The boxy design previously proposed for a controversial four-story, 148-unit mixed-use apartment building next to the historic Hays Street Bridge has been replaced with a preliminary plan that features more stylized walls for a five-story complex, according to developers who presented renderings of the project during a public meeting Monday night.
About a dozen attendees wanted to give input on the new design by local firm GRG Architecture, which has worked to find an adequate compromise for the long-vacant industrial lot adjacent to single-family homes and the Dignowity Hill Historic District. But a vast majority of the 50 people at the meeting were not impressed. Instead, they'd like to see it become a public park.
"We love that bridge," said Graciela Sanchez, executive director of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center. "We believe in government that respects community. ... We want the bridge to be for everyone.”
Debate about the empty lot at 803 N. Cherry St. has focused on three key sticking points: the rights of property owners, the impact that building will have on neighborhood views of the historic bridge, gentrification, and a 2012 lawsuit that bridge preservationists won against the City of San Antonio in 2014, but is under appeal before the Texas Supreme Court.
"As beautiful and moving as your words were," GRG Principal Xavier Gonzalez said after hearing protests of the project at Monday's meeting, "we’re going to see a building here."
The lawsuit and other factors such as views of the bridge are not issues under the purview of the Historic and Design Review Commission, said local land use attorney James McKnight, who is representing local development and management firm Loopy Ltd.
The commission rejected the original design in early December, asking that the design incorporate more elements from the City's downtown design guide. Designers moved the building back away from the street to add more landscaping and public street parking, created a "C" shape structure instead of a "donut" with an interior courtyard, and added an underground parking garage for tenants.
“This is preliminary, we’re still working," Gonzalez said.
Liz Franklin, a longtime Dignowity Hill resident, said she's not necessarily against the design, but the history of the lot needs to be addressed.
"We have not been able to talk about the design because some of us can’t get past the injustice," Franklin, referring to the lawsuit.
Eugene Simor, who owns the adjacent Alamo Beer Company, and Mitch Meyer of Loopy Ltd., are partnering on the property development but did not attend the meeting Monday.
"This is a very difficult conversation that should have been had many, many years ago," Councilman Cruz Shaw (D2) told the crowd. Shaw, who represents the Eastside on City Council, said his office will work to schedule more community meetings. "This will not be the last time."
The original design of the project would have blocked views of the bridge from area streets, opponents pointed out. That conversation sparked Councilman Cruz Shaw (D2), who represents the Eastside, and Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) to request an investigation into whether the City should protect views of certain iconic buildings and areas. Those include Woodlawn Lake Park, Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, Hays Street Bridge, other landmark bridges, Comanche Lookout Park, and the Japanese Tea Garden.
"This is better than the last design but the whole point is we do not want to ruin the viewshed of that bridge,” said Dignowity Hill resident Devin Verdon.
The new design also blocks views of the bridge, but allows for a "pocket park" between the bridge and the building and breaks up the external walls with terraces, setbacks, and overhangs. Plans for a restaurant between the structures have been scrapped, Gonzalez said. Instead, it will be incorporated into the ground floor of the main building.
The Hays Street Bridge Restoration Group alleges in its lawsuit that the City’s sale of the property for $295,000 to Eugene Simor was illegal. The group led efforts to restore the 1910 bridge and protect it from encroaching development. A 2002 memorandum of understanding from the previous private owner suggests that the property be used as a public park, the group’s lawsuit and appeal claims.
Simor, owner of Alamo Beer Company, wanted to build a brewery on the land. The previous owner has since said that they are not opposed to the development. Although The district court ruled in favor of the group, the Texas 4th Court of Appeals sided with the City. The restoration group, backed by the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, has appealed the case to the Texas Supreme Court, which has not yet announced whether it will hear the case.
Because of the lawsuit, Simor built the Alamo brewery on the other side of the bridge. Simor sold the lot to Meyer in 2016, but is still an investor in the proposed mixed-use project.
Alamo Beer received an $800,000 incentive package from the City for the $8 million facility, one of the largest private investments in the historically neglected near-Eastside in years.
The redesigned project, called "The Bridge" in the developer's presentations, has been submitted to HDRC and will be considered at a future meeting. That date will be decided this Wednesday, McKnight said.