HDRC Returns River Road Townhome Plan, OKs Eastside Brownstone Project

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Courtesy / Mark Odom Studio

This rendering shows the proposed Trail Street Townhomes in the River Road Historic District.

Plans for new townhomes in the River Road neighborhood got kicked back to a Historic and Design Review Commission subcommittee, where developers hope to resolve issues with neighbors.

In considering the project for conceptual approval, commissioners unanimously voted Wednesday to return to their Design Review Committee (DRC) a proposal for 23 condominium units on a vacant lot at 355 Trail St.

HDRC also voted unanimously Wednesday to give final approval to the first phase of a brownstone development in Dignowity Hill.

River Road

Austin-based developer MNO Partners’ Trail Street Townhomes would be located within the River Improvement Overlay (RIO) 1 District and inside the River Road Historic District.

The development would sit on less than 1 acre of land currently owned by attorney Robert Price of local firm Price and Martinez Law and zoned for a maximum of 33 residential units per acre.

The height of each three-story home would be several feet lower than the 45-foot limit set in the neighborhood. Plans show three unit types ranging from 20 feet wide to 30 feet wide. Each unit would feature three bedrooms, two-car garages, and vary in size from 1,500 to 2,500 square feet. The structures would be organized in three rows with a single driveway.

Residents and guests would have access to amenities, such as communal picnic and seating areas, pedestrian pathways, and a pool – all integrated on site.

Plans call for a range of vegetation to provide a more natural atmosphere, and a 6-foot-wide, crushed granite walking trail from Trail Street to the River Road Community Garden and East Huisache Avenue.

Project principal David Morin, chief executive officer of Austin-based Site Identify, described the project as being “a very reasonable plan.” The project is being designed by Mark Odom Studio’s San Antonio office.

Morin said the townhomes would blend into the community and provide prospective homeowners with a high-end housing option north of downtown. Home sales would start around $380,000.

“We just want to have a viable project that’s respectful of the neighborhood,” Morin added.

While the River Road Neighborhood Association looks forward to seeing the vacant lot on Trail developed in a compatible way, its Chair Richard Reed said the current concept is too dense for the lot.

355 Trail St. is being considered for construction of twenty-three residential units.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

The currently empty lot at 355 Trail St.

Reed also said the proposed heights may still be too tall for a historic neighborhood of mostly single-story houses, and that the development’s density may harm a nearby acequia that dates back to the 18th century.

“The neighborhood association is invested in getting a development into this property that we like,” Reed said. “Nevertheless, given the conceptual plan that’s come before us, this has a series of flaws and shortcomings.”

According to Reed, there could be more natural buffers between the proposed development, the acequia, and nearby existing homes, including the Zambrano Homestead, an official historic landmark.

Reed suggested the streets that bound the proposed development may not be equipped to handle the increase in vehicular traffic.

An early version of the plan had Trail Street accessible from the individual parking garages at the townhomes, with a single main entry and exit point on Huisache.

The plan now envisions a secondary access onto Trail Street, which Reed said “would reduce the remaining pervious cover at the back of these properties.”

The larger the development, Reed said, the more impervious cover could cause rainwater runoff to flow the wrong way toward more sensitive neighborhood spots, such as the acequia.

Neighbors also want to see heritage trees around the lot preserved, Reed said.

“If you notice in the design, you’ll see there are very few elements that fit into a historic district,” he said.

City staff did not recommend conceptual approval, but instead suggested a number of steps, including a reduction in the number of units and in height, to help address problems in the plan.

Morin said much of the current concept already addresses many of City staff’s or neighbors’ issues with the project, including concerns about traffic impact. He at least four existing trees could be preserved, and more trees would be planted around the development.

Several Commission members said the concept has potential and expressed satisfaction that the developers are willing to talk further with neighbors. But they also said the plan is not yet ready for conceptual approval.

Commissioner Curtis Fish said the lies in making development on a compact site compatible with the neighborhood at-large.

“I think it’s a puzzle, and it’s a tight puzzle,” Fish said, suggesting the DRC review the concept.

“I think the neighborhood has been supportive of the overall concept,” Morin replied. “I think we have more talking to do [with neighbors] and work with them throughout the process.”

Dignowity Hill

Terramark Urban Homes received a certificate of appropriateness to begin building City Center, four duplexes on vacant lots at the corner North Swiss and Center streets.

Each duplex will contain two three-story, three-bedroom units with entrances on all street sides. Each unit will measure 1,670 square feet and include two enclosed parking spaces.

Courtesy / Terramark Urban Homes

This rendering shows one of the initial buildings planned for the City Center brownstone development at North Swiss and Center streets in Dignowity Hill.

HDRC granted the project conceptual approval in February, but the developments plan has since changed to address concerns from the commission, City staff, and neighbors.

Conceptual approval came with stipulations, including that Terramark ensure architecturally appropriate proportions, façade arrangement, and materials.

Terramark is also eyeing a second phase of 18 duplexes on lots across Swiss Street, west of Phase 1 construction. Commonly found in the Northeast, the brownstones would be unique in the near Eastside neighborhood that continues to be a hub of residential redevelopment.

Commissioner Jeffrey Fetzer said he felt Terramark was “trying a little too hard for [the brownstones] to look historic,” but overall the commission agreed with the proposal.

“It’s a very complete package,” Commissioner Sandi Wolff said.

City staff recommended approval with a few stipulations, and neighbors also offered comments.

“We support staff’s recommendations and strongly support staff’s comments on the high level of false historicism proposed in the drawings,” resident Valerie Cortez said, reading remarks from fellow Dignowity neighbors to HDRC and the Office of Historic Preservation. One drawing in the plan “depicts an ideal exterior elevation that acknowledges the highly historic setting of businesses, churches, and the G.J. Sutton Complex across the street.”

There is a request to HDRC to construct four structures on the properties of 126, 130, and 134 N. Swiss St. (This is 134)

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

The current property at 134 N. Swiss St.

Final approval from the HDRC gives Terramark a green light to finalize sale prices, said Ricardo Turrubiates, Terramark project manager.

If City Center proves successful, he said, Terramark would look at doing similar developments around Center Street. Phase 1 construction should begin in a few months, he added.

“City Center would be a great addition in the St. Paul Square area, especially with The Baldwin down the road,” Turrubiates said, referring to the nearby luxury apartment high-rise.


8 thoughts on “HDRC Returns River Road Townhome Plan, OKs Eastside Brownstone Project

  1. “Recent analysis by real-estate firm Trulia indicates that delay may be the biggest regulatory factor in the lag of homebuilding that sends prices spiraling in booming cities” ‪ https://www.sightline.org/2017/08/10/housing-delayed-is-housing-denied/‬
    The average home in River Rd sells for $300k to $500k. The neighborhood excluding more types of housing and focusing on single family housing/zoning will continue to make this neighborhood exclusionary and out of reach for most by limiting the supply of homes and middle housing, even leaving the neighborhood out of reach for middle income families.

    The townhome project is more than reasonable.
    SANE supports more housing in these exclusive neighborhoods so they will be accessible to all. http://Www.sane-satx.org

    • Yes, those $380,000 (starting) townhomes will help to include more “middle income” people in that area for sure. Definitely. Yep.

      • The more you limit housing, the faster the prices of homes will rise. Its supply/demand economics. Cities with exorbitant home prices (D.C., Seattle, Boston) have started to realize this and have begun to allow more/more housing to be built in their high demand areas, which has led to decreasing rents. Of course the townhomes are not for 60-80% AMI, those don’t get built without strong incentives/tax breaks or grants because of land costs. In high demand areas – land costs go up significantly when you limit housing. The more you limit denser housing, the more costly homes will become at a much quicker rate.

        If you don’t build the townhomes, then wealthier households that want to live in River Rd will start to outbid and compete with more moderate income households on the existing homes.

    • Sane,
      Very good point. I agree with your comments and like your organization. There is a counter movement to NIMBY called YIMBY, “Yes In My Backyard”. It’s gaining in popularity and also helps expose some of the non-nonsensical resistance from folks with no training in urban planning or design.

  2. SANE:
    Where in this article does it imply that the neighborhood is “excluding more types of housing and focusing on single family housing/zoning” as you state ……when it is quite the opposite.
    The River Road Neighborhood Association specifically states that “the neighborhood association is invested in getting a development into this property” and they appear to be working it out with MNO Partners to make it happen. The Association is simply asking for compatible development in their neighborhood which is a legitimate request.

    • I frequently hear of River Rd resisting new housing that is not a single family home. And, I’ve seen River RD NA members at meetings resist denser zoning in their neighborhood. Often, “out of character” or “wanting compatible development” is synonymous with Not in My Back Yard thinking.

  3. The quote from DH neighbor Ms. Cortez is incorrect and incomplete. She read comments by concerned neighbors of the Dignowity Hill Historic District as sent to OHP staff and HDRC members. I bring this to your attention because editing the support statement for this project does not benefit the discussion of redevelopment in our urban neighborhoods.

    We are very familiar with the lifecycle of this project from its introduction in Fall 2015 and we made a specific point to comment on a specific elevation that can impact the entire project. The full statement was,

    “We support staff’s Recommendations and strongly support staff’s comments on the high level of false historicism proposed in the drawings. The drawing #4 on Sheet 13 depicts an ideal exterior elevation that acknowledges the highly historic setting of businesses, churches and the G. J. Sutton Complex across the street. This type of elevation should be used for all units.”

    We mentioned nothing about “heights”. Including the full information in the article would depict a more critical, nuanced, and productive conversation that neighbors actually have with new redevelopment rather than presenting a simple FOR or AGAINST wrestling match. Unless, of course, that’s what you’re attempting to portray. Sharing conversations about urban and architectural compatibility, responsiveness, and congruency in long-time traditional neighborhoods is valuable for the existing neighbors, investors, and potential new neighbors.

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