Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
The City of San Antonio is working on a deal that could lead to contested land next to the historic Hays Street Bridge becoming a public park, but specifics are still being worked out.
The plan is to trade a developer-owned 1.7-acre plot next to the Eastside bridge for 2 acres of City-owned land less than one mile away, interim Councilman Art Hall (D2) said Monday at a Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association meeting. A public process would then determine whether the new City-owned land should become a park.
“We’re 80 percent done,” developer Mitch Meyer told the Rivard Report, referring to the land-swap agreement. Meyer purchased the land at 803 North Cherry St. from Alamo Brewery several years ago with plans to build an apartment building there. “You don’t have a deal until it’s 100 percent done. … There’s always little things that we have to straighten out.”
The deal is aimed at healing a years-old wound that has pulled the City and citizens through the court system and stirred up strong opinions about what should be done with a vacant lot in a historically low-income area of town that has gone without much private and public investment until recently.
The Hays Street Bridge Restoration Group, which raised money to transform the bridge from a place known for nefarious activity into a landmark pedestrian and bike path that connects Dignowity Hill to downtown, has long lobbied the City to turn the land into a public park. Amy Kastely, the group’s attorney, could not be immediately reached for comment on Monday evening.
“If we own the property again,” Assistant City Manager Lori Houston said in response to questions from neighborhood association members about rights to the bridge, “the bridge will not be privatized.”
The developer currently has an agreement that grants use of part of the bridge, but if the land swap occurs, that would no longer apply.
Hall said City Council would need to vote to approve the land swap. “Beyond that, there will be a public process for what to do with the land.”
Meyer already has the approval and necessary permits to develop his five-story project at the North Cherry lot, but he said he is considering moving it to the land at 223 South Cherry St., now a vacant transportation operations center.
It’s essentially a “value-to-value” trade, Hall said, with the City giving Meyer an extra 0.3 acres in exchange for a commitment from the developer to keep his apartment project at five stories or less.
The appraised value of the City’s 2 acres is “about the same value” as Meyer’s, Hall said, but the City is “not at liberty at this point” to share what it’s worth as negotiations are ongoing. The City owns the adjacent 1.92 acres that is zoned commercial.
Hall has three City Council meetings remaining before he hands over the reigns of the District 2 seat to either Keith Toney or Jada Andrews-Sullivan. They are the candidates in the June 8 runoff election.
Hall would like to see the deal approved before he leaves office in June, he said, so the new council member can dive into the work of running the district instead of getting bogged down in the long-running controversy. Both Toney and Andrews-Sullivan support the compromise and have been included in discussions about the land swap, Hall said. Meyer has endorsed Andrews-Sullivan and contributed to her campaign.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City Attorney Andy Segovia said that the City would try to find a way to resolve the legal battle against it waged by the Hays Street Bridge Restoration Group. The City lost an appeal at the Texas Supreme Court, but the underlying lawsuit is still pending.
The Hays Street Bridge Restoration Group’s lawsuit challenges the City’s 2012 sale of the land to Alamo Beer Company, which planned on building its brewery there. The restoration group raised money to restore the bridge into a bike and pedestrian walkway under the understanding that the land, donated by the previous owners, become a public park. After the lawsuit was filed, the company built its brewery on adjacent land and deeded the North Cherry property to Meyer.
Design for Meyer’s five-story residential project received approval from the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association and received rare administrative approval from then-City Manager Sheryl Sculley, but was rejected by the Historic and Design Review Commission twice. The outcome of the lawsuit won’t prevent the project from being built, according to City attorneys.
Animosity still lingers towards what many call a “backroom deal” that exploited a underserved community. One resident asked if the swap with Meyer was going to be another “sweetheart deal” that benefits a developer more than the the neighborhood.
“I don’t think this is sweetheart deal,” Hall said. “We gotta take it from where we are today.”
He noted that neither he nor anyone else on the current Council was part of the original land sale. The swap is an attempt to move forward rather than dwell in the past, Hall said.
Toney served in an interim capacity on the 2014 City Council that approved an administrative procedure to update a contract with Alamo Beer to build on adjacent land.
Serious lessons have been learned from how this situation unfolded, Nirenberg said, including that public processes are key when dealing with public lands.
“We want to prevent future Hays Street Bridges from happening,” he said. “[This] allows us to turn back the clock a little bit and allows us to bring the community together … righting some issues that were perhaps done wrong in the past.”
Nirenberg is in the midst of re-election campaign against challenger Greg Brockhouse, the District 6 councilman who also is supportive of a compromise.
“There’s always been a middle ground on that, [and] I think the City made the matter a lot worse with the lawsuits,” Brockhouse said, noting that the timeline for approval of the swap – before Hall leaves office – is tight. “But whatever’s the best time for the community. … If they’ve got an opportunity to get what they want done, I’m supportive.”
Liz Franklin, a longtime Dignowity Hill resident, said the proposal seems to please the most people on different sides of the issue.
“The property owner is willing to come to the table,” Franklin said. “The City Council, the city manager’s office, and the mayor have indicated that they want as many people in the process as possible.”
Meyer said the final details of the project are pending, but he’s looking forward to completing the deal.
“Everyone’s a winner with this,” he said. “I get to move on and the land goes back to the City … and the community can decide” what to do with the land. “It’s a win-win-win.”