Scott Ball / Rivard Report
The Historic Design and Review Commission rejected reworked plans for a five-story apartment complex next to the Hays Street Bridge on the near Eastside after more than three hours of passionate testimony from San Antonians – all of whom opposed the development – and inquiry from commissioners.
The final vote on the matter was 5-3, with three commissioners absent, and came after an initial tie vote. The decision triggered a round of applause from the audience.
"I'm just happy," Nettie Hinton, a longtime Eastside resident who was part of the bridge's restoration efforts, told the Rivard Report after the vote. "I think they are realizing the role the Historic and Design Review Commission has to play in terms of making certain that the history and the culture of the community is recognized as being important."
An appeals process exists, but the apartment developer and property owner Mitch Meyer did not indicate he would continue to pursue the project. Asked if they would come back with another re-design, he said, "I think we're beyond that. ... I don't see us coming back here."
Commissioners were largely impressed with the design, but had concerns about how the structure's design would relate to the street level of the historic neighborhood it skirts. The property is located between single-family homes to the east; industrial buildings, highway, and downtown to the west.
HDRC Chair Michael Guarino initially voted in favor of the project, but voted against it on the second vote.
"The tie wouldn't have resolved anything for anybody," Guarino told the Rivard Report after the vote. "Now the applicant [Meyer] has options."
Meyer can appeal the decision to the Board of Adjustments or resubmit a different plan. Guarino and other commissioners said they saw great progress in the redesign, but they felt it was too soon to grant final approval of the project.
"If they came back for preliminary approval instead," Guarino said, "I think they'd do very well. ... I thought very highly of the new architect's work."
"The Bridge Apartments" plan included 141 apartments, six live-work units, two retail spaces, and a parking lot that would not have been visible from North Cherry Street. Ten percent of the units were to have been designated "affordable" with $1,000 per-month rent. However, many in the historically low-income area did not view that federal standard as affordable.
The bridge is adjacent to the rapidly-changing Dignowity Hill Historic District, which has seen an increase in more affluent renters and property owners as well as increased public and private investments. The properties surrounding the bridge are not within the historic district, but are zoned to permit higher density, mixed-use developments. Development of that lot conflicts with several residents to want to preserve views of the bridge from the neighborhood.
HDRC rejected previous designs in December for a four-story building. Since then, Meyer directed newly hired GRG Architecture to "start from scratch," said Meyer's attorney, James McKnight, and address the concerns of commissioners and the community. But a public meeting coordinated through the City Council District 2 office last month seemed to reinforce opposition to the entire project rather than provide developers with design feedback.
The uncertain future of the empty lot between the bridge and the apartments was a major concern of the commission in December. A restaurant was originally planned for the lot closer to the bridge, but developers moved that element into the main building, leaving the remaining property for privately-owned "pocket park open space," said GRG Principal Xavier Gonzalez.
A restoration group led by several Eastside residents and historical advocates, including Hinton and the late H. Douglas Steadman, led the charge in the 1990s to prevent demolition of the bridge and raise money to revitalize it.
“We restored the bridge and we want you to be fair," Hinton, 79, told the commissioners.
In 2002, the City signed a memorandum of understanding with the group that outlined a plan for the group to raise funding to supplement a federal grant and keep the property surrounding the bridge a park. The bridge, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, reopened to foot and bicycle traffic in 2010.
But the City sold the 1.7-acre lot at 803 N. Cherry St., just north of the bridge, to Alamo Beer Company CEO and founder Eugene Simor in 2012. He planned to build a new brewery there, one of the largest private investments in the historically neglected near-Eastside in years. That sale is the subject of the Hays Street Restoration Group's lawsuit that the City initially lost, but an appeals court ruled that the City could not be sued for breach of contract. The group has appealed that ruling to the Texas Supreme Court.
Meyers was not convinced that commissioners based their rejection solely on design. Much of the citizen testimony had to do with the lawsuit – which is outside the purview of HDRC, City staff confirmed.
"You can't rule and govern with emotion," he said, referencing the passionate testimony of several residents. "There are laws that we live by and we have to honor those laws or codes or restrictions."
Guarino said the decision was based on design. "I don't think we feel particularly pressured" by heartfelt testimony.
Simor purchased the land for $295,000 and later received a nearly $800,000 economic development incentive from the City to build an $8 million brewery on the south side of the bridge.
Simor sold the northern lot to Meyer and his company Loopy Limited in 2016, but was still an investor in the proposed mixed-use project.
"The Bridge" project received about $1.2 million in City incentives from the Center City Housing Incentive Program, according to a City spokesperson, for a minimum $14.7 million investment.
Bexar County delayed negotiations for an incentive package for the project Tuesday, Nov. 14. It would base its tax abatements on an estimated $21 million investment.
However, if the project is not completed developers will not receive any public funding.
Hinton said she fully expects Meyer to appeal. For her part, she said and other preservationists will continue to fight for a park.
"We need to have a people's park," she said. "I want them [the City] to get the land back, perhaps they can work out a swap – some other City land some place else."