Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) needed at least nine yes-votes on Thursday to rezone a 36-acre tract of land in his district to lower-density housing. Out of the 10 Council members present for the vote he received three: his own as well as Council members Mike Gallager (D10) and Shirley Gonzalez (D5). Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) was absent.
“I am disappointed by this vote because it sends the wrong message to our neighbors and businesses about our community values,” Nirenberg stated. “However, our office will refocus our attention on what can be done to ease the traffic congestion along Prue Road and dedicate ourselves to finding solutions that will offer some relief for residents.”
An unofficial “Council courtesy policy” typically comes into play when there is a district-specific, contested project or issue that comes before the dais. Becuase a district representative is more familiar with the needs of their communities, outsider Council members will often defer to their judgement. This case, however, tapped into the citywide issues of balancing property owner rights, traffic, smart growth, and more. It also attracted heavy hitters in the real estate and business community including representatives from the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, local commercial real estate association, Greater San Antonio Builders Association, the Real Estate Council of San Antonio who rallied for denial of Nirenberg’s request. The San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, came out in support of Nirenberg. His wife, Erika Prosper, sits on the board of directors.
More than two dozen citizens including nearby residents and business leaders signed up to speak for a public comment session that last for almost two hours, illustrating the deep divisions in the communities on the zoning request.
Nine votes were required for the zoning change becuase the land owner, a California-based investment group, opposed the change. The Planning and Zoning commissions both rejected the request with overwhelming votes.
An engineer has already been hired to start the process of building 23 three-story apartment buildings and some single family homes on acreage adjacent to other neighborhoods, said Kenneth Brown, a local attorney representing the group. The site plan, dictated by a covenant between a previous landowner and the neighborhood, averages about 20 housing units per acre.
Nirenberg argued that because the land was publicly owned when the rezoning process started, it’s the City’s responsibility to take advantage of opportunity to reduce density in neighborhoods that are already experiencing congestion and infrastructure issues. And the 2008 covenant was not the “kumbaya” moment that many have been lead to believe, he said.
“The covenant restrictions were agreed upon by the neighborhoods becuase you were told that if you didn’t they would put four-story buildings up against your property,” Nirenberg said while questioning a resident from the dais. “It sounds like you took the right deal, but not the one that I think was in the best interest of the neighborhoods.”
Councilman Treviño (D1) said that while traffic is a concern that needs to be addressed in District 8 and citywide, “this is not how you do it.
“Traffic congestion is already intense in this area and the development of several hundred apartments on this property would incrementally exacerbate this congestion,” Treviño said. “However, it would not fundamentally alter the nature of these corridors from un-congested to congested.”
He said this zoning change would unfairly burden the property-owner and that “morally, the City must demonstrate a substantive public interest” when telling an owner what to do. Treviño found no evidence of such interest and suggested that congestion and infrastructure be addressed in more holistic ways.
For Zoning Commissioner Francine Romero, who represents District 8, a precedent was not set on Thursday.
“If it had passed there might have been some precedence,” Romero said. But it’s hard to compare zoning cases to one another becuase each are unique “they all have a little bit of a twist.” The twist in this case was that the federal government did own it and Nirenberg was within the legal right to seek a zoning change.
At least this way, the neighbors know what they’re going to get, she said, referring to the covenant.
Brown had a stronger opinion on the kind of message a ruling against the land owner would have had.
“There has to be some consistency (for the development community),” he said. “If covenants become worthless, no one would invest here.”
Nirenberg stated after the vote that he will continue to look for solutions that can reduce traffic congestion and infrastructure shortfalls in his district – which is one of the fastest-growing in the City.
“When we talk about the kind of San Antonio we want to build for future generations, we need to ensure that our neighbors not only have a seat at the table but that their voices matter most. I support smart growth and responsible development and think we must better balance the inevitable expansion of our City with the valid concerns of our community members.”
Top image: Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) listens to concerned citizens before the City Council voted against his proposal to downzone a 36-acre tract of land in District 8. Photo by Camille Garcia.