Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
The twice-monthly meeting of the Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) was a marathon session even by its usual standards. On Nov. 7, the eight commissioners had heard testimony and engaged in discussion until after 9 p.m.
Finally, a commissioner moved to vote on a recommendation that would direct the fate of the historic Beacon Hill Academy, a school building that officials from the San Antonio Independent School District wanted to demolish.
The HDRC is a required approval step for developers and homeowners seeking to build or alter structures in historic districts, downtown, and for publicly owned buildings and those near the San Antonio River. As such, it plays a critical and often controversial role in protecting the city’s history as development happens in the center city.
Just prior to the Council vote earlier this month on the Beacon Hill Academy case, longtime HDRC Chairman Michael Guarino, a renowned local architect, resigned from the post as the mayoral-appointed commissioner. District 2 and 4 commissioners, Sandi Wolff and Michael Connor, also recently resigned, leaving three seats open on the 11-person commission, which is an advisory board to the City’s Office of Historic Preservation (OHP).
Not all HDRC meetings last into the evening hours. But the meetings are notoriously lengthy – three to five hours on average. The biggest reason is that the sheer number of cases keeps going up year after year, and not just the ones that draw crowds of concerned citizens like the Beacon Hill Academy case, or the Alamo Master Plan and the Hays Street Bridge apartment project.
In the past eight years, the caseload has nearly doubled, according to OHP data.
“[Long meetings are] happening more frequently because of the volume of cases,” said Shanon Miller, OHP director. “So much activity is going on in and around the historic districts and the river, and the public is very interested especially in neighborhoods, and the opportunity for input is very important. Sometimes it takes a lot of time and patience, but it’s important we allow that opportunity.”
Because the HDRC functions in an advisory capacity, the OHP department head or city manager has final say on project applications and can overrule the commission’s recommendations. A year ago, former City Manager Sheryl Sculley granted administrative approval to a controversial residential project near the historic Hays Street Bridge, and to other projects in 2010 and 2013.
The HDRC was created through an ordinance in 1968, following passage of the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966. “That’s when preservation became more codified in the U.S. in general, and San Antonio was one of the early cities to get started,” said Miller.
Prior to that, the nonprofit, non-governmental San Antonio Conservation Society, founded in 1924, worked to preserve historic sites like the Spanish Colonial missions and others. Today, members of the Conservation Society frequently attend HDRC meetings to support or protest a project, as do neighborhood association representatives when a project is proposed in areas such as Government Hill or Lavaca.
Commissioners are appointed by a council member, and the current commissioners’ terms expire at the end of May this year, after the municipal elections. When he or she is elected, a council member can either retain a sitting commissioner or appoint a new one.
Most commissioners have a background in architecture, urban planning, or historic preservation. Of the current eight commissioners, only two do not work as architects. Commissioners are not compensated for attending meetings, nor for the hours spent with City staff or on their own reviewing cases.
HDRC meetings are open to the public and generally follow a previously published agenda that involves approving on consent a number of items. Then, the commission reviews the remaining cases one a time, inviting public comment and asking questions of the applicant before taking a vote and making a ruling.
In approving or disapproving an application for a certificate of appropriateness, the HDRC relies on guidance from the U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties, the City of San Antonio’s Unified Development Code, and design guidelines adopted by the Council.
There are nine HDRC application steps outlined in a brochure that developers or homeowners must follow when requesting approval for demolition, exterior changes, or new construction. Such a project could be as small as adding a fence in front of a house. OHP staff reviews the project and provides a recommendation to the HDRC.
“They [the HDRC] don’t always follow the recommendations, which is fine, but the thing that’s great about the commission is they also take into account public testimony,” Miller said. “There may be new information presented at a hearing, and they take all that information together and make a decision.”
In the weeks between HDRC meetings, several commissioners attend a meeting of the Design Review Committee – often, another two-to-three-hour session – in which the commissioners review cases in order to prepare for the full commission meetings. Commissioners also spend time reviewing cases and meeting with developers and neighborhood representatives.
When he resigned earlier this month, Guarino told the Rivard Report, “it’s about time for someone else to do the job.” Guarino, who had served on the commission for more than nine years, did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
One former commissioner, who did not want to be identified, said the time commitment was only part of the decision to step away.
The former commission member suggested that the processes that homeowners and developers follow needs to be streamlined to have a more “predictable outcome,” not only for them but also for commissioners. “It needs a full overhaul in my opinion,” said the former commissioner. “When people come to me and say it’s easier to get through Zoning [Commission] than HDRC, that’s a problem.”
Commissioner Scott Carpenter, the principal architect for Seventh Generation Design, said he enjoys being able to give his expertise in preservation issues for the benefit of the community and feels a sense of obligation to do so, despite the time commitment.
Carpenter served as a commissioner for five years starting in 2011, then was reappointed by Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) just as the much-debated Alamo Master Plan was being presented to the HDRC in October 2018. He said the increasing caseload is a good barometer for the level of development and activity in a city that has 300 years worth of historical and cultural resources to protect.
“We are definitely providing value more than ever,” Carpenter said. “As you have pressures on the city’s resources, it’s important to have the HDRC, just to manage that growth in a thoughtful way.”
If anything needs to change about the HDRC, he said, it’s getting developers to work with them earlier in the process because when they do, it results in a better project and fewer delays.
“Change and development are going to happen and it just has to be managed,” Carpenter said. “The idea isn’t to keep the city as a pheasant under glass, but to develop in a way that preserves what makes it unique, but a vital and thriving metropolis.”
But developers who work with the HDRC are often at odds with the process. In the last three years, Charlie Turner, CEO and founder of Terramark Urban Homes, has developed dozens of properties in historic districts of San Antonio. In 2017, he applied to the HDRC for a project that involved demolition of what he called two “crack houses” in favor of a set of six townhomes in Tobin Hill. The process to get the project approved took one year, he said. Construction took six months, and the homes were sold within one month.
“It costs us tens of thousands of dollars of holding costs, architecture and design, re-drawings, meetings, not to mention the hundreds of hours, manpower-wise, to go to all the meetings,” said Turner, who has worked in development and construction for 40 years here and in Houston. “That money makes the house prices go up. We have to pass that on, and it’s why we can’t build affordable houses anymore.”
Turner said he sees value in the process, but not the time it takes and the cost overruns that occur when projects are delayed. And for that, he blames the OHP, not the HDRC. He thinks City staff should be more willing to review a project early on in the design phase before a formal application is submitted.
“There have been times when it’s gone well, but even then, when it took a lot of time, it was just because of the process they make a developer go through,” he said. “It’s to the point where we’ve got a lot of property, but we’re going somewhere else [not in historic districts].”
He said miscommunication and a lack of information cause much of the delays. “I really appreciate the work the commissioners do, they serve a great purpose, and they’re good, well-meaning people,” Turner said. “Most of where they get steered wrong is they rely on information from the staff that they believe is correct and accurate and it’s not. Then we have to spend a lot of time to correct the information.”
Carpenter said 97 percent of cases the HDRC and OHP review are eventually approved, which shows that the process is not an obstacle to development. “As commissioners and OHP staff, we seek to provide assets to applicants and help them make good, sound decisions about historic properties,” Carpenter said. “Our intent is not to be a roadblock but to do the right thing for now and for future generations.”
Miller said she feels most developers would say that the process makes projects better. “Now that’s not to say that individuals don’t get frustrated, but the process is there to allow for public input to make sure changes being made to our historic resources are done in a way so it’s appropriate and respectful,” she said.
“And I always think a good way to think of it is that it’s not that new things aren’t going to happen, but that historic resources should be the star. Design review is an important part of the urban fabric and making sure decisions are being made appropriately.”