The San Antonio Zoning Commission unanimously approved the zoning change that will transform the long vacant, dilapidated St. John’s Catholic Seminary behind Mission Concepción into an apartment and office complex. City Council will consider Tuesday’s affirmative vote and the Planning Commission’s vote of approval at its Oct. 15 afternoon session.
The project design already has won conceptual approval from the Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC). While developers still need to work out final details with permitting and design, the zoning change one of the last major hurdles for the $26 million project to proceed as planned. The World Heritage site designation from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) this summer has brought with it sustained scrutiny of projects near the four Spanish colonial Missions, all active parishes on the Southside.
Commissioners heard from more than a dozen citizens that signed up to speak for and against the project. Some were neighbors who believe the project that will “breathe new life” into an historic property plagued by vagrants and vandals, and as a catalyst for further Southside investment. Others called for a five-year moratorium on any zoning change near the missions, concerned that development could threaten the World Heritage designation.
The project at Mission Concepción has been in the works for more than two years. The plans were carefully reviewed by UNESCO representatives in the months prior to the designation, according to Fr. David Garcia, director of the Old Spanish Missions who played a key role the restoration of the Missions and the bid for World Heritage status.
“I see absolutely no threat to the World Heritage designation from this project,” Fr. Garcia said.
The Archdiocese of San Antonio, which owns the property, has contracted 210 Development Group to manage the project that will include some 200-240 apartment units and the renovation of at least five historic structures of the old St. John’s Seminary school complex. Two of those would be maintained by the Archdiocese as office and community organization space. The “courtyard architecture” project was designed by California-based Moule & Polyzoides, the same firm that designed the River North District Master Plan.
The project will provide a “long-term income stream for the Archdiocese’s charitable works while preserving the site,” 210 Development Group Managing Partner Mark Tolley told the Commission. Tolley said that the project’s size has been reduced and its orientation has been modified six times in the course of the HDRC review and community meetings.
“We’re not opposed to development, we’re fine with intelligent development. But I’m not sure that some of these developments fall into that category” said Carroll Brown, a member of the Alliance for San Antonio Missions, which advocates for the City to to take a “second look” at construction and design rules. “Perhaps this one (at Mission Concepción) is a foregone conclusion, but the rest of the Missions are not.”
Other residents called for a five year moratorium on development – no construction or zoning changes.
Candie Beltran, a lifelong resident, said she can’t wait five more years. Beltran did not speak on behalf of the Roosevelt Park Neighborhood Association because its members could not reach a consensus. She and her neighbors on Felisa Street, across from the project’s southern edge, gave their whole-hearted support to the project.
“We support development because they are fearful of what’s going on there,” Beltran said. “It’s more of a hazard, a danger, now than when it was a substance abuse and rehab center.”
After the seminary school closed in 1971, the complex was home to the Patrician Movement that operated a rehab center. It’s been vacant for more than three years since the rehab center closed in 2011 and has become a haven for vagrants and drug dealers, she said. Several fires have been started on the grounds over the years.
Former Mayor Henry Cisneros also spoke in favor of the development. Cisneros, founder and chairman of the development firm City View, is an investor in the development and spoke of the need for new housing in the long-neglected Southside.
“The Missions have always been surrounded by residents, ” he said. “Far be it from us in the modern area to separate them.”
Ultimately, it was the project’s design to stay out of Mission Concepción’s view shed and its relatively urban location that swayed Commissioner Orlando Salazar (D4) to approve the zoning request. While the Zoning Commission is technically only concerned with land use issues, those of design and planning seep into conversations more often than not. Salazar said the approval of this project does not mean developers eyeing other Missions get a free pass. In other words, this decision should not set a precedent.
“If any type of development is proposed at Mission Espada, I wouldn’t’ say ‘No,’ I’d say, ‘Hell no,’” he said. Mission Espada is the southernmost of the four missions, surrounded by farmland and small neighborhoods.
210 Development Group has another project in the works across the street from Mission San José on a former industrial site. Many of those that spoke in opposition to the Mission Concepción project live near San José. That project is still in the early design phases, and 210 developers continue to meet with neighbors and stakeholder groups in the wake of strong opposition from area neighborhood associations.
The Concepción project more closely fits into the existing viewshed of the seminary. Its tiered design builds up from two to four stories and back down will blend the development into the surrounding single-story neighborhood, said 210 Development Group President Michael Wibracht after the project received Planning Commission approval last week.
CORRECTION: The Alliance for San Antonio Missions is not calling for a five-year moratorium. Several other residents that spoke at the meeting are.
*Top image: Building massing and site plan for the proposed Mission Concepción apartment and office building complex. Image courtesy of Moule & Polyzoides.