Located on the hills perched along historic Fredericksburg Road, the little San Antonio enclave of Balcones Heights has been many things since its incorporation in 1948, but the one constant of this little city of 3,000 folks has been its fierce independence.
Balcones Heights has changed tunes over the years from its beginnings with Depression era developers hawking affordable “country lots” to its checkered 1950s reputation as a no-tax town that relied on speed trap revenue to becoming a regional shopping destination in the 1960s with Interstate 10 and Interstate 410 nearly bisecting the town that is less than a square mile.
Balcones Heights Looks for a Transformation
While they heyday of Balcones Heights mall (now called Wonderland of the Americas) may have passed by, the owners in partnership with the city, are currently rebranding it to mixed use and the mall’s amphitheater still plays host to the 27th Annual Balcones Heights Jazz Festival, a popular year-long concert series.
“Our goal is that Balcones Heights will again become a vibrant, urban and walkable community,” said Balcones Heights mayor Suzanne de Leon, who was first elected in 2008 and is serving her sixth consecutive term. “We bought a house here in 1987 after moving to San Antonio from Houston in 1986. We wanted a place that was convenient to downtown and the airport but also had larger yards and was located in a smaller community.”
Mayor de Leon is guiding the city’s transformation into an urban center that includes:
- Redevelopment of Wonderland Mall of the Americas, which includes Hobby Lobby, Stein Mart, Burlington, Super Target, Ross and the Santikos Bijou Cinema
- Wonderland Medical Center which houses two VA Clinics and several independent medical and dental offices
“We expect to see more redevelopment along the Fredericksburg Road corridor in the near future,” says de Leon.
Gateway West: The Much-Travelled Los Balcones
Balcones Heights derives its name from Spanish explored Bernardo de Miranda y Flores, according to Lewis F. Fisher’s inciteful city history, who in 1756 thought the stair-stepped hills leading from San Antonio to Hill Country looked like balconies to him so he named the area, Los Balcones.
When developers started selling lots in subdivisions in the area, some for as low as $250, they gave the area the name, Balcones Heights.
The city is situated on the historic Fredericksburg Road which was a stagecoach route in the 19th century and then a major military route.
In 1919, the Old Spanish Trail, the first transcontinental highway across the southern U.S. from San Diego to St. Augustine, Fla. motored through Balcones Heights.
“We are making it possible for the person with moderate means to own a homesite in the hills overlooking the city,” said a developer of the first subdivision.
72 homesites were sold in the first week and 200 by the end of the first month.
Balcones Heights residents voted, to the dismay of the city of San Antonio, on Nov. 13, 1948, to incorporate with 35 for and 3 against.
A young city had a young mayor with Clyde Crews, age 32, leading meetings that sometimes took place at the Tee Pee Indian Village Restaurant or his own Green Pastures Restaurant.
A tax-free town, Balcones Heights had a unique early ordinance that required males between the ages of 21 and 45 to spend five days a year working on public streets and alleys.
As traffic zipped through Balcones Heights, there were enough speeding tickets handed out that the Evening News made it a front-page story in 1955.
Balcones Heights Becomes a Regional Shopping Center
It may have been tough for Balcones Heights to remain an independent city except that the placement of a major interchange of two interstates, I-10 and I-410 brought commercial opportunities and tax revenue to the city in the 1960s.
By Oct. 24, 1960, Balcones Heights under construction mall site was chosen for a celebration of the world premiere of the movie “The Alamo” with John Wayne cutting into “The World’s Largest Battle of Alamo Cake”.
The next year Wonderland Shopping City, San Antonio’s second regional shopping mall, held its grand opening and Balcones Heights reaped the rewards of its location at the interstate juncture.
The mall, home to anchors such as Montgomery Ward, Rhodes Department Store, Woolworth’s, and Frost Brothers, over the years changed its named to Crossroads Mall and then to Wonderland of the Americas.
By 2004, the area had a lot more regional shopping competition but was still home to one of the nation’s most successful Super Target stores.
Just recently Balcones Heights has bought into a partnership with the mall owners to spur redevelopment.
"We started 10 years ago to convert a dinosaur mall of the Sixties to a mixed use development of the 2000s, bringing in a lot of medical services," says Sid Weiss, Wonderland's managing partner.
All That Jazz: Balcones Heights Musical Festival
The yearlong 27th Annual Balcones Heights Jazz Festival wrapped in December and is a favorite of Texas music fans.
“Bringing yet another facet of Christmas joy to Balcones Heights Jazz Festival fans is such a part of who we are as a city, and we are looking forward to concluding the series with talents like Ken Slavin and Slim Man,” de Leon said.
The family-friendly series is held outdoors with free admission and free parking.