Alamo Heights’ Gateway to High Density Housing

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Rendering of the rejected Alamo Heights Gateway. Image courtesy of Overland Partners

Bekah S. McNeelDriving through Alamo Heights the other day (as I do whenever I need groceries and basic goods), my husband and I saw a new yard sign on a couple of front lawns. This form of protest is prevalent in Alamo Heights’ neighborhoods, but this one was new to us.

“No highrises.”

Highrise? Where? And why not?

Here’s what we found out:

Alamo Heights Gateway is a proposed mixed-use development at the intersection of Austin Highway and Broadway. It is the kind of development that would warm the heart of Jane Jacobs and Jeff Speck. Retail on the bottom floor to create vibrant sidewalk life, concentrated public space with clear boundaries, and the creation of a “complete street” with the possibility for more.

Site plan for Alamo Heights Gateway. Image courtesy of Overland Partners

Site plan for Alamo Heights Gateway. Image courtesy of Overland Partners

If completed, the project would provide a high-profile precedent for the benefits of mixed-use development. Such a case study could be a boon to other neighborhoods debating the same options.

Most notably, these would be the first new apartments within the city limits of Alamo Heights in 44 years.

Also news to me was that a “highrise” is technically any building over 75 feet tall, roughly six residential stories. In response to community concern over the size of the project, Alamo Heights Gateway has reduced their scope from 85 feet and 244 units to 58 feet and 165 units. So it’s no longer, technically, a “highrise” – which is unfortunate for the opposing yard signs.

The developer maintains that further cuts to the height would compromise the viability of retail space on the ground level, which is crucial to the success of the project. Drawing shoppers and diners to fill vibrant, bustling sidewalks is essential to creating a village feel.

“I think it’s critical that it’s a mixed-use project,” said Rick Archer, an Alamo Heights resident and principal at Overland Partners, the architects of the development.

Current view of Broadway and Austin Hwy. Photo courtesy of Overland Partners

Current view of Broadway and Austin Hwy. Photo courtesy of Overland Partners

Currently, the site is home to a few vacant single family homes, all of which have fallen into disrepair as they sit, rendered practically unusable by the unwieldy block structure between Ellwood Street and Ausway Lane, where traffic comes whizzing off of Austin Highway.

Rick Archer, FAIA, LEED AP

Rick Archer, FAIA, LEED AP

So the developer, Dallas-based Alamo Manhattan, wants to build something usable across from the little traffic-island park.

Alamo Manhattan is working with local architects Overland Partners and asking for a lot of community feedback on the design and retail tenants. They have a vested interest in making something people like to use because that’s how they will make money – it’s good business to make things that people like to use.

So what’s to oppose?

Activists opposing the project have raised a full slate of concerns, some more critical than others. Flood control, parking and shading issues are challenges that mixed-use developments have been overcoming for decades all over the world. Archer explained that most of the issues are resolved in the design of the buildings and feels confident that his firm can design an underground garage with flood controls for the 100-year flood plain.

Other issues offer a clearer look at what is driving the opposition: distaste for density, neighborhood character and what can only be called “architectural acrophobia.”

Alamo Heights calls itself the “City of Charm and Beauty.” Known for its good schools and cradle-to-grave community, the city has been rather loathe to change anything that could interfere with that reputation.

They don’t want to be hip. They want to be charming.

However, times are changing around them, and Alamo Heights now has a notable attrition rate to show for it. The population of Alamo Heights is lower than it was in 1950, and businesses have been leaving as well. While one could hardly call it a city in decline, falling population is an indicator of trouble.

Alamo Gateway

Alamo Heights Gateway (southeast facing view). Image courtesy of Overland Partners

For many years now, the conventional wisdom was that Alamo Heights schools were the only good public schools inside Loop 410. I’ve heard plenty of people cite that wisdom as “the only reason we moved to Alamo Heights.”  But now, with the rise of charters within SAISD, that distinction is fading quickly.

Southtown has stabilized into a huge magnet for empty-nesters and young professionals who might have once stayed in Alamo Heights by default. And now it’s getting a grocery store. These changes spell competition for a city that doesn’t like to get in the fray.

But it might be that Archer’s greatest battle will be overcoming the little city’s fear of tall buildings.

“The places we love have buildings of height,” Archer said.

He cites cities from Paris, France, to Fredericksburg that have notable, tall buildings giving definition to the main thoroughfares. Far from “looming,” these buildings gently signal prosperity and gravitas. Driving through Alamo Heights right now, that’s not the story the buildings are telling.

With high tenant turnover giving way to things like payday lenders, retail spaces along Broadway are starting to look like a series of low-brow strip malls.

Archer explains that Alamo Heights Gateway neatly fits within the Alamo Heights Comprehensive Plan, a road map for the future of the city that enjoys wide support, but was never codified. The plan anticipates more height, multi-family housing, and live/work space that the current zoning allows. At the Jan. 6 hearing before the Alamo Heights Planning and Zoning Commission Archer and Alamo Manhattan will make the case that the development merits a special use permit to overcome its current zoning restrictions. The project has the unanimous endorsement of the Alamo Heights Architectural Review Board.

Citizens can lend their voice to supporting the project online. Public support can go a long way in what is, inevitably, a political fight.  Many communities have been devastated by exploitative and irresponsible projects, pushed through by outside interests. So it’s not without reason that when it comes to redevelopment – especially along the edges of neighborhoods – dialogue is derailed by guerrilla activism. The unfortunate result of which is that those developers who do seek community input in good faith often find themselves confronted with campaigns of misinformation and shock-and-awe tactics. I’ve seen it in my neighborhood. You might have seen it in yours.

Marrying progress and tradition is a tricky subject. Like all good marriages, it requires healthy compromise. But like carriages and phone booths there is a fine line between charm and irrelevance, and hopefully this vital link along the Broadway corridor will find its place on the better side of the line.

 

Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey, and is a frequent contributor to the Rivard Report. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.

 

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26 thoughts on “Alamo Heights’ Gateway to High Density Housing

  1. It’s not that “retail spaces along Broadway are starting to look like a series of low-brow strip malls”, so much as they ARE a series of low-brow strip malls.

  2. A fair discussion of this issue would have listed the variances the developer is seeking. A decent opinion piece would explain why a wealthy developer deserves those variances. This piece does neither.

    The biggest change, and the one that has generated the most opposition, is the variance in height. The current Alamo Heights code is 35 feet. The developer is seeking a variance of 58 feet, down from 85 feet. Is that really an irrelevant point?

    The other variances the developer at least initially sought were:

    Front yard setback from 25 feet to 10 feet;
    Lot coverage from 35 percent to 85 percent;
    2 parking spaces per unit to 1.5 spaces per unit;
    A reduction in square footage per unit;
    Variances related to restaurant use.

    A big part of good development, good neighborhoods and property rights is predictability. Zoning restrictions are on the books to protect neighbors who are typically making the biggest investment of their lives. Why should those restrictions be overturned to make money for a Dallas developer? Because according to Bekah, Alamo Heights should be hip, not faux charming.

    I wonder if Bekah would feel the same if a property near her hip residence were suddenly granted variances for a use she and her neighbors never anticipated. Sometimes progress is a high-density residential project. Sometimes it’s a Walmart or a night club. Like carriages and phone booths there’s a fine line between charm and irrelevance.

  3. I’m sure that Alamo Heights residents have a (reasonable) fear of the development that has been slowly creeping their way down Broadway for the last few years. It’s hard to see your home change, regardless of where you live.

    However, it is unfortunate that the developer was essentially bullied into making this a less efficient mixed-use space. Parking is a legitimate concern, but only because so much of San Antonio still requires having four wheels to get around. Broadway is developing, and that won’t change. If the city were thinking even beyond 2020, the planned streetcar would extend nearly to that intersection and the entire stretch of Broadway from downtown. That street is bound to become an extended mixed-use landscape. Anyone who lives at Gateway could hop on the streetcar for groceries, museums, downtown commute, dinner, Brackenridge Park, shopping at Pearl, and more. No car, healthier public. Think about that for a second. Think about San Antonio having the economic power to attract anyone from the United States because of this ease and effectiveness of living closer to your neighbors and daily needs.

    Density and public transit are the keys to an economically mobile and sustainable city. They reduce infrastructure requirements on the city, free people from the chains of needing to pay for vehicles, and have better embodied efficiency which lowers costs for everyone. Eighty-five feet in height is not unreasonable when you think about what development is already moving down Broadway. If done well, the “character” of the area would only be enhanced.

  4. I’m curious as to what it will be like (look like) in 20, 30, 40 years, and who its residents will be? Has anyone thought into the far future about what this development might turn out to be, especially if the construction is as cheap as a lot of the apartments I’ve seen going up near the Pearl?

    • There are really two questions here: (1) Is this the right idea? (2) Is this the right architecture? I share your concern that this design will be quickly dated. And I’m always concerned by large expanses of stucco walls because they certainly don’t age well.

      That said, most of the opposition appears to be towards the nature of the project, and I’m not sure brick facings or a different design would appease those who are protesting.

      • Well, I wasn’t really as worried so much about the style of architecture (though important) as the quality of both its construction and its residents in 20, 30, 40 + years. I have a feeling it’ll be really run down and worse for wear in the very near future – sort of like the rest of the Broadway strip. I mean, look at the Broadway Theatre Building? All the worn out retail strip centers, some with empty, dirty storefronts? I am fairly new to Alamo Heights, but from what I can tell, no efforts have been made towards its appearance since the late 1960’s or 1970’s. Why would this project get future care and attention that the rest of this little city hasn’t?

  5. I hope the City Fathers (and Mothers) in Alamo Heights will keep these observations in mind. I hope they will also recognize that, with Bexar County’s population expected to double between 2010 and 2050, planning to create the best possible outcome for AH may well mean embracing higher-density housing, walkable communities, and other urban core amenities. This is also a path to prosperty for the City’s sake.

  6. That stretch of Broadway through Alamo Heights is a strange beast. It appears at first like it’s a walkable community, but you quickly realize none of the infrastructure is there to support it. When I’m on foot or on bike in that area, I really feel like a fish out of water. I think efforts to encourage local retail and complete streets should be encouraged. It has potential to be a vibrant community.

    I also find the opposition to this project surprising since Bella Fontana (which we’ve lovingly nicknamed ‘The Macaroni Grill Residences’) is literally feet away. That project feels completely out of character for the neighborhood—and what’s more, offers no retail presence. My point is that it doesn’t take variances to create something that doesn’t integrate into the community.

    The good news, though, is that there are a growing number of locations where a project like this one would be welcome in San Antonio.

  7. San Antonio set an excellent example for the rest of the Country when it came up with a solution to subsidize solar energy through their TDSP’s a couple of years ago off setting millions of dollars that would have to go into maintenance and upgrades to the current electricity grid. Magnificent move! New development is going to happen at some point. What would make this project a true success for all would be using renewable energy resources for power as well as maxing out the areas ability to capture, retain and process potable and non potable drinking water. If those two things are made the most important issues of this project it will could be a real benefit for the community. Anything less in my eyes is more of the same which in my opinion is taking a 20th century mentality to “advance progress” in the 21st century. Does that make sense?

  8. Wondering when this area will hit saturation. There are a LOT of new high end condos popping up in this area since the Pearl. It’s gotta hit sometime soon.

  9. Of course overland is supporting this it directly benefits the company.
    They have a track record of this – Look into it and see the real story.

  10. It is encouraging to see the dialogue that this article has provoked. As the lead architect for the project, so often it seems that citizens are forced to take sides – “for” the project or “against” it – rather than discussing what our community should be like in the future. In the process, we miss the opportunity to hear from each other about our shared future. Despite the rancor that has surrounded this very public process, we the project team have listened carefully to concerns expressed by the community. We’ve held dozens of public meetings. We’ve sought comments on our website and reviewed those of the opposition. We have made multiple design modifications in response to what we have heard.
    We are only in the conceptual design phase, and I expect that once parameters are set, we will be able to enhance the design even more, but I want to respond to a few comments that indicate that there are still misperceptions about the project. Importantly, in 2009, Alamo Heights adopted a comprehensive Plan that provides guidance for the future development of the city. This plan has never been codified, but if it had been, this project might not require any variances. And if it did require variances, they would be minor. Instead, because we are operating under zoning laws that do not reflect our city’s published vision, we are required to get 11 variances. For example, under our current zoning laws, we could only build apartments; retail and live work units as proposed, would not be allowed. Most everyone would agree that this site should not be limited to residential uses if we really want Alamo Heights to be a vibrant walkable community.
    Some of you have expressed concern about what this will look like in the future. I would contend that if built well, which we intend to do, it should be an asset to the community. Look at the Bushnell in Monte Vista. It is one of the most desirable addresses in the San Antonio and it is an apartment building. Furthermore, materials have not been selected and it is highly probable that the building will be largely brick with stucco on the uppermost floors.
    Finally, I know that a rumor has been spread that this is a land give-away with tax breaks. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The developers will be purchasing the land from the City of Alamo Heights and the project is estimated to yield an additional $8 million in tax revenue over the next 10 years.
    This is a great investment in our city and one that we desperately need. If you want to know more, please go to http://www.alamoheightsgateway.com. If you are supportive of the direction, I urge you to follow the link and express your support and send this to your friends. Finally, participate in the dialogue by coming to the Alamo Heights Planning & Zoning meeting today, January 6 at 5:30 PM at Cambridge Elementary School and to City Council next Monday, January 13 at 5:30 PM. Whether you are for or against this, or just want to participate in a conversation to make our entire city better, I urge you to come and weigh in.

  11. After reading some of the negative comments above about this project I spoke with Rick Archer of Overland Partners, who had not seen them yet. Though he addressed most of the topics in his letter above he did not clear up Overland’s relationship to the developer as questioned by “rugby09”. In my conversation with him he said that the architect/developer relationship was conventional – they are paid professional fees and nothing more. They have no fiduciary interest/ownership of the project that they are not disclosing. As a colleague who knows and respects the partnership at Overland I wanted to share that fact I happened to know to clear up any questions of motivation.

  12. What an absolute puff piece. There are many businesses in the area doing exceedingly well including several new ones such as Local Coffee. The notion that this project is needed to anchor business in the area is without merit.

    We’ve seen the failed experiment at The Broadway. We don’t need to do it again.

    The architectural renderings are amusing — not a single car in them. I ride through that spot several times a week – either with my family to head to Paloma Blanca, to commute to work or just to meet up with friends. The notion that that spot will be bike and pedestrian friendly with 100+ new residents and cars is a fantasy.

    But what it really comes down to is whether big corporations and big money get to play by a different set of rules than average residents. It’s one thing to grant a variance to allow a homeowner to only have a side setback of 3 feet versus 5; it’s quite another to allow a structure to built more than 20 feet higher than current regulations.

  13. “However, times are changing around them, and Alamo Heights now has a notable attrition rate to show for it. The population of Alamo Heights is lower than it was in 1950, and businesses have been leaving as well. While one could hardly call it a city in decline, falling population is an indicator of trouble.

    But now, with the rise of charters within SAISD, that distinction is fading quickly.”

    Wow, please tell that to the residential real estate market. There is a 25-35% premium on AHISD to NEISD. I’d also venture to say that AH probably has the highest density of long-in-the-tooth businesses in San Antonio. These statements are just inaccurate.

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