Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
The Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) voted unanimously Wednesday to hold off on deciding on a proposed four-story, multi-family mixed-use development on a long-vacant plot of land next to the Eastside’s historic Hays Street Bridge.
“Personally, I’m not prepared to vote on this thing today because I don’t think I understand it,” HDRC Chair Michael Guarino said. “The first thing I ask for is context.”
Renderings and schematics, commissioners said, do not provide enough information about the building and its relationship to the bridge. The project will go back to HDRC’s Design Review Commission for further consideration. That process could take several weeks or even months.
The hours-long discussion and decision are the latest in the years-long debate about public access and views of the bridge in Dignowity Hill, a rapidly-changing historic neighborhood. As property values have risen in the area, vagrants and drug dealers who hung out on or below the bridge in years past have been largely replaced with cyclists, friends and families out for a stroll, joggers, yoga classes, performance art events, and more.
The Alamo Brewery, located at 415 Burnett St. just south of the bridge, opened in 2014 and represents the biggest private sector investment in the near-Eastside neighborhood. It has become a popular gathering spot for neighbors, downtown residents, and a destination venue for civic engagement events, concerts, and parties.
The new housing and commercial project was met with protest from members of the nearby Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association (DHNA), some neighbors, and San Antonio Conservation Society leaders who said there wasn’t enough “community engagement” or thought put into the design.
Twenty-three people spoke against the project on Wednesday.
Notably, no one spoke in favor of the project during the citizens to be heard portion of the meeting. The official applicant, Ignacio Aliaga, whose firm A+B Architecture was hired to design the project, defended it. He and a colleague argued that many are in favor of the project, but are intimidated by the opposition.
“We’re not touching the bridge,” Aliaga said before answering further questions from the Commission. “We’re compliant with all the requirements … I guess that is all I can say.”
While the DHNA supported the developers’ initial plans for the area, the board issued a letter in opposition of Wednesday’s proposal to City staff, HDRC, and Councilman William “Cruz” Shaw (D2) whose district includes the Eastside.
“Make no mistake: DHNA [and its Architectural Review Committee] ARC and those whose comments we’ve included are very supportive of redevelopment in our neighborhood, but we also know that we want the redevelopment to positively and appropriately respond to the adjacent historic district, the historic Hays Street Bridge, and neighborhood and city-wide activities,” the letter, penned by ARC Chair Monica Savino, read. “As a first step to a better project, we are respectfully requesting that the conceptual design not be approved and that the applicant be required to meet with a stakeholder group to include DHNA and Downtown Business District property owners and other for a meaningful dialogue.”
Decisions made by HDRC do not require City Council approval.
“The Bridge” project at 803 N. Cherry St. is a partnership between developer and property manager Mitch Meyer of Loopy Limited and Eugene Simor, owner of Alamo Beer Company. Simor had planned to build the Alamo Brewery on that lot, but moved it to the other side of the Hays Street Bridge in the wake of an unsuccessful lawsuit filed against the City’s sale of the property to Simor in 2012. The Hays Street Bridge Restoration Group, which led efforts to restore the 1910 bridge and protect it from encroaching development, stated in its lawsuit and ongoing appeal that a 2002 memorandum of understanding from the previous owner dictates that the property be used as a public park.
The 148-unit apartment complex will block views of the bridge from the neighborhood, opponents claim, and bring high-density housing to an otherwise largely single-family area.
The viewshed of the bridge, Simor told the Rivard Report Tuesday, was discussed when initial plans were submitted for the brewery in 2011, but it was determined that “the most important view was from the bridge to downtown. … [Opponents] are just trying to re-hash the same things they said before.”
The view of downtown is not obstructed by the existing brewery or “The Bridge” project. The bridge and property is located just outside the Dignowity Hill Historic District boundaries, but falls into the Downtown Business District that HDRC also has purview over. While the bridge is designated as a historic landmark with the City, landmarks are not automatically given viewshed protection.
Designs and renderings have not yet emerged for the partnership’s planned restaurant that would be located directly adjacent to the bridge. Simor said that proposal will be submitted to HDRC later this year. The restaurant would feature seating on the bridge via a non-historic access ramp and a park under the bridge, as per the sale agreement made with the City.
The City should disallow private or exclusive activities on the bridge, said Graciela Sánchez, executive director of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, which supports the restoration group and its legal battle. “It’s a public bridge that should be open to the public.”
Sanchez and others actively opposed plans by Simor to build the brewery and stood atop the bridge at its formal ribbon-cutting ceremonies to protest and shout down at elected officials, Simor, and other speakers.
Simor admits that he is proposing a “larger housing and restaurant plan than we had before,” but the current plan is still within the boundaries of his agreement with the City. One of those stipulations of sale was that nothing taller than five stories be built on the lot.
The closest part of the development to the bridge is actually three stories, Simor said. The parking lot will be located on the first floor, but “hidden” from the street with walls covered with plants.
Many residents don’t see that as an efficient way to engage street-level pedestrian traffic.
The Center City Housing Incentive Policy will give $1.2 million in incentives to the project, noted Sánchez, arguing that it should give the public greater input before property owners and HDRC agree on an approved design.
With City incentives, “they [Simor and Meyer] basically got the land for free,” Sanchez said. The City sold the property for $295,000.
“Our concern then [in 2011], as it is now, is that it was just the City kind of playing favorites among friends to get a deal done,” she said, pointing to the fact that the controversial project was placed on the “consent” agenda by City staff. “Let’s start anew and figure out something that makes sense for the neighborhood.”
Simor rejects any notion that the City has made this project – a process that has taken more than six years – easy for him.
Rent at the proposed apartments will be less than $1,000, he added, to increase “workforce housing” for urban core workers.
“The Bridge” and other agenda items were pulled from the consent agenda, which is batch-approved by the Commission unless there are citizens to be heard on the item. City staff placed “The Bridge” on consent because it technically met design requirements.
Loopy Limited plans on managing the property after it is built, according to Aliaga.
“This has been an empty lot for many years … it’s been a blighted area,” Aliaga told the Rivard Report on Tuesday. “A lot of developers have looked at it, but they’re not interested in investing in the Eastside. [Meyer] is not going to sell it, he’s not going to get rid of it.”
Since 2006, Meyer has owned the building that houses the nearby bar and eatery Tucker’s Kozy Korner, which is currently being renovated, according to Bexar County Appraisal District records. Meyer also owns several other multi-family housing projects, including Aurora Apartments.
As for the project’s proximity to the bridge, Aliaga said it is 67 feet away and only blocks a portion of the view while standing in certain places on the street.
“The bridge is always going to be untouched,” he said. “Tenants and [commercial shops] are going to put some life on that street.”
That Dignowity Hill and the near-Eastside are “rapidly changing” neighborhoods has almost become cliché. Simor broke ground on the $8 million brewery in 2013. It was the largest private investment in the Eastside in decades. Neighbors hailed the brewery’s arrival and Simor’s financial commitment where few other developers were willing to venture.
However, as DHNA member Liz Franklin told HDRC, the area is “still sketchy, still struggling.”
The Hays Street Bridge Restoration Group’s work dates back long before 2013. The community rallied to raise almost $200,000 from individuals and public entities to restore the bridge, founding member Doug Steadman said. They were told the “City would hold [the property] until we could develop” it into a park.
“The Bridge” residents and commercial interests will have the unobscured view of the bridge against the sunset. That right will be taken away from the people of San Antonio, longtime Eastside resident Nettie Hinton said.
“That’s criminal, City of San Antonio, it’s immoral as well,” Hinton told the Commission.