Developer, City Considering a Land Swap, Compromise Near Hays Street Bridge

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Hundreds of people gather with their bicycles on Hays Street Bridge in memory of Tito Bradshaw.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Land next to the Hays Street Bridge has been the subject of a lawsuit and an ongoing debate among the City of San Antonio, local developers, and the surrounding community.

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.”

Mitch Mayer

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Local developer Mitch Meyer speaks with business leaders during a District 2 campaign event.

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.

223 South Cherry Street

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

223 South Cherry Street is currently owned by the City.

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.”

27 thoughts on “Developer, City Considering a Land Swap, Compromise Near Hays Street Bridge

  1. I was excited by the opportunity to welcome ~300 new residents to our neighborhood. Now it seems that this land, instead of providing more much needed housing options & retail space in a high demand neighborhood, will likely be given to the restoration group to sit empty and wasted. I don’t think this is a win for “the community” at all.

    • I was thinking the same thing. How long did it take to get funding to improve Lockwood and Dignowity parks (which are within walking distance of this property, by the way!)? Some people can get so swept up in their battle they don’t even realize what they’re fighting for. Also, I’m still confused about the whole concept of “privatizing” the Hays Street Bridge. The apartments weren’t *on* the bridge, nor were there any plans to block views to downtown from the bridge. ::shrug::

        • People store their private vehicles on public property all across our city. People rent out public parks and community centers for private birthday parties. Many cities allow their public buses to be chartered. I don’t see how the possibility of a bridge being rented out on occasion for a private dining event is any different than the other examples.

    • In 30 years, no one will care about dilapidated apartments. They will be just like all the other new developments downtown. However, a city park is invaluable to the to the overall wellness in the city. A place to walk, run, hang out, whatever, it’s a great thing. I applaud the city and organizers for trying to keep a bit of green space in SA.

      • Chris, I respectfully disagree. While I do think green spaces are important, there are soon to be two beautifully revamped parks in close proximity. Dignowity Park (two blocks east) & Maverick Park (nine minute walk northwest). We also have Fairchild Park (one mile southeast). These are great places to walk, ring, hang out, or whatever. Chris, I actually encourage you and the community to utilize the parks more because as of right now the ratio of park attendees skew strongly towards the homeless population.

  2. I think it will be a win if the park is actually built soon. If it remains a vacant lot, then obviously we’re worse off as Chris said.

  3. Allow me to chime in before this thread goes off the rails and where fact and fiction become intertwined. There were only 148 intended units for the bridge site, not 300. If the land swap proceeds I will be providing at least that many new residential units on the new site. I’m just moving down the street. Nothing’s lost.

    Let me tell you what I’ve learned along the way. That bridge is special and I understand “now” (I can admit to being a slow learner) why the bridge is so important. People can talk about Lockwood and Dignowity Parks but those don’t have a view of the bridge or the city skyline. It sounds like a rational argument but it’s really only a plausible one. Go stand at the corner of Lamar and Cherry at night and look through that bridge and you’ll understand. That’s why I’m in favor of a land swap, but the city has to make this happen.

    I can assure everyone that this is not a sweetheart deal and anyone that thinks that is unenlightened. The city site is an inferior location, obviously, and will be difficult to develop, not to mention that I will have to walk away from over $600,000 in plans, contracts, professional fees and three years of hard work for the privilege of starting over. That’s not a sweetheart deal.

    I hope this helps clear the air.

    Mitch

    • Thank you Mitch. Thank you for helping contribute to the financial and housing health of San Antonio. Thank you for truly hearing those who expressed their concerns about the way things happened around the bridge up until now. Despite the naysayers above, I agree that this is a win for all involved stakeholders.

    • 148 units would likely house ~300 people, an average 2 people per unit. That’s not hard math. I’d prefer that get built here.

      I’m all for your property rights to make this swap, Mitch, but I’m still disappointed because this will be a net loss for Dignowity Hill.

    • Mitch I applaud you for doing the right thing, many people are passionate about their bridge and went through great lengths to solicit donations to restore.

    • people are going to resist and complain no matter where you put your apartments. I hope the city provides you a density bonus and gives you a very easy path to development for all the crap you have to go through and the hundreds of thousands of dollars lost. I agree with above comments that this is a big loss for Dignowity. The land will likely sit vacant and/or underutilized for many years and welcome crime, litter and other issues. Also , more housing, especially rental housing, in an area that is gentrifying helps curb displacement.

  4. Another park sounds great in theory, but it will very likely be another place for loitering, graffiti, beer bottle and trash piles, and will be a police report hot zone. There is already frequently garbage lining Cherry St. and the residents of the street don’t seem to be concerned about cleaning it up very quickly. I’m sad to say this, but as a resident who lives on Lockwood Park, and someone who uses it daily, it will be nice to see that the loiterer’s and drug users will have somewhere else to hang out during (and after) the upcoming park renovations.

    • Hi, Jeff! Out of respect for your employer, you should avoid public comments that read like the grumblings of an entitled gentrifier. You of all people should know better. Study the history of your neighborhood and its residents instead. Learning about redlining, convict-leasing, educational inequality, and vagrancy laws makes blaming their targets much more difficult.
      “African American resources have been repeatedly exposed to extreme trials of double jeopardy. They were created against the odds of active 18th, 19th and 20th century racial discrimination policies, laws and practices.” — Everett Fly

  5. Wow!!! This is an exciting development! A big thanks for Mayor Nirenberg, Art Hall, Amy Kastely and especially Mitch Meyers and the rest of you responsible for making this happen! Everyone is a winner – especially those who worked tirelessly through the years so that the HSB viewshed will be preserved for future generations.
    We must work diligently and think creatively to make sure the park area is free from graffiti, drug users and loiters. A new beginning…full of hope. Let’s pull up our sleeves and get back to work…!!!

  6. I think the issue of the view from the bridge or even from the corner of Cherry and Lamar is almost irrelevant. What happens when (not if) the factories on the other side of the tracks or on the southside of the bridge get sold and redeveloped into a multi-story development? The view as it is now will not exist.

    I think there were some legitimate issues in regards to the leasing or privatizing a portion of the bridge for tables and chairs but I think those are conversations that could be had within the scope of the project. Plus the final/accepted scope of work has no physical connection to the bridge.

    As a resident of Dignowity Hill, what I feel we risk now is a vacant lot for the next decade. I agree with Chris, I don’t believe this is a win for “the community”.

  7. I would call it a win for the site. Probably a “push” for the developer. The thing that everyone who pushes for MORE parks don’t understand is the cost to maintain, operate and program parks. There are lots of parks in the inner city but very few of them are maintained and programmed…because it is expensive! Keeping green grass does not make for a good park (see: Maverick Park or Lockwood Park). You have to spend money to create something for the community at a park (see: Hemisfair). Where that money comes from is usually the biggest hurdle. I wish this land swap solved that issue.

  8. Agreed that this isn’t a win at all. Great to see rational comments on this article. There isn’t funding for a park there and likely won’t be for a decade. The land all along the cooridor between the highway and rail line will be developed with multi-story buildings that block the view of downtown. I hope the developer gets additional incentives to make up for the money and time invested.

  9. I applaud the developer, the councilman, and the City of San Antonio for breaking the mold. “Kicking the can down the road” has been a mantra for a long, long time in District 2 and to a degree in CoSA. District 2’s Councilman Hall takes the initiative to seek a solution, Mr. Meyer sees another business opportunity, and CoSA facilitates a compromise. I hope that Councilman Hall’s replacement keeps the momentum moving forward, that Mr. Meyer gets to accomplish his goals, and that CoSA continues to be an engaged part of the process.

    The “Camp of the Absolutes” will present that the particular property will either be a vacant lot or a unneeded park–that Mr. Meyer pursing an opportunity will leave the community in dire straits.

    Wasn’t something said somewhere that a park was ONE of the options?

    What if the property became something else? Not a park, which is expensive, but not a polarizing structure either. But rather some sort of interactive green space where people learned about a segment of San Antonio’s poor working class (the train yard), neighborhoods of color, and the contributions made to San Antonio? What if it became a destination hub serving the cemeteries, the parks, and highlighted the community?

    Just askin’.

    • S. Wilson, this seems like a novel idea but the question then becomes about logistics. Who builds it? Who funds it? Who maintains it? Once again, starting over, even if everyone was on board with the concept, would take roughly another decade from inception to ribbon cutting. To put things into perspective, when it’s all said and done, it’s going to take six years, maybe seven, for the completion of the improvements at Dignowity Park. This is just general improvements for a site that already exists.

  10. In 30 years, no one will care about dilapidated apartments. They will be just like all the other new developments downtown. However, a city park is invaluable to the to the overall wellness in the city. A place to walk, run, hang out, whatever, it’s a great thing. I applaud the city and organizers for trying to keep a bit of green space in SA.

  11. I am very sad to see this happen. I live blocks from the bridge and was looking forward to this development.

    Right now, this vacant lot is an eyesore, but one that had potential and a plan. Now we are back to ground zero with no plan.

    Individuals “opposed” to this project would ring our doorbell and request we sign petitions against the development. When I would question them, there was never a clear answer as to why I should sign. Two young men actually admitted to me that they did not know where the Hay’s Street Bridge was located. They were merely asked to show up and get signatures.

    As a Dignowity Hill resident, I do care about the Bridge. But, I also care about this property and my neighborhood. I have yet to see a clear and obtainable vision for the land in question from those opposed to the development. What I have seen is pipe dreams with no funding to make dreams reality.

    Please tell me there are private funds to back up these pipe dreams! I live on a street that is in serious need of repair with sidewalks that are horrible, curbs that are non-existent, and terrible lighting.

  12. I am impressed by how everyone has come together to do this deal but I also believe it’s too much bending over and an ultimate loss. Creating housing and a commemorative social area near the bridge was a design opportunity that could have been really great. It would have also enhanced it as an urban neighbourhood and make it a destination for Dignowity. Has any ever heard of Highline Park in NYC? I remember the Executive Director is/was originally from San Antonio and came to speak about it…there are many parallels that could be drawn from that case study to the potential of this would-be project.

    But now the utilitarian bridge remains, with barely anything to show how important it is currently. I hope the NIMBYs pitch in and buy a plaque to commemorate this, maybe the homeless crowd will read it and appreciate it. We should make sure to note that it cost Mitch $600,000 so they could roam there.

  13. As a resident in the neighborhood, I owe a great debt to the dedicated members of the The Hays Street Bridge Restoration Group for their vision and hard work. Their vision created this public space as we know it. Their dedication preserved it in the face of hostile city policy.

    It’s inspiring to know that their work was enough – despite all of the money and influence lined up against them. I’m lucky to share a city with the members of the Hays Street Bridge Restoration Group.

  14. It is very important that there are people on the near East side of the downtown. This natural movement was hindered by the huge barrier of I-37, and that part of the city has fallen behind for forty years. (Since the rehab. Of St. Paul square) What makes a good sector of the city? People do. After seeing the final scheme of the apartment complex, I simply do not see the conflict between the bridge and the housing. The Hays street bridge is an interesting urban object, for sure, but to orient the entire feel of a neighborhood around it is not automatically appropriate. Try to imagine the St. Paul square as a bustling urban center, located a few minutes from the downtown, and you have my point.

  15. Regardless of what any of us think about how to develop the space, the City entered a binding contract agreeing to use it for a specific purpose long long ago. They broke that promise. As yet another Dignowity Hill neighbor and frequent bridge visitor, I’m glad to see progress on reconciliation. But, I’m still skeptical until there’s a real commitment by the City to hold up their end of the agreement and work with HSBRG on developing the site in whatever way would be most beneficial for the public enjoyment of the bridge. Personally, I don’t think even some housing in some form would be completely impossible to incorporate, but that would be a bonus, not the mandate. It will take real creativity to produce a truly unique place that residents and visitors can enjoy and is truly fitting for our irreplaceable historic landmark and symbol of this community’s roots.

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