Infill Development Could Make or Break San Antonio

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Courtesy / Alamo Architects

An industrial area in Southtown was revitalized through apartments.

San Antonio is changing. Just a few years ago the city saw the odd infill project here and there among the rehabs of historic homes in King William or Monte Vista.

These days, infill projects are everywhere in the collar neighborhoods – the ring of historic streetcar suburbs around downtown. Lavaca, Dignowity Hill, and Tobin Hill have experienced the greatest price-point pressure, but it’s ubiquitous – Mahncke Park, Beacon Hill, Government Hill, River Road, Lone Star, Westfort, Roosevelt, and Alta Vista are feeling the surge as well. We are even seeing change in places like Denver Heights, Olmos Park Terrace, and the Concepción neighborhood south of Highway 90.

This pressure/economic opportunity will only continue to grow. I believe it will expand in the midterm to encompass the near-Westside, Shearer Hills, and the midcentury suburbs straddling Loop 410 on the Northside. It will also expand further south. With our population expected to increase by 1 million people over the next quarter-century and a renewed interest in living the good life in non-auto-dependent, economically integrated neighborhoods, these pressures will continue to mount.

I grew up in King William back in the ’70s when its future as a neighborhood was uncertain. My parents, who restored several historic houses and fought institutional and industrial intrusion, taught me the power of preservation. I’ve now spent a lifetime in the collar neighborhoods fixing up houses myself and working as an architect, a planner, and more recently, a housing commissioner.

Over the last few years, the sense of purpose and nobility in that work has become increasingly tarnished by battles over infill. It’s getting ugly out there. Every week there are neighbors pit-fighting with each other, and infill developers are doing the same at Historic and Design Review CommissionZoning Commission, and City Council meetings. The developers are frustrated, neighbors are fearful and uncertain, and regulatory folks and designers are exasperated. This is not healthy and it’s wearing us all out.

Why is this?

There is a disconnect between our desire for walkable traditional neighborhoods and what our development code was designed to accommodate. The Unified Development Code, the massive tome that governs everything that is built in San Antonio, is at its core a 1950s suburban development-focused code that has wrought sprawl and economic segregation on a huge scale. It separates buildings by land use and glorifies cars and big yards.

Over the years, so many patches have been sewn onto this Frankenstein’s monster in an attempt to make it keep pace with the times that it is virtually impossible to understand without a great deal of study and experience or a land use attorney on retainer.

Anything other than development of new housing subdivisions or strip malls on previously undeveloped land at the city’s edge is likely to result in a fight of some kind.

Last year, City Council adopted an incredibly progressive long-range Comprehensive Plan. Sensitive infill development which accomplishes the goals of this plan face an unclear regulatory path because we have not yet decided as a city what is appropriate and what is inappropriate for any given site. Neighbors don’t know what’s coming and developers don’t know what they are going to be able to build.

Since the code is so inimical to the traditional urban and first-ring suburban forms we desire, we have developed a few workarounds over the years. These are overlay districts that either modify or impose additional requirements on the base zoning district. There are more, but below are the most common.

Neighborhood Conservation Districts (NCDs)

Courtesy / Alamo Architects

A single-family home in Dignowity Hill serves as neighborhood edge infill.

These have been developed over time on a case-by-case basis for neighborhoods that either choose not to pursue or are not eligible for historic designation. These divergent, frequently inconsistent, and often not useful objective standards modify aspects of the underlying zoning such as setbacks, building massing, and location of entrances and parking. The more recently drafted NCDs – like the one serving Mahncke Park – get an “A” for effort, but the older ones such as the one serving Southtown is sometimes more of an impediment than an asset for sensitive infill. Conflict often arises over misinterpretation or perceived lack of enforcement of these standards.

Historic Designation

Courtesy / Alamo Architects

A neighborhood edge infill project in the historic King William district will yield new town houses.

This is a broad category of overlays which include historic districts, landmarks, World Heritage, downtown, and the river. The Office of Historic Preservation reviews projects in these areas under a set of subjective guidelinesrather than objective standards, and offers a set of recommendations. The guidelines for each type of district are robust and can cover anything from building massing, to allowable fencing type, landscape material, and window proportion. The underlying zoning standards apply in these districts. The Historic and Design Review Commission considers City staff recommendations in public hearings with citizens to be heard portions – And do they make themselves heard! The commission meetings are often beset by titanic clashes between neighborhoods and developers.

Infill Development Zone (IDZ)

Courtesy / Alamo Architects

Town homes in a commercial area in the Tobin Hill neighborhood are currently under construction.

This can be an overlay or a base designation – “choose your own zoning,” essentially. It can be applied a number of ways, but it’s usually implemented to reduce setbacks, parking requirements, lot size, or increase the number of units allowed on a site. This is a very powerful tool. When wielded by a good designer, it can be used to achieve incredibly sensitive results. Alas, it can also wreak havoc in the wrong hands. I had the good fortune of working on the first major IDZ plan: Victoria Commons. Back then I thought it would be the solution to all of our infill problems. I have been proven wrong by a number of developments that have used the flexibility of the tool to do projects that are less cognizant of their context than they could have been. The IDZ designation has changed a number of times over the years, becoming either more or less restrictive. I understand that it is currently under review again at the request of District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño.

In order to have access to any of the UDC workarounds listed above, neighborhoods and/or developers have to rezone individual properties or whole areas of town. Rezoning is the mother of all municipal warfare. This is where the nastiest battles happen because it is a public process where both parties may attempt to influence the outcome through interaction with commissioners and politicians. How much time do council members spend mediating zoning conflicts during their term versus working on meaningful public policy issues, I wonder?

Now what do we do with this mess? How do we fix it? How do we build some predictability into this system? I believe it is time for a new paradigm that supports our Comprehensive Plan. I believe it is time to relegate the UDC to the annals of history and build a modern code: a simple blend of use and form-based standards that are calibrated on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis. Other cities have done this to remarkable effect, the most notable being Portland, Ore.’s Infill Project.

How do we achieve this? We start by having a conversation. We are never all going to agree on whether our next-door neighbor should have a one- or three-story home, but I believe that broad consensus is possible if we go about the exercise in an honest and deliberative fashion. And we’re going to do just that.

On Aug. 26, in conjunction with the Historic Homeowner Fair, the Office of Historic Preservation, the King William Association, and my firm, Alamo Architects, are sponsoring an infill development workshop featuring a panel discussion and several challenging infill case studies to consider. Details will be released as soon as they are finalized. Our hope is that this workshop will be the first step in developing an updated set of site massing guidelines for use by the Office of Historic Preservation. We have been collaborating with the Planning and Zoning teams, and my hope is that the work we do for the historic infill guidelines will serve as the foundation for the next generation of the development code.

We expect a lively and productive afternoon with developers, representatives from most of the collar neighborhoods, designers, and regulatory folks. I hope you’ll join the conversation.

Courtesy / Alamo Architects

A single-family home in Dignowity Hill acts as a neighborhood interior infill.

19 thoughts on “Infill Development Could Make or Break San Antonio

  1. Very informative Jim, and hopefully you all will have a good showing of open-minded concerned homeowners, as well as those wanting to be homeowners and a part of this much-needed code makeover. Kudos for your well-intentioned focused endeavor!

  2. Because San Antonio’s redevelopment has lagged behind other cities, we have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. There is a balance to be made betweeen development and protecting of the authenticity in a neighborhood. In Dallas and Houston, shoddily built 2008-2009 town homes are now showing serious construction defects and flaws. We have an opportunity to hold builders to a higher standard than the suburban gated communities on 1604. Projects with much poorer quality materials than those now crumbling in Dallas/Houston are being built all over Tobin Hill and the outskirts of Southtown in SA right now. The project at North St Mary’s and Locust is a prime example of poor infill design… it looks like tract homes stretched vertically. There are folks doing infill well, like the author, but we can’t sit back and hope all developers are going to do the same. Again, there is a balance to be made.

  3. Thank you for your thoughtful analysis. There is no mention, however, of affordable housing which to me is the housing people are living in now in our downtown neighborhoods. It seems there there is a growing force for elemination of restrictive zoning and design standards and building codes that would limit the market’s ability to build as needed for density. You make a salient point by pointing out that our UDC codes need to be simplified and modernized, but I would argue that we need a comprehensive housing policy as well. While you are not advocating for deregulation, others seem to be and in itself it is not the solution we all seek. While deregulation will result in news housing being build and in increased density, the high costs of urban land combined with the desire for high profit means that developments will be expensive and drive up property taxes so that people who have lived in these communities for most of their lives will be forced out. If we deregulate building, the developers will be the ones who reap the largest benefits. The idea that we create a new plan begs the question, by whom? NCDs seem to be cast in a negative light in your article, but they are a grassroots process in which a community decides what is valuable about the built environment of their community. In a City, that has frankly, has excluded neighborhood voices in the past (things are getting better!) how much trust is there in any plan or process that the City comes up with that is guided by the development community? The “conversation” that would be part of the process needs to be transparent and include neighborhood voices as more than “public input” which has come to mean to many as no input at all. We need to be at the table from the very beginning.
    I look forward to attending the Fair and the workshop as well. Thank you for having the conversation. You are well regarded in so many communities!

    • Awesome comments Cynthia. Affordable housing and property tax issues are another whole series of articles in the waiting! I’m attempting to break the problem down into digestible components. Too often we bundle all this up so it seems the problems have no solutions. They do. I look forward to you batting for team Beacon Hill at the workshop.

    • Hear, hear, Cynthia!
      Hey, Jim! Is there room for Cynthia on the workshop panel?
      Hope you will consider this suggestion.

      • It’s Monica Savino from Dignowity Hill, me, and HDRC chair Michael Guarino at the moment. Maybe we’ll add a developer type.

  4. The call for a new municipal code and chucking the current UDC is interesting, but the City didn’show much backbone or brain when there was opportunity to amend the UDC in late 2015 — as part of the every five year UDC review process that in 2015 ran parallel with (and seemed to be overshadowed by) at least the public consultation aspects of SATomorrow planning.

    In some regards, sidewalk minimum standards worsened or narrowed with the City’s most recent approved UDC amendments in 2015. In addition, existing ‘1950s suburban’ and anti-walking sidewalk width minimums in San Antonio that do not meet minimum ADA passing requirements (or the recommendations of various bodies and social equity groups including AARP and Safe Routes 2 School) were allowed to stand for at least another five years in San Antonio — a problem, as TCI clearly keeps building our sidewalks to the barest UDC minimums, even in 2017.

    The City had the chance with the 2015 UDC amendment process to draw from and include the best aspects of modern urban design code for the public realm and to support the achievement of various aspects SATomorrow (including walkable infill development) but chose not to. This includes the established consensus (as recognized by TCI in suggesting some amendments for the UDC in 2015) that the absolute minimum width of any new sidewalk anywhere should be five feet to accommodate ADA passing requirements but also to support safe and comfortable use of the sidewalk.

    A(nother) code creation process will certainly generate more work for urban planners and designers — and likely be highly controversial and exhausting of public resources and political energy, noting the current debacle in Austin. More critically, we have to admit that the City does not currently seem to follow the advanced urban design ‘code’ and better urban design guidelines that we already have — including the Downtown Design Guide created in 2014 for the expanded downtown business district that includes the near east side and west side.

    Likewise, the City seems to have ignored Alamo Area MPO’s volumes of pedestrian safety and amenity improvement recommendations (more or less urban design code for the public realm) including specific instructions for retrofitting deadly street segments at key points throughout San Antonio and compiled in 2016.

    Existing and modern design standards already paid for by the public including the Downtown Design Guide and Alamo Area MPO pedestrian safety recommendations are likely strong enough to help achieve at least some of the goals of SATomorrow if they were only implemented. Particularly the Downtown Design Guide is likely strong enough to be ‘recycled’ simply by expanding the boundary to more of the historic footprint of the city, as well as applying the standards to various mixed use streetscapes / SATomorrow ‘growth centers’ throughout the city — as supported by the pedestrian safety design recommendations of the Alamo Area MPO,

    Regardless, Alamo Architects is likely the wrong group to be leading a call for improved urban design code for retrofitting the public realm of San Antonio. At least, Alamo Architects recent $150m master plan for Brackenridge Park was a hot mess that all but ignored existing walking and biking and public transit conditions and uses and was clearly aimed at erecting more parking garages at public expense, the most 1950s of investments. The plan also generated major controversy by appearing to advance efforts towards the de facto segregation of the park (as some of the public mumbled and fretted about picnics and Easter camping there and the design responded, including with a big suburban yard) — again, back to the 1950s.

    As we approach the 50th anniversary of ’68, San Antonio appears to be acknowledging our long history of inequity, including patterns of soft as well as more severe economic segregation and discrimination dating at least to our Spanish colonial era. For there to be greater equity in urban planning and design in San Antonio in 2017, we must improve conditions for walking, biking and riding VIA buses to various places including our ‘best’ places. We already have much of the code, we just need to run the program.

  5. Yes UDC is the key to understanding it all. But it doesn’t amount to much when FILO is allowed. Just ask those downstream from a river in Castle Hills due to it.

  6. Thank you, Jim Bailey and others who commented on the article, “Infill Development Could Make or Break San Antonio”. I believe that our City Manager, City Attorney, and City Staff must do a better job in clarifying, interpreting, and implementing City of San Antonio (City) ordinances. As you stated, land development ordinances for San Antonio, and probably many cities, are called Unified Development Code (UDC).

    I am concerned that City misinterpretation of new section 35-515 (h)(1) of UDC) is creating bad infill development throughout San Antonio. Perhaps you could read section 35-515 (h)(1) of UDC and state your opinion on importance of proper interpretation and proper clarity of City Ordinances.

    The City staff uses section 35-515 (h)(1) of UDC to allow new homes to be built in back yards of existing homes in my neighborhood and in existing neighborhoods throughout San Antonio, provided that the lot subdivided is larger than most.

    In 2009 a realtor bought a home on one acre on N Vandiver Street (near Knight Robin Drive) in the Oak Park Northwood neighborhood. Then with approval from the City, the one-acre lot was subdivided into a front lot and a rear lot. Someone bought the rear lot and built a new home. After a heavy rain, mud went into the swimming pool of a neighbor’s home. The backyard home gets flooded. A long 15-foot driveway is used to access the backyard home. In 2015, this backyard home was sold to a new owner. The mud-in-the-swimming-pool house was also sold.

    In 2013, my next-door neighbor applied and received City approval for two rear lots in his back yard of his home. His home was on one acre before the lot subdividing occurred. My neighbor’s back yard serves as a water drainage area. Rainwater diversion will occur if and when two new home are built in what was a back yard.

    In 2013, I protested the City’s approval of my neighbor’s two back yard lots, also called flag lots. In a letter, the City informed me that new section 35-515 (h)(1) of UDC allows approval of flag lots without a variance board review. New section 35-515 (h)(1) of UDC allows new flag lots (back yard lots) with 15 for 20 feet of street frontage. The new 15 or 20-foot street frontage serves as long narrow driveway to access the new home in the back yard.

    The term flag lot is used, throughout the United States because the long narrow driveway resembles a flagpole, and the rear lot, resembles the flag portion. Google research shows that flag lots throughout the United States are undesirable. Cities throughout the United States require that flag lot requests go before the variance board for approval. The City of San Antonio Planning Department, with City Manager knowledge, approved my neighbor’s flag lot request without variance board approval. I could not get an appeal hearing.

    My interpretation of section 35-515 (h)(1) is that it does not authorize flag lot approvals without variance board hearings, or at least not clearly. It is vital that City Staff seek clarification of unclear City ordinances, in order to have good trusted government. City Council is probably not aware that City staff is approving flag lots without variance board reviews.

    Infill land development, with flag lots in existing neighborhoods, disrupt drainage. It disrupts privacy of neighbors’ back yards. It adversely changes the character of the neighborhoods and devalues homes. Existing neighborhoods are designed for rainwater to drain to the back yards and front yards. For many years, the City of San Antonio was protected from the disadvantages of rear lots by zoning that required a minimum of 40 feet street frontage for any new lot. And, new homes had to be side by side. However, City staff interpretation discretion of infill land development is adversely changing the character of San Antonio neighborhoods.

    • Hey Rudy. Out of curiosity, I looked into this one a bit. It appears there are actually three flag lots now at that corner. It’s NP-8 which is old “big lot” zoning. Minimum 8,000 sf per lot. Huge! Looks like the flag lot you are really concerned about is approximately 16,000 square feet and is accessed from Vandiver? Anyway, I checked the flag lot standards and the lot size requirements for those new lots and it appears that these are legal and do not (like the creation of any lots anywhere in town) require anything other than administrative review. It appears there are few existing flag lots in the subdivision so they fall within the 20% of total that’s allowed. In San Antonio, the public only participates if it’s a change of land use (rezoning). It’s an interesting question because so many of our infill opportunities exist in people’s back yards in the form of accessory structures…or in this case whole new mansions!

  7. Jim Bailey, thank you for your insight and work on this issue. With our new mayor and renewed energy on council (looking at you, Roberto Treviño), I am looking forward to decisions that protect people and neighborhoods while moving into the future.

  8. Jim Bailey, thank you for reading section 35-515 (h)(1) of UDC) and stating your interpretation that flag lots in San Antonio are legal under certain circumstances. But, should any flag lot be legal in San Antonio, in existing neighborhoods? It appears to me that flag lots are not legal throughout the United States, unless approved by a variance board. Why not change UDC in San Antonio to make all flag lot requests, in existing neighborhoods, illegal unless approved by the variance board? This would help reduce homes in back yards that disrupt drainage and privacy.

  9. Thank you for your article and stimulating the discussion on this important issue. I would like to point out two inconsistencies with the flag lot approvals. First of all, subdivision of existing single family residential lots does not meet the intent (purpose) of the IDZ “to facilitate redevelopment of neglected and bypassed inner city properties.” Further, it fails infill development design for existing traditional lots. Andres Duany and Ellen Dunham-Jones recommend granny homes or conversion of existing homes to duplexes in order to provide affordable housing for what are increasingly non-nuclear American families.

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