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A good compromise among deeply divided parties, mediators often say, is a resolution where everyone leaves the negotiating table a bit unhappy.
That seems like an apt description of the various adversarial parties and how they feel after City Manager Sheryl Sculley, Assistant City Manager Rod Sanchez, and Shanon Shea Miller, director of the city’s Office of Historic Preservation decided Friday to approve with conditions the development of a mixed-use, multi-family project on vacant private property just north of the historic Hays Street Bridge on San Antonio’s near-Eastside.
Click here to read the exclusive report on that decision by Rivard Report Managing Editor Iris Dimmick, who had a very busy week, producing separate articles on three major development projects in the urban core.
All three of those articles, linked above, illustrate the complexities of infill development in the urban core, especially those involving historic neighborhoods, properties, or overlay zones. Developers, nearby property owners, neighborhood associations, social and economic justice groups, all have a vested stake in the city’s redevelopment.
Mediating those parties in the public interest falls to City Hall and its various review commissions and decision-making bodies. Inevitably, there are winners and losers, although if the system is working right, neighborhoods and the broader community benefit from the often-painful and prolonged democratic process.
Here’s the problem: In a city where infill development and investment is sorely needed, all that oversight adds significant expense to any given project. That makes it very difficult for young developers, who are eager to work in the urban core, to afford the cost.
Here’s the other problem: Eliminate the public checkpoints like neighborhood association review and consent, or say, the non-binding decisions of the City’s Historic and Design Review Commission, and you open the doors to the developers and developments that no one wants in our historic neighborhoods.
No project better typifies this set of contradictions than the proposed development of a 1.7-acre vacant property that sits just north of the Hays Street Bridge on the edge of the Dignowity Hill Historic District. Less than a decade ago, the neighborhood was one of the city’s most neglected historic communities with some of the highest residential vacancy and blight to be found.
The neighborhood’s rich history dates to the pre-Civil War era, and for many decades was at the heart of the city’s black community. Today, like most of the urban core, it is majority Hispanic, with a significant black presence, and growing numbers of young, white professionals drawn to the affordability and availability of century-old homes in a neighborhood a one-mile walk to the Alamo and downtown.
Housing prices have doubled in less than a decade, and that makes “Dignowity Hill” and “gentrification” something that often divides people who all want vibrant and socially, economically, racially and ethnically diverse neighborhoods – but disagree vehemently on how to get there.
Read the comments Dimmick gathered from some of the parties.
Mitch Meyer of Loopy Limited, the property owner and project developer, told Dimmick he has not yet decided if he will agree to the 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.”
Then there are the parties who filed a lawsuit several years ago to try to make the City convert the property into a public pocket park.
“I’m extremely angry, and I’m extremely disappointed, and I really think that it’s outrageous,” said attorney Amy Kastely, who represents the Hays Street Bridge Restoration Group, who said the decision to overrule HDRC amounts to City officials ignoring public input. “This is a deal that was made in secret with nobody else allowed in on it.”
And then there is the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, which has established a record of opposing a number of infill development projects, including development of the Alamo Brewery south of the bridge and Loopy’s project north of the bridge that includes plans for a restaurant by brewery owner Eugene Simor.
“We’re pissed off, and this isn’t the end,” said Graciela Sánchez, the Esperanza’s longtime executive director of the organization that has allied itself with the bridge restoration group.
The one person who seemed satisfied with the city’s Friday decision is Brian Dillard, the outgoing president of the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association.
“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 criticized Meyer and Simor for not engaging the community earlier on in the process, but he and a majority of the association’s members, he has said, want to see something happen in the empty lot.
Where do we go from here? It seems evident that contrary to what Meyer said Friday, the project is quite feasible and he, his architects, his respected land use attorney James McKnight, and Simor should sit down with the newly-elected leadership of the neighborhood association and City officials and collaborate on a fine-tuned design.
That likely will not satisfy the bridge restoration group or Esperanza, but studying the legalities of this debate suggest they’ll be tilting at windmills in fighting for a public park. Even in the extremely unlikely scenario that the Texas Supreme Court would hear their appeal of the Fourth Court’s ruling in favor of the City and the developer, it would not lead to the City repurchasing the private property and building a park.
Protest has its place in the democratic process, but if you are going to oppose all such projects, there is little chance of building broad community support or finding the law on your side.
The property is privately owned and in Texas the owner has the right to develop it within the guidelines of the law, city ordinances, and the Unified Development Code, which many development professionals have described as an outdated rule book that accounts for some of the bureaucratic delays and roadblocks that slow infill developers.
The City would be wise to step back and examine its own processes, starting with the UDC, but also examining the scope and authority of the HDRC to avoid the kind of situation that occurred with this project two weeks ago. In the space of a single meeting, Meyer saw his request for final approval reach an impasse with a 4-4 vote, and then in the same meeting, meet rejection by a 5-3 vote after HDRC Chairman Michael Guarino reversed his individual vote. That was not a confidence-building display of sound public process.
The City could save everyone time and money by issuing more authoritative guidelines for infill developers, including a tighter definition of HDRC’s role and authority.
Meyer should have known at the outset that the property he purchased was of significant public interest, and that such projects merit the hiring of the best local designers available, individuals with a proven track record of sensitivity to neighborhood history, culture, and character. City officials should make it clear that developers who sacrifice quality for profit are likely to incur financial pain as their projects languish.
City officials also can ask earlier in the process if infill developers have adequately engaged neighbors, and require the parties to hold meaningful discussions before the projects advance for review and approval. Neighborhood associations do not have the legal authority to vote projects up or own, but a developer who ignores their participation or the value of their support is foolish.
There is no undoing the acrimony of the past that has defined this project to date, but City officials have given the parties the opportunity to hit the reset button and work together to develop an important property in a way that will make the neighborhood a better place for everyone.