's main campus, and Houston-area developer Terramark Communities would give about 200 acres for an irrigation technology center.

City staffers are negotiating the details of an incentive package for Terramark, which is looking to acquire up to 3,000 acres in the area. It plans to build a pedestrian-friendly community around the campus.

Meanwhile, any city deal with the university would depend on the Legislature authorizing $85 million worth of tuition-backed bonds for construction of the main campus.

Mayor Ed Garza is looking to move quickly, saying: "We do hope that we'll have a majority of that land under control in a relatively fast timeframe."

The city would pay market value for residents' homes and, if the council adopts a proposed relocation assistance program Thursday, would provide at least $300 for moving expenses.

Also, owners who sell at the city's appraised value by a certain date would get another $500 — an "expedited transfer of occupancy payment."

Business owners would receive payments of up to $20,000, in addition to money for their property.

"We're trying to put together a fair package for the property owners, many (of whom) have been there a long time," Burley said.

The council will vote on hiring three firms — Ardaga and Associates, Mactec Engineering and Consulting, and Lockwood, Andrews & Newman — to negotiate and acquire the properties. Those firms would be paid a total of $1 million.

gjefferson AT express-news.net