Iris Dimmick / Rivard Report
City Council on Thursday approved a land swap with a developer that will trade his vacant lot next to the historic Hays Street bridge on the near East Side for acreage less than one mile away on which to build a five-story apartment building.
Previously, the language of the agreement called for a public process to determine the use of the property near the bridge, but interim Councilman Art Hall (D2) introduced an amendment, approved by a 10-1 vote, that will specifically designate the land as a park. The deal is an attempt to “reset” the property’s tumultuous past and “right some wrongs,” said Hall, who helped arrange the land-swap deal in his district.
The vote took place after hours of impassioned testimony from both outside activists and residents of a neighborhood that has – until recently – been neglected. For many, the deal is a much-needed compromise in a years-long battle over the plot of land in a rapidly gentrifying area of town. However, some see the deal as benefiting the developer more than the community.
The developer has all the permission needed to start work on construction of apartments on the property, Hall said, so a compromise was necessary. The plot has a complicated past, Hall said, but “I’ve got an existing reality that I have to deal with.”
Hall’s last day in office is Wednesday, June 19, when Jada Andrews-Sullivan will be sworn in as the elected representative of District 2.
Andrews-Sullivan said she would have voted in favor of the land swap.
“We have a lot more work to do to make sure the community is still heard as this process continues,” told the Rivard Report.
The Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association, which represents residents in the neighborhood where the bridge is located, is largely in favor of the land swap, which would give developer Mitch Meyer 2 acres of city-owned land at 223 South Cherry St.
“Our community as a whole stands behind this deal and is grateful for the spirit of compromise,” association President Nicolas Rivard said.
That park provision likely will pave the way for a group of Eastside preservationists to drop its lawsuit against the City, leaders said, as it satisfies its request for the land to become a park.
The Hays Street Bridge Restoration Group sued the City in 2012 to challenge its sale of the land to a local beer company. Leaders said the City should not have given the developer anything at all, but were glad that the language was added that committed the land to public space.
“These corrupt deals have to stop,” said Graciela Sanchez, executive director of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, which supports the Restoration Group. The deal approved Thursday appears to satisfy the group’s push for a park, but she called the land swap with Meyer an example of another “backroom deal.”
Several children, who were on a field trip to City Hall to follow Sanchez as part of a Mexican American Studies course, joined those protesting the deal in front of the dais. Some spoke about the importance of preserving history while others held up signs against corruption and “sweet heart deals.”
At least one parent notified City Hall to complain that their children were involved, City employees said.
The group did their due diligence in ensuring that the school and parents “were aware of where [their children] where going, what they where doing, and who they were with,” Yaneth Flores, an organizer with the Ezperanza Center, said via email.
Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) cast the lone vote against the measure, saying the land swap does not “right a wrong.”
“We’re sitting here like we’re doing something great for them when it shouldn’t have been done in the first place,” said Brockhouse, who lost the June 8 mayoral runoff election.
This deal doesn’t “correct an injustice,” Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) said, but “we’re trying to take back this land.”
Saldaña credited the Hays Street Bridge Restoration Group and Esperanza Center for taking their fight to City Hall and to the courts. “We’re here because of you.”
The Denver Heights Neighborhood Association, located further south on the East Side, is opposed to the deal. Maria Green, a member of that association’s executive board, said the land swap was being rushed to a City Council vote and asked for a delay until an independent appraisal could be performed and a public hearing held about the swap.
The City will spend $600,000 to demolish buildings and remediate the South Cherry Street lot located. The City would have spent those funds on the land eventually even if the land-swap deal had not occurred, said Assistant City Manager Lori Houston. Ten percent of the units Meyer is building there will be priced for households earning 80 percent of area median income, she said.
The developer’s land, 1.69 acres at 803 and 815 North Cherry Street, was appraised at $2.58 million; the City’s 2 acres were valued at $2.615 million and come with a deed restriction that prohibits structures taller than five stories. That restriction reduces the land’s value.
After the Restoration Group sued, a court found in 2014 that the City violated a memorandum of understanding that the land would become a park by selling the land to the Alamo Beer Company, which later transferred it to Meyer. The brewery eventually was built on the other side of the bridge.
Now that the land will become a park, the group specifically wants the railroad’s history in San Antonio and the contributions of the black community that lived on the East Side to be featured in the park. Hall’s amendment designates the land as a public park that will have at minimum a water fountain, restrooms, trees, picnic areas, and information about the bridge and surrounding community.
A funding plan for the capital improvements and operations for the park will be identified before the end of the year, City officials said.
The momentum for the deal and the community support made this vote critical, Sandoval said. And without it, there’s a possibility that the project would have been built next to the bridge.
“I put more value on the land that we’re getting back than the land that we’re trading,” Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) said. “It’s so important … that I’m willing to do this trade.”
Although Esperanza and the Restoration Group got the park it had long sought, the broader problem of gentrification – and how the City favors developers – continues in the East Side and other parts of the city, Sanchez said.
Today’s amendment was a “bittersweet” victory, she said.
Out of this struggle will come a new process for how the City deals with the sale and conveyance of land, Nirenberg said.
This is a “moment of atonement,” he said. “There are some things that can’t be undone and some things that can.”
To make sure this doesn’t happen again, he added, “we have to make sure that we develop a process of public participation that ensures that any conveyance of public property comes with healthy, robust, and comprehensive public input.”
Meyer was present for the beginning of the meeting but did not stay through the entire discussion. In a text to the Rivard Report, he expressed disappointment that some residents and activists still weren’t satisfied with the outcome.
“I don’t know why everyone isn’t dancing in the streets. Instead the meeting went off the rails and this good faith effort on the city’s part to reconcile and heal this wound turned into a bashing session about affordable housing, gentrification, and sweetheart deals. I’ve also never seen so much misinformation,” he said.
“Only cool-headed, rational, respectful and truthful dialogue is going to move D2 forward,” Meyer said. “I do sincerely hope that the city finds a way to make this a park and close this chapter once and for all.”