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Neighborhood associations can increase value, happiness

In 2019, Sean McMains and Kris Spilker put in an offer on a house in Beacon Hill, an older neighborhood of mostly modest bungalows just north of downtown. Two days later, they decided to check out their new neighborhood and take in Porch Fest, the homegrown, progressive house concert sponsored by the Beacon Hill and Alta Vista neighborhood associations.

“I remember there was a mariachi band playing Ozzy Osbourne on someone’s front porch,” Spilker said. “People immediately starting welcoming us, asking our names, where we were from, things like that. When the band stopped, they were like, ‘C’mon with us to the next house.’ ”

There, they enjoyed fajitas and a different band playing jazz.

“Everyone was so friendly, it was amazing. We knew we were home,” said Spilker who, with McMains and their five children, has now lived in Beacon Hill for three years.

Events like Porch Fest are just one of the benefits of living in an area with a strong and active neighborhood association — and few associations are as active as the one representing Beacon Hill.

Cynthia Spielman with the Tier One Neighborhood Coalition contends that a good neighborhood association can not only improve residents’ lives, it can also help bring a community together. Here, neighbors mingle in the shade during the recent Alta Vista and Beacon Hill Porch Fest.

Sam Owens, Staff Photographer / San Antonio Express-News

Cynthia Spielman, who serves on the steering committee of the Tier One Neighborhood Coalition, an alliance of more than 50 neighborhood groups in the San Antonio area, contends that a good neighborhood association can not only improve residents’ lives, it can also help bring a community together.

“They do this by tackling difficult issue residents face and by sponsoring fun, social events where people get to know one another,” said Spielman.

A strong neighborhood association can also help smooth out differences among neighbors, she said.

“If people have faith that their concerns will be heard, they’ll be less likely to get angry with one another over potentially divisive issues,” said Spielman, who is also a board member of the Beacon Hill association. “They realized, Hey, we’re neighbors; it’s not you against me.”

Neighborhood associations differ from homeowners associations. Neighborhood associations are usually run by volunteers and membership is voluntary. Homeowners associations are usually created by developers, membership is mandatory and requires dues to pay for maintenance of common areas and to enforce standards of appearance within the community.

The Mission San José Neighborhood Association, which encompasses the area surrounding the historic mission, was founded in 1995 to address a lack of basic infrastructure such as sidewalks, drainage and lighting. Today it continues that fight while also acting as a steward to prevent inappropriate development near the mission.

People shield themselves from the sun with umbrellas and shade as they listen to the local art rock band Buttercup during the Alta Vista and Beacon Hill Porch Fest.  The neighborhoods have become a preferred destination for young professionals in search of the amenities of urban living.

People shield themselves from the sun with umbrellas and shade as they listen to the local art rock band Buttercup during the Alta Vista and Beacon Hill Porch Fest. The neighborhoods have become a preferred destination for young professionals in search of the amenities of urban living.

Sam Owens, Staff Photographer / San Antonio Express-News

“Without the association all these years, a lot of that protection might not have happened,” said President Theresa Ybañez, who added that the association also sponsors events such as street clean-ups, a holiday parade and art activities for area children.

In the Monticello Park Historic District on the West Side just north of Woodlawn Lake, the Monticello Park Neighborhood Association puts more emphasis on acts of kindness and education. Volunteers will help elderly neighbors with yard work or by running errands they cannot do themselves. The organization also awards scholarships to high school seniors living within its boundaries.

“But we also have fun,” said Pam Carpenter, the organization’s secretary. “Two or three times a year, we have pink flamingo parties where the yard hosting the party will be ‘flocked’ with one large flamingo statue and a whole lot of little ones.”

Founded in 1978, the Beacon Hill association has become more active in recent years as the neighborhood, like many surrounding downtown, has become a preferred destination for young professionals in search of the amenities of urban living. In addition to being close to downtown, Beacon Hill is also within walking distance of the Pearl, Brackenridge Park and the St. Mary’s Strip.

“The association is having a good time,” said Spielman, who has lived in Beacon Hill for 21 years. “The neighborhood has a lot to offer, and a lot of younger, newer residents are stepping up and volunteering their time and talents.”

At the same time, however, this influx of well-heeled buyers is quickly pricing out many families, especially non-native English speakers and people of color, who have lived there for years, even generations.

Theresa Ybañez, president of the Mission San José Neighborhood Association, asks passersby to sign a petition at the entrance of the Missions National Historical Park in 2021. The neighborhood association was protesting what they see as “a lack of concern by the City of San Antonio to protect the Missions from development that does not protect what was promised: the universal value, the cultural heritage of residents, and an authentic experience for visitors.”

Theresa Ybañez, president of the Mission San José Neighborhood Association, asks passersby to sign a petition at the entrance of the Missions National Historical Park in 2021. The neighborhood association was protesting what they see as “a lack of concern by the City of San Antonio to protect the Missions from development that does not protect what was promised: the universal value, the cultural heritage of residents, and an authentic experience for visitors.”

Sam Owens, Staff Photographer / San Antonio Express-News

The association has made efforts to help, for example by educating residents how to protest their property tax appraisals. And while the association has a very active Facebook page, it still prints and hand-delivers paper copies of its monthly newsletter to all 2,200 households in the neighborhood, so those uncomfortable being online can stay informed.

Cindy Loredo has lived in Beacon Hill for 34 years and said the association has definitely improved her and her neighbors’ quality of life. “During the freeze last year, they came around to check up on everyone,” she said. “Then they told us how we could apply for assistance from the city.”

The association has several volunteer-led committees that deal with hot-button issues, such as zoning, crime and animal welfare.

When the association hosted a February roundtable on crime, moderated by its President Daniel Hubbeling, it was able to secure both police chief William McManus and City Councilmember Mario Bravo as participants. As the number of stray animals in the neighborhood has become more of an issue, the association created a lending library of humane traps and pet carriers and purchased a $300 microchip scanner to help reunite lost pets with their owners.

Brady Alexander, left, and Cynthia Spielman, Cynthia Spielman, who serves on the steering committee of the Tier One Neighborhood Coalition, an alliance of more than 50 neighborhood groups in the San Antonio area and on the board of the Beacon Hill Neighborhood Association.  They were at a petition table set up by the Mission San Jose Neighborhood Association at the entrance of the Missions National Historical Park in 2021.

Brady Alexander, left, and Cynthia Spielman, Cynthia Spielman, who serves on the steering committee of the Tier One Neighborhood Coalition, an alliance of more than 50 neighborhood groups in the San Antonio area and on the board of the Beacon Hill Neighborhood Association. They were at a petition table set up by the Mission San Jose Neighborhood Association at the entrance of the Missions National Historical Park in 2021.

Sam Owens, Staff Photographer / San Antonio Express-News

“We have two volunteers who handle the scanner, and they probably get calls a couple of time a week,” Hubbeling said.

The association also sponsors social events to help bring neighbors together. In addition to Porch Fest, there are monthly Happy Hours, outdoor movie nights and, this past Easter, an egg hunt with 700 eggs hidden for area children to find.

Despite all these events, the association doesn’t charge annual dues. Instead, it raises money via grants, donations from area businesses, newsletter advertising and fundraisers such as the sale of Fiesta medals. That gives it the financial wherewithal, for example, to purchase audio/visual equipment rather than renting it every time there’s a movie night.

“I donate the use of my sound system, but we probably spent about $1,000 for the rest of the equipment,” said Hubbeling’s wife Kim, who administers the group’s Facebook page.

One of the group’s proudest achievements is the development of the half-mile-long Beacon Hill Linear Park that runs atop a storm water channel from West Hildebrand to Gramercy Place, where it ends at the community garden. The park has footpaths, two playgrounds, picnic areas and a well-used basketball court. Plans call for planting more trees and building a dog park.

The association’s success in securing city funding for the park illustrates its members’ savvy in working with city government.

Keith Nabors plays saxophone with his jazz band the Kevin Nabors Quartet on a West Mulberry porch during the recent Alta Vista and Beacon Hill Porch Fest.

Keith Nabors plays saxophone with his jazz band the Kevin Nabors Quartet on a West Mulberry porch during the recent Alta Vista and Beacon Hill Porch Fest.

Sam Owens, Staff Photographer / San Antonio Express-News

“We’ve received close to $1 million in bond money since development began almost 10 years ago,” said Jerry Lockey, who has lived in the neighborhood for 24 years and is a linear park committee member. “And we’ve learned a lot about the rules and procedures involved in getting these kinds of projects done over that time.”

Operating a successful neighborhood association takes hundreds of volunteer hours as well as committee leaders and a dedicated board. The Hubbelings, for example, estimate they each spend five to 10 hours a week working on association business.

Neighborhood associations interested in upping their game can contact the Tier One Neighborhood Coalition, which holds workshops on issues that impact residents. The group’s website, t1nc.org, and its eponymous Facebook group also contain plenty of helpful information.

rmarini@express-news.net | Twitter: @RichardMarini

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