Tonight was not the night for development in Alamo Heights. While polite and thorough, the hearing of Case No: 351, a request for an Specific Use Permit (SUP) by Alamo Manhattan for the development of Alamo Heights Gateway was controversial, and did not end in favor of the development.
In the auditorium of Cambridge Elementary School, the “citizens to be heard” list was long and distinguished. The commission asked pressing questions. Of course, there were pointed comments and elevated feelings. Many present seemed to have a vested interest in not only the passage or defeat of the project, but the past, present, and future of Alamo Heights as a city.
This project begs the question, as citizen Ben Halbach put it, “What are you contending for?”
Both sides agreed that the property in question, the megablock between Ausway Lane and Elwood Street at the intersection of Austin Hwy and Broadway, is an eyesore in need of development. Both sides referred to the Alamo Heights Comprehensive Plan as the way forward.
However, there are strong opinions on the kind of development that would be appropriate for the location based on differing interpretations of the Comprehensive Plan.
The meeting started with the presentation of the project by lead architect Rick Archer of Overland Partners and Matt Segrest of Alamo Manhattan. Archer pointed to the development as the “new center of our city,” which the community seemed to agree was needed to combat the retail entropy of downtown Alamo Heights.
Archer also referenced the concept detailed in the book Great Streets by Allan Jacobs. Walkability and vibrancy draw support from the entire community, and Archer maintains that Alamo Heights Gateway can not only bring that to its own footprint, but spur more walkable development along Broadway.
John Joseph, founding president of the Alamo Heights Neighborhood Association, does not agree.
“Building this apartment project is not going to make Alamo Heights walkable overnight,” Joseph said.
The commission had some technical questions for the developer and architect as well. One particular concern, shared by Joseph, is the density of the development. At 100 units per acre, Alamo Heights Gateway would be more dense than anything comparable in the city of San Antonio.
Archer and Segrest explained that this would be made possible with underground parking. Which raised another concern, the ratio of parking spots per unit planned for the development. The commission’s concern is that insufficient parking will be a burden on the surrounding neighborhood. They referred to several developments with more parking per unit such as the Can Plant.
Later, during the citizens-to-be-heard portion of the meeting, a letter from Craig Wilson, COO of Silver Ventures, developers for the Pearl, confirmed that the Pearl and its housing component, the Can Plant are in fact “overparked,” and that the proposed unit-to-parking space ratio for Alamo Heights Gateway should be sufficient.
“It’s not in the developer’s interest to underpark this project,” Archer said.
“We’re committed to being good neighbors,” Segrest added.
This drew a deliberate burst of laughter from the back of the room, one of the few antagonistic moments in the meeting.
While this seems to be a contentious claim for some, others felt that the developers and architects had been community-minded in their process.
“The work that the architects have done is exemplary in response to the concerns that the citizens and the council have raised,” said Jim Taylor of the Planning and Zoning Commission.
Later, community member David Hornberger applauded the project’s effort at “trying to match market realities with community preference.”
The citizens-to-be-heard portion of the meeting was long. Three pages of names were called, most in support of the project, though the opposition considered it a staged room.
“This was like the architects and developers convention for San Antonio,” said Ken Wilson, who opposed the project.
Joseph pointed out that proponents of the project “stuck to the script,” using words like catalyst and talking about young professionals.
The point of catalytic development certainly was driven home, often by the young professionals themselves.
“I’m the demographic everyone is looking for,” said Lawson Jesse, a 25-year-old resident of Alamo Heights, “When I talk to my friends, they’re moving downtown. And not just to apartments. They are buying homes in Mahncke Park, Government Hill, and Dignowity Hill.”
He pointed out that settling down in Alamo Heights was no longer an inevitability for young families, who now have housing, schools, and soon a grocery store in the city center.
Others reiterated the concern of losing the young professional demographic.
“This is about recruiting,” said Jeff Bailey.
For proponents, it was not only about recruiting residents, but also further development.
“If we vote this down we’ll be sending a loud message to developers that we don’t want to change,” said Stephen Dyer.
Longtime businessmen concurred that competition was upon the city and that the chance to develop the derelict lots might not come again soon, especially if willing developers were shooed away.
“This is an opportunity to upgrade this city. Broadway to the south is being upgraded. If we do not do this now we will be looking at that pile of junk for the next 20-30 years,” said Dwight Lieb.
Those opposed to the project cited a number of reasons.
Some, like Sarah Reveley, originator of the “No Highrises” yard signs, felt that the project was not in keeping with the actual desires of the community, and did not fit the Comprehensive Plan.
“I feel like this project is not a revitalization of downtown. It’s a revitalization of the Comprehensive Plan,” Reveley said.
Others felt that the development’s incongruence with the current character of the city would deliver a crushing blow to the community. Olive Roen presented a harrowing vision of a future in which the high density project, which she compared to an intimidating castle, would create a social stress on the neighborhood, eventually leading to the true decline of the entire city of Alamo Heights.
Concerns about flooding, construction noise, and cost to the city were raised as well. Joseph said the Broadway corridor is the most flood-prone roadway in Bexar County, and FEMA recommends demolishing buildings in such floodways, not building new ones.
(For the record, that would involve demolishing most of commercial Alamo Heights and Lower Broadway, which Joseph did not advocate.)
Independent civil engineer Brittany Meloni later pointed out that flooding should not be a barrier for this project, and could be overcome through conscious design.
The citizens were heard late into the night. After more than five hours of discussion, the commission voted seven to two against the SUP. They recommended a reduction of its density and height yet again.
We now await another round, to see how far the developer is willing to go to fit into a city with definite ideas of where it’s going, and where it would rather not go. I’m sure many went home feeling embattled, but for those who have seen things get down and dirty at a public hearing, this was really quite civil. Charming, if you will. But alas, charm is not always in favor of change.
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.