Courtesy / Loopy Limited, GRG Architecture
City staff, under City Manager Sheryl Sculley's direction, gave administrative approval Friday afternoon to a controversial apartment complex next to the Hays Street Bridge, two weeks after the Historic and Design Review Commission rejected the project.
The approval – rare for such a high-profile project – comes with several conditions attached, some more onerous than others, for the design and use of the property. Those conditions may satisfy neither neighborhood groups that have opposed the project nor the developers.
The conditions outlined by City staff range from minor adjustments, such as putting hoods on exterior lights to mitigate light pollution, to significant changes such as lowering the height of the five-story building as it nears the bridge and adding design elements that "reinforce the industrial character of the site and respond to the architectural design and materials of the Hays Street Bridge."
The number and scope of the conditions suggest that the City may want the developer to rework almost all of the design for the approximately 147-unit complex, which includes some ground-floor retail and a restaurant.
HDRC is an advisory body to the Office of Historic Preservation (OHP) that recommends projects for approval to the City of San Antonio. OHP's director and, ultimately, the city manager have the last word when it comes to all project applications.
Sculley and OHP Director Shanon Shea Miller spoke about the project with City staff, and the city manager decided it would be best to move the project forward, Assistant City Manager Rod Sanchez told the Rivard Report.
"Sometimes it’s tough – the idea is to listen and consider what both sides are saying," Sanchez said. "Sometimes it’s the tougher discussion that leads to a better project overall."
Mitch Meyer of Loopy Limited, the property owner and project developer, has not yet decided if he will agree to the seven additional stipulations put forth by the City as conditions for the complex's development.
"I’m exhausted," Meyer said. "I’m glad that the city overruled the HDRC, but there are so many conditions …. it makes the project almost undevelopable."
Developers, property owners, and any "aggrieved" party can appeal the city manager's decision, according to the City's unified development code, within 30 business days.
The Hays Street Bridge Restoration Group, which has raised funds to restore the historic bridge and challenged the City's sale of the land in court, will be looking into such an appeal, said its attorney, Amy Kastely.
"I’m extremely angry, and I’m extremely disappointed, and I really think that it’s outrageous," Kastely said, claiming that the decision to overrule HDRC is an example of how the City circumvents public input. "This is a deal that was made in secret with nobody else allowed in on it."
At public meetings about the project, design elements have been discussed, but most of the conversation from those opposed has centered around preventing any development on the site. Some say that the view of bridge should be protected, while others want the property to become a public park, and still others want to see the project come to fruition.
OHP and Planning and Community Development Department staff suggested the first four stipulations that Meyer previously agreed to as part of his second submission to HDRC. The seven others were based on feedback provided by commissioners during meetings, Miller said. "All of the stipulations came from the public hearings,” she added.
The stipulations, as written by City staff, are:
- That all lighting, including parking and security lighting, feature hoods and be directed to avoid spillover into neighboring residential properties.
- That selected window specifications be provided to staff. Staff does not recommend white vinyl windows. An aluminum-clad window with a darker color is most appropriate.
- That details regarding location of ventilation and mechanical systems be provided to staff. All un-desirable equipment must be screened or located to service areas positioned away from public view.
- That the roof plan be further developed to include mechanical appurtenances and provided to staff. Any roof-mounted equipment that is visible from the right of way including the Hays Street Bridge must be screened from public view.
- That the proposal for public art continues to be developed through HDRC and community input.
- That the proposed public “portal” be repositioned to provide a publicly-accessible view of the Hays Street Bridge.
- Divide the building facades into smaller modules that more closely resemble the scale of the neighboring residences. This is particularly important on the Cherry Street façade.
- Incorporate a greater separation between the south face of the building and the bridge by retaining only a single-story bay at the southeast corner and stepping back the upper floors away from the bridge by at least one bay. The goal is to improve site lines from this corner and a more appropriate transition from the proposed green space.
- Explore the feasibility of reducing the overall building height or changing the massing to incorporate a greater setback from Cherry and Lamar Streets.
- That architectural elements further reinforce the industrial character of the site and respond to the architectural design and materials of the Hays Street Bridge, particularly on the end of the building closest to the bridge.
- That the applicant formalize through deed restrictions or some other means the dedicated open space included in the proposed development.
After a tie vote at a March 9 HDRC meeting, commission chair Michael Guarino switched his approval vote to denial, breaking the tie. The rejection came after months of protests from community activists that want the land, including a pending appeal in court challenging the City's sale of it, to become a public park. Opponents of the project also criticized the building's height relative to the historic bridge, claiming that views of the bridge from the neighborhood – and views from the bridge – should be protected.
The project received a design overhaul after Meyer went back to the drawing board after its initial design was rejected by HDRC in December. The new design met more downtown design guidelines that commissioners said lacked in the first iteration, complies with zoning and planning rules, and includes a larger "pocket park" near the bridge.
The HDRC's most recent rejection, Meyer said, was not based on design, but rather the commission's inability to separate politics and emotion from the decision.
HDRC, an 11-member commission appointed by City Council members and the mayor, is tasked with reviewing designs of new or renovated buildings within historic or otherwise specially designated boundaries such as historic districts, areas near the San Antonio River, and downtown.
People have a right to appeal these administrative decisions to the Board of Adjustment, according to the City's code. That's another 11-member group appointed by Council.
But that "aggrieved" person or group might have to prove that it impacts their financial or property rights, Kastely said. She said her experience from challenging the City's decision in the demolition of the Univision building tells her that the Restoration Group will have an uphill battle arguing for the right to appeal.
James McKnight, a land use attorney representing Meyer, said his team would argue that a party would have to identify specifically "something at stake to be aggrieved other than, 'I love the view from this position.'”
"Unless they’ve changed their interpretation of the UDC ... then the community can’t file an appeal,” Kastely said, adding that the group is also considering legal action against the city.
"We're pissed off, and this isn't the end," said Graciela Sánchez, executive director of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, which is associated with the Hays Street Bridge Restoration Group.
For his part, Meyer is considering legal action, too, he said. "I can't let this land lie fallow forever ... We're already six months behind [schedule]. I've got to rebid the whole thing. I don't even know what my budget numbers are."
"It is a lot of design work," McKnight said. "Some of the design work, I feel, is not possible."
A deed restriction for the "pocket park" is more feasible, for example, than coming to a consensus with the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association's subcommittee on architecture and design, McKnight said, adding that he's unclear how the city wants to adjust a public entrance "portal" for public views of the bridge.
"We're handcuffed," Meyer said. "[It's like the City is saying], 'you’re going to be happy – instead of cutting your leg off, I’m just going to cut your foot off."
Councilman Cruz Shaw (D2), whose office hosted an earlier public meeting in an effort to get the warring sides to compromise, is hopeful that they can move forward together.
"I am glad that the conditions outlined by our city manager reinforce what has been said all along– that the community needs to be included in this conversation to reach a point that is agreeable for all involved," Shaw stated in a text. "I am hopeful that the developers' next conversation with the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association Architectural Review Committee will be productive. This historic bridge means a lot to our community members and [they] have been vocal about the need to ensure there is still space for the public to enjoy this land."
Brian Dillard, outgoing president of the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association, said he's looking forward to the conversation that the City's action on Friday has allowed.
"I am very excited that City staff is working with the neighborhood and the community to find a middle ground at least," Dillard said. "It takes a lot of courage to actually step out there as City staff in a city that's trying to develop and say that communities come first."
Dillard and other have criticized developers for not engaging the community earlier on in the process, but wants to see something happen in the empty lot.
"The [City's conditional approval] shows the power neighborhood associations and actually being involved in your community."