A rendering of the Palmetto Townhomes project.
This rendering shows the Palmetto Townhomes project. Credit: Courtesy / JMS Architects

The Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) on Wednesday gave the green light to an affordable housing project planned near the Pearl but sent a contemporary townhome proposal in the historic neighborhood of Government Hill back to the drawing board.

Approved on consent by the HDRC on the recommendation of City staff, the Museum Reach Lofts will provide a total of 95 housing units, a majority considered affordable, in an area where rents are among the priciest in the city.

The Alamo Community Group, one of only a few nonprofit affordable housing organizations in San Antonio, is developing the multi-family residential property at 1500 N. St. Mary’s St. Seventy-seven units will be dedicated for families earning less than 60 percent of the area median income (AMI) and nine units will be reserved for those earning less than 30 percent of the AMI. The remaining units in the five-story development will be available at market rates.

The $17.5 million project, which last year received housing tax credits from the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs and more than $2.8 million in Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone incentives, will begin construction in May and is expected to be finished by late 2020.

“This development will provide a new affordable housing product, where it has become a rarity,” said Jennifer Gonzalez, executive director of the nonprofit ACG. “We have met and completed another milestone toward the development of the first CCHIP project in the downtown area,” she added, referencing the project’s eligibility for the City’s revamped downtown development incentive program.

Gonzalez also lauded the Center City Development Office’s participation and assistance, and Assistant City Manager Lori Houston, throughout the planning process.

In the same meeting Wednesday, the HDRC reviewed a proposal to build an eight-unit townhome development along North Interstate 35 and Palmetto Street in the historic Government Hill neighborhood on the city’s East Side.

Three neighborhood residents spoke against the project, saying the contemporary design is not compatible with other structures in the neighborhood and the development itself is an example of the kind of development that is driving up property taxes in the area.

“In New York City, we wouldn’t put this in our worst ghetto,” said Cindy Tower, who said she moved to San Antonio from that city and restored a Government Hill home built in 1890. She implored the HDRC to protect the amiable feel and historic character of Government Hill. “This is a terrible frontal piece for our historic neighborhood.”

Divisions among neighborhood residents became apparent when Rose Hill, president of the Government Hill Alliance Neighborhood Association, said that group has met with the developer several times and, after some changes were made to the roof and windows, the community voted in favor of the project.

“The lot was vacant for 30 years, abandoned, and a disgrace to the community,” Hill said. “When I hear of developers not wanting to work with us, I have to say that’s not true. We are happy 100 percent with the design.”

A rendering of the Palmetto Townhomes project.
This rendering shows the Palmetto Townhomes project. Credit: Courtesy / JMS Architects

JMS Architects’ Joseph Smith, representing owner Carlos Mendoza on the Palmetto Townhomes project, told the commission that he lives and works in a historic district and understands what makes such neighborhoods special. However, “this lot is located on an interstate,” he said. “In our view, this is a lot different than being in the main part of Government Hill.”

After presenting the plans to HDRC in January, Smith responded to neighborhood and commission input, he said, by lowering some of the roof heights and reducing by two the number of units on the 18,000-square-foot lot.

Commissioner Scott Carpenter agreed that such multi-family developments can successfully integrate with historic neighborhoods and support diversity and authenticity. “But I think there are some real concerns about the scale, massing, and density of this property,” he said, and recommended the developer work to apply more of City staff’s recommendations into the proposal.

Those changes would include eliminating the development’s flat, contemporary roofs in order to reduce perceived “massing” – the perception of the general shape and form as well as size of a building – which exceeds the massing of historic structures within the area. Other recommended changes would add side-entrance elements or porches, especially on the Palmetto Street side, that would reflect the wraparound façade elements found on homes in the neighborhood.

In denying approval, commissioners also told Smith that their decision was not a “full denial,” but that they wanted to see their comments more fully integrated.

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is a journalist and writer in San Antonio, and a business reporter for The Rivard Report.