Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
As urban core growth and density spark clashes between neighborhoods and developers, how can both sides find common ground to best benefit each other and grow San Antonio sustainably?
The answer lies in better development guidelines and community engagement, according to a panel of local developers, architects, and neighborhood leaders who gathered at the Future SA Forum Wednesday night at the UTSA Downtown Campus.
Forum moderator Jim Bailey, associate principal at Alamo Architects, said news of San Antonio topping the list of population growth among major cities is a sobering reflection of the rate of development happening citywide.
“We can feel that impact – a whole flock of construction cranes around downtown,” said Bailey, who also serves on the Mayor’s Housing Policy Task Force. “Traffic congestion is markedly worse than before. Commutes are longer.”
The San Antonio area is expected to add more than 1 million people by 2040. Bailey asked the panel, which comprised neighborhood and development advocates with different perspectives, what could and should the City look like in the way of sustainable, healthy development that benefits everyone.
The typical development patterns prevalent in suburban sprawl are unsustainable, said Peter French, development director of major urban core developer GrayStreet and CEO of Rising Barn, which builds affordable, sustainable dwellings.
“What happens with conventional suburban development is that you’re chewing up lots of land,” French said. Sprawl only adds more roads, which encourage more traffic and result in higher infrastructure maintenance costs.
French advocates for neighborhoods where all amenities – job centers, transit options, schools, recreation – are close to where people live.
The relaxation of development rules, especially on single-family homes, could encourage such neighborhoods and increase the diversity of housing stock, he said.
“Provide more housing choices, give people an opportunity to stay in the neighborhoods where they live, help people get into the neighborhoods where they want to be,” he added.
SA Tomorrow, the City’s comprehensive plan, describes a city that is more connected to amenities, accommodates growth, yet maintains the “character and integrity” of existing neighborhoods. But the challenge of infill development, which is developing vacant or underused properties within the urban core that are largely developed, is that it can be seen as disruptive of the existing neighborhood fabric.
The plan focuses on growth in 13 areas known as regional centers. One of these centers could benefit the Eastside community, which has seen more development in recent years, said Liz Franklin, a member of the Eastside’s Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association.
But the surge of new amenities, housing, and rehabilitation in her neighborhood could lead to displacement of many low-income and longtime homeowners as property values – and therefore property tax bills – continue to rise. Because of this, there is growing resentment and distrust between neighborhoods residents and developers, she said.
She blamed new high-density projects for rising property values.
“We need a better balance [of housing] because four homes on what was previously a single-family home lot will price someone else out of their home,” Franklin said.
Infill development in Dignowity Hill has drawn attention as plans for a five-story apartment complex next to the historic Hays Street Bridge near completion. The property is located at the convergence of an industrial district and single-family homes – many of which are affordable to low-income families.
Panelist Ashley Smith, senior project manager at Alamo Architects, called the SA Tomorrow plan “a good start” in encouraging more appropriate infill development.
Smith added that regional centers in the SA Tomorrow plan provide a blueprint on how existing neighborhoods could evolve.
“We have spread out so much, we need to start filling some of those holes,” she said. “We probably don’t have to build too many more roads at this point. We barely can take care of the roads we already have.”
It is typically easier and cheaper for a developer to build in undeveloped and suburban areas than to do infill development in older neighborhoods, said panelist John Cooley, chief operating officer at Terramark Urban Homes.
“We’ve incentivized [for] that by default or inadvertently by the means of the City making it more cost-efficient,” Cooley said. “But the future has to be urban.”
Terramark has developed dozens of infill projects in and around the urban core, several of which are in the near East Side.
Panelist Anisa Schell, a Tobin Hill Community Association board member, helped lead an unsuccessful attempt to get a historic district designation – and the stricter redevelopment rules that come with it – for part of Tobin Hill. Schell suggested developers get “meaningful input” from neighbors when they face a proposed redevelopment.
Developers should explain their vision to neighbors as soon as feasible to give residents a chance to become engaged in the project from the start rather than react in an adversarial way.
“Here, people can get on board with what’s happening, and not just accept what they’re being told,” Schell said.
Franklin echoed Schell’s sentiments, saying developers entering a neighborhood should hold forums to understand what residents would like to see on property being eyed for redevelopment.
“That’s what’s missing,” said David Bogle, owner of Syncro Architecture Studio, “vision planning. … We need to do more of that – it’s a more inclusive process and needs to be done in an open forum.”
Cooley, French, and Smith agreed that they and their colleagues in the development and architecture industries could benefit from better certainty and predictability in City rules and processes when it comes to building permits and the design process. They could also benefit from the community’s help to engage the right neighborhood representatives before proceeding with a project, they said.
“We could come together and write guidelines on what is acceptable to a community, but do it in a positive way,” Smith said.
A video of the entire forum can be viewed via the Future SA Forum invite page on Facebook here.