Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Developers of a multimillion-dollar housing and retail project next to the Hays Street Bridge have agreed to one more meeting with community stakeholders before the Historic and Design Review Commission votes on the controversial plan.
The Council-appointed citizen committee was scheduled to consider the project on Wednesday, but an attorney representing the developers pulled the item from consideration after receiving requests to host another meeting with neighborhood leaders.
Neighbors are divided on "The Bridge" project proposed for 803 N. Cherry St. Some say it will bring much-needed activation to an area plagued with crime, while others say the four-story, 149-unit apartment building with ground floor retail will block views of the 1910 bridge and that the land should become a public park instead. The latter issue is the subject of a lawsuit against the City that may be considered or rejected by the Texas Supreme Court.
"Two more weeks isn't the end of the world," said Mitch Meyer, owner of local property management and development firm Loopy Ltd., who is partnering with property owner Eugene Simor. Simor owns Alamo Beer Company – its brewery is located on the other side of the Hays Street Bridge – and has plans for an adjacent restaurant.
"We [delayed the vote] out of kindness to meet with the neighborhood association," Meyer said, noting that City staff has signaled support by placing it on the consent agenda twice. "It’s not like it hasn’t been through the meat grinder."
The vacant lot itself is not historic nor in a historic district, but an HDRC ruling is required because the property falls under the jurisdiction of downtown design guidelines. The committee's decisions are final and do not require review by City Council. If HDRC approves the project's design, construction can begin.
Meyer said his team has met with members of the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association and the HDRC's design subcommittee. The design has since been adjusted to more closely follow the downtown guidelines, he said, including changes to driveways, retail that would face Cherry Street, and bridge access.
"The neighborhood has had plenty of involvement," Meyer said.
Brian Dillard, president of the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association, said the few times he met with developers to discuss the project were brief and did not include feedback.
"They weren't there for input," Dillard said of the presentation developers gave the association. "They just showed us the project."
The preliminary renderings showed a "half-assed" project, he said, adding that if Simor and Meyer had met with the neighborhood associations' Architectural Review Committee earlier on, they wouldn't be getting as much pushback.
"They're going to make money either way, so just do it right," Dillard said. "The general consensus of the neighborhood is we want something like this but we want it done right."
Monica Savino, who chairs the neighborhood architectural committee, in September requested another meeting with developers after HDRC reviewed the project.
"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 [the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association] and Downtown Business District property owners and others for a meaningful dialogue," Savino wrote in a letter to commissioners.
The commission delayed the vote until developers could produce visuals that more clearly show the building's distance from and scale in relation to the bridge. New renderings of the project were created, according to the application package the developers submitted.
Representatives from the San Antonio Conservation Society have said during previous meetings that they would rather see the building face Lamar Street and be further away from the bridge.
To say that he was "super frustrated" with the hoops he's had to jump through for this project would be an understatement, Simor said.
"At some point developers are going to decide it's just not worth it," he said, adding that every delay affects his bottom line. "Time definitely equates to money."
But some community members have little pity for Simor's plight.
"Economic development also has to be about quality of life for the community," Graciela Sánchez, executive director of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, told the Rivard Report earlier this month. She has been asking Council members to consider rules regarding view sheds of historic places – especially for the bridge. Hays Street Bridge is a landmark on the National Register of Historic Places, but that designation does not come with view shed protection.
"It seems like the Missions are the only ones that are protected at this point," Sánchez said, noting that the overlays added to the City's development code limit heights of new developments near the Spanish-colonial Missions. She and some members of the neighborhood association would like landmarks to be treated similarly.
But the view of downtown from the bridge is the view that should be protected, Simor said, and neither the brewery nor the proposed apartments will do that.
The City’s sale of the property for $295,000 to Simor in 2014 was illegal, according to Sánchez and the Hays Street Bridge Restoration Group, which led efforts to restore the 1910 bridge and protect it from encroaching development. A 2002 memorandum of understanding from the previous private owner suggests that the property be used as a public park, the group's lawsuit claims. The previous owner has since said that they are not opposed to the development. The courts ruled in favor of the City, but the restoration group, backed by the Esperanza Center, has appealed the case to the Texas Supreme Court.
A public park, Sanchez argues, could activate the empty lot just as much as apartments and retail.
"If previous administrations hadn't been so stubborn, we could have activated that land years ago," she said. The preservation group lacked the funding or political support to turn the land into a park.
Because of the lawsuit, Simor built the brewery on the other side of the bridge. Alamo Beer received an $800,000 incentive package from the City for the $8 million facility, one of the largest private investments in the historically neglected near-Eastside in years.
Councilman William "Cruz" Shaw (D2), whose district includes the Eastside and a portion of the inner city, said that the community should have been involved in the process earlier on in the official process.
"[Simor and Meyer] have done it the right way, but maybe we can tighten the rules a little bit to have more community input," Shaw told the Rivard Report. "We expect to see a lot more [development]. That area of District 2 is really taking off ... we have to be strategic on what's being built and protect those [who] already live there. It's a balance."
Shaw and his staff are working on language and changing community notification and engagement processes, he said.
The development 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.
"Incentives include City Fee Waivers totaling $42,960, SAWS Fee Waivers of $387,477, and a 10 year reimbursement of City Ad Valorem increment real property taxes valued at $801,286."
Bexar County approved negotiations for its an incentive package for "The Bridge" project Tuesday, which will base its tax abatements on an estimated $21 million investment.