Carroll Brown had surrendered long ago to the fact that apartments will be built right behind Mission Concepción – but not if the buildings are any higher than a City-approved development restriction allows.
"It’s already pretty much a done deal, but then when they mentioned four stories and (that would be) above the current restrictions – which we feel are inadequate to begin with – my comment is: no way. It sets a bad precedence," Brown told the Rivard Report Tuesday as a representative of the Alliance for San Antonio Missions, a coalition of Southside neighbors and concerned citizens that advocate for the protection of history and culture of the four Spanish colonial Missions against so-called "encroachment" from private and commercial interests.
Plans submitted by 210 Development Group to redevelop the derelict St. John’s Catholic Seminary campus with more than 240 apartments were given conceptual approval by the Historic Design and Review Commission little more than one year ago.
"The plan (in terms of height) has not changed since," said 210 Development Group President Michael Wibracht, firmly citing the HDRC's previous conceptual approval of Villa Concepción. "If anything, the buildings have gotten a little bit smaller and shorter."
Wibracht readily admits the plans still exceed the height restrictions of the Mission Protection Overlay District. He never hid this detail from HDRC, he said. Click here to view the plans submitted and conceptually approved last year. The local developer will come before the HDRC again this Wednesday, seeking final approval of updated designs.
The overlay district was developed and approved by City Council in 2014 ahead of the World Heritage designation. While a critical zoning change unanimously approved by Council in 2015 allowed the project to move forward through the design phase, City Council has no final say in HDRC cases.
Heritage trees and natural foliage will block the view of most of the new structures beyond Mission Concepción, Wibracht said.
The plan keeps 100% of the heritage trees, removes some younger trees, and plants dozens more throughout the new parking lot and grounds. Another "concession" in the plan for the neighborhood was to make sure the new buildings didn't tower over their neighbors – mostly one-story, single-family homes – on Felisa Street, he said. Structure elevation rises from one story to four as it steps back from surrounding streets for smoother visual transitions.
"All of the buildings on the exterior (facing existing neighborhoods) have yards," he added. "This will be part of the neighborhood."
The estimated $26 million plan would renovate three historic structures – Drossaert Hall built in 1920, St. Mary's Hall built in 1949, and St, Marquil Hall built in 1935; demolish eight structures as well as two historic homes found to be unusable and/or unmovable; and build seven new structures that will be part of the gated apartment and office space complex. The 12.15-acre parcel is owned by the Archdiocese of San Antonio and part of the redevelopment plan includes new office and community meeting space for the Catholic church.
The Missions, including the Alamo, were designated last year as World Heritage sites by UNESCO. Developer interest has been increasing for the land surrounding them ever since. The land around Mission Concepción was especially ripe for development as the old structures had become an attractive site for vagrants and crime, creating a neighborhood safety hazard.
The Alliance has been trying to get the City, namely Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) who represents the World Heritage sites on the Mission Reach on City Council, to commit a portion of the $850 million 2017 Municipal Bond towards the purchase of adjacent land for what it calls "smart development."
Brown and other Alliance representatives have repeatedly said they're not opposed to all development near the Mission, rather the group seeks thoughtful, respectful planning and design. Some have suggested that land be turned into public parkland.
Realistically, Brown said, he can no longer be opposed to the Villa Concepción concept because the property owners – the Catholic church – and the surrounding neighbors overwhelmingly support the project.
"Between the church and the neighborhood, their opinion counts more than ours," he said. "If I can’t suggest a better alternative then I’d better keep my mouth shut.”
There are plenty of ideas, he said, but none of them are backed up with legitimate funding. Instead, he'd rather focus on the remaining three Southside missions. Strong opposition from area neighborhood associations, the Alliance, and Viagran caused 210 Development to pull out from talks about developing a complex that would have towered over Mission San José's visitors center.
That was a very different proposal, Brown said, but overlooking Villa Concepción became impossible when it was pointed out to him that the project "exceeds the height requirements," according to documents filed for the HDRC meeting on Wednesday.
"I should not be able to see it, no matter what the height (is)," he said. Most of the renderings provided by 210 Development show line-of-sight lines from the official center point of the Mission Protection Overlay District. "But that's not the only location to stand and look.”
It would be impossible to account for the entire viewshed of the neighborhood, Wibracht said. That is why the overlay is limited to 1,500 feet around a single point near each Mission's entrance.
"The plan hasn’t changed," he said again. "We’ve just taken the concept to final design."
The plan also calls for the demolition of two historic homes, which 210 Development has found impossible to preserve in a financially or structurally sustainable way. HDRC asked the developer to try to market the homes for at least six months, but to no avail.
California-based Moule & Polyzoides, the same firm that designed the River North District Master Plan, developed the design concept and schematics for Villa Concepción. Local firm B&A Architects have taken over final design needs.
This was also always part of the plan, he said. "You have to have local representation to get through the codes and requirements."
Top image: Looking west from behind Mission Concepción, the existing historic structures already block the neighborhood's view of the Mission. The Villa Concepción apartments will be built east of those structures. Rendering courtesy of R&A Architects.