Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Almost 50 people gathered on the historic Hays Street Bridge on the near-Eastside Monday evening to protest the City's recent decision to allow a local developer to build a mixed-use apartment complex next to the bridge. Protesters called for Mayor Ron Nirenberg to pull the plug on the controversial project slated for land they say should become a public park.
Other area residents spoke out against the proposed development because they say it would block neighborhood views of the iconic bridge and turn it into an amenity for upper-class residents rather than the whole community.
The developer, Mitch Meyer of Loopy Limited, has not yet decided if he'll continue to pursue the project, which would likely require another design overhaul to adhere to the City's strict stipulations. The Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) rejected plans earlier this month for "The Bridge" apartments that would include about 147 apartments, parking for tenants, and two retail spaces, but the ultimate decision to allow the project – with conditions – was made last Friday by City Manager Sheryl Sculley.
"The city manager needs to get off her high horse and get out in the streets," said former City Councilman Mario Salas. "Then she'd see that the community doesn't want a five-story [apartment complex] here."
According to the City code, the mayor does not have authority to override the city manager's decision.
"Now we have an opportunity to have the productive engagement on the future of the Hays Street Bridge that actually meets the best interest of all parties," Nirenberg stated in a Monday email to the Rivard Report. "I encourage the neighborhood and the developer to work together in a collaborative way to get the design finalized."
On the bridge Monday evening, those protesting the project said the City was working in the interest of "private greed" rather than the community by facilitating "backroom deals" in favor of development. Petitions were circulated for attendees to sign in protest of the City's decision.
The community worked for years to bring the bridge up to working order, with little help from the City, Graciela Sánchez, director of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, told the crowd, adding that the "sweetheart deal" with developers violates the public interest.
The bridge, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, opened to pedestrian traffic in 2010.
All recommendations made by the 11-member HDRC, a City advisory body, are subject to the Office of Historic Preservation's and, ultimately, the city manager's approval. It is rare that the City rules against HDRC recommendations, but not unheard of.
Meyer has said that some of the requirements could be easily met, such as including a public art element, but others make the project "undevelopable," such as height and scaling issues that would reduce the total amount of units.
"The messages I've received from the HDRC, the Dignowity [Hill Neighborhood Association], Councilman Cruz [Shaw] and from the project developer are all positive," Sculley told the Rivard Report via text message Monday. "In fact, the community and developer are looking forward to working together on a solution."
Brian Dillard, outgoing president of the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association, and others have confirmed that sentiment, but opponents continue to fight any development that isn't a park.
"It will never be a park," Meyer said. "The city manager's decision has nothing to do with that. ... If people want to keep chasing that rainbow, I can't stop them."
Many on the bridge were members of the Hays Street Restoration Group, which is supported by the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, which claims the City's sale of the vacant 1.7-acre property circumvented a 2002 agreement to save the land for a park. The group worked for years to raise money and restore the bridge into the bike- and pedestrian-friendly amenity it is today. That sale to Alamo Beer Company owner Eugene Simor was the subject of a lawsuit the group filed in 2012 against the City. Simor has since built a brewery on the other, southern side of the bridge and deeded the northern property in question to Meyer.
In 2014, a Bexar County district court jury agreed that the City failed to comply with the 2002 memorandum of understanding it entered into when Anheuser-Busch distributors Berkeley and Vincent Dawson donated the land to the City, but an appeals court ruled that the City is immune to being sued for such a breach of contract. The Restoration Group has appealed its case to the Texas Supreme Court, but it remains unknown if the high court will hear it.
Even if the Supreme Court does rule in the group's favor, it is unlikely that it would impact the ownership of the property, said James McKnight, Meyer's attorney. That appeal pertains to the City's immunity, not the original case.
Amy Kastely, who is representing the Restoration Group, said she's confident the Supreme Court will take on the case. If it sides with her group, then the merits of the case can be heard again in appeals court.
"The court order [would require the City] to use this land for the Hays Street Bridge [restoration] project," Kastley said, noting that the intent was to have bathrooms and other historical markings close to the bridge in the park that was promised.
It wasn't a sale, she added, "it was a swap." Simor purchased the land for $295,000 and later received a nearly $800,000 in economic development incentives from the City to build an $8 million brewery on the southern side of the bridge. The apartment project is eligible for about $1.2 million in City incentives from the Center City Housing Incentive Program.
“The Supreme Court has to take up an issue that is unique," McKnight said of the case's chances at the high court, which hears a fraction of the cases proposed, and government immunity "isn't special."
"There has been no ruling that the City must turn the land into a park," Deborah Klein, the deputy city attorney in charge of the City's case, told the Rivard Report via email. "We feel confident that the Supreme Court will uphold the Appellate Court’s ruling in favor of the City. The City of San Antonio no longer owns the property."
Any “aggrieved” party can appeal the city manager’s decision within 30 business days, according to the City’s Unified Development Code – but it is unclear if the Restoration Group, or protesters who don't own property nearby, legally qualify to appeal. The group is considering filing an appeal or another lawsuit, Kastely said, but will wait to see if the project proceeds.
For many, the project has become a symbol of gentrification of the long-neglected, rapidly-changing Eastside neighborhood. Once known as a place where people could purchase drugs, visitors these days may also encounter people practicing yoga on the bridge or teaching children how to ride a bike. During the protest, about 40 cyclists as part of a group walked their bikes through the crowd, highlighting the diverse use of the bridge.
Some neighbors welcome the change and activation of the vacant lot, but others see it as another development that will increase property values and, therefore, property taxes for already stressed budgets.
Ten percent of the units would have been designated “affordable” with $1,000 per-month rent. However, many in the historically low-income area did not view that federal standard as affordable.
Meyer hired architectural firm GRG Architecture to redesign the project after HDRC rejected preliminary designs in December. The new renderings showed a more hidden parking garage, live-work apartments on the ground floor, increased adherence to the downtown design guidelines, and more "open space" between the bridge and the complex. Simor agreed to not build a restaurant there, as previously planned, in order to satisfy the commission's and community members' concerns.
The commission first voted 4-4 during its March 9 meeting, but then HDRC Chair Michael Guarino switched his vote to reject the project.
“The tie wouldn’t have resolved anything for anybody,” Guarino told the Rivard Report after the vote. “Now the applicant [Meyer] has options.”
Now that Sculley has issued approval, Meyer will not need to go through the HDRC process again. Office of Historic Preservation and City staff would review a new application for the project, if he decides to more forward, with ultimate approval up to the city manager.
Councilman Cruz Shaw (D2) supports Sculley's decision and told the Rivard Report on Friday that he hopes the community will be more involved in the next design of the project – provided there will be one. Shaw did not attend the gathering Monday, as he was at the Denver Heights Neighborhood Association, according to his staff.
Darryl Steadman – son of the late engineer H. Douglas Steadman who is largely credited with starting the effort, with others, to save the bridge – said his father spent his last breath on Feb. 12 denouncing the City. He recalled his father's words for the crowd on the bridge: "Those crooks at the city stole the bridge from the people."