Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Mitch Meyer, who owns land adjacent to the historic Hays Street Bridge in the near-East Side, is close to landing a deal that would allow him swap his contentious land with two acres of City-owned land nearby, according to City officials.
Such a land swap would need to be approved by City Council, which could vote on it as early as June 6, City Manager Erik Walsh told the Rivard Report. City Council was briefed during a private meeting on Wednesday.
The deal is intended to be a compromise for a longstanding battle between the developer, who has permission to build a five-story apartment building next to the bridge, and some area residents and local preservationists, who say the land in the rapidly-gentrifying area of town should become a park.
“At the end of the day, I think everybody wants resolution,” said interim Councilman Art Hall (D2), who represents the East Side and took the lead in trying to find that resolution. “We’re ready to hit the reset button, we’re ready to start anew.”
If the swap is approved, that will trigger a community-led process to figure out what to do with the land next to the bridge, Hall said.
But some, including leaders of the Hays Street Bridge Restoration Group and Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, said the City’s participating in another bad deal.
The City’s two acres at 233 South Cherry St. is valued at $2.9 million, said Assistant City Manager Lori Houston, and Meyer’s 1.69 acres at 803 North Cherry St. is valued at roughly $2.2-2.5 million, according to property appraisers and area realtors, Houston said.
Bexar County Appraisal District lists the value of Meyer’s land at $546,000.
Meyer put approximately $600,000 towards the project, which he plans to move less than a mile south down the street if the deal is approved. That’s the same amount of money that the City will need to demolish the former transportation center on the lot and get it ready for residential development, which, Houston noted, the City was planning on doing anyway.
“This exchange isn’t costing [the City] any money,” Houston said. It’s a straight “value-to-value” swap. Under state law, the City can’t trade for anything less in return.
To compensate for the extra acreage Meyer would get out of the deal, the land will come with a deed restriction that limits any building on the property to no more than five stories.
There are, however, some intangibles that are hard to place a dollar value on, Houston said. For instance, the City is the only buyer interested in the land – likely because of its entanglement with a lawsuit and protests.
Those and other considerations and stipulations were worked out as the City collected feedback from area groups including the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association and the nearby Denver Heights Neighborhood Association, Walsh said.
“[Councilman Hall] was very open and transparent about what we were doing,” Walsh said.
Ten percent of the units would be priced for households earning 80 percent of area median income, Houston said, and the Center City Housing Incentive Program deal that Meyer received for the previous project will be transferred to the new location. The amount of tax abatement and fee waivers will depend on what he builds at the space, she said. The project near the bridge was slated to receive $1.2 million.
The 223 S. Cherry St. location was vacated by the City in December 2018 and was slated to become a mixed-income housing project, Houston said. The adjacent nearly two-acre lot has a similar future, she said, but if an affordable housing project isn’t feasible there, sale of that land would go into a fund to support other such projects in the near East Side.
The swap will have to be reviewed by the Planning Commission, which will give a recommendation to City Council. The new project will still have to go through the Historic and Design Review process.
The alternative is Meyer builds his project next to the bridge, Walsh and Houston said.
“He’s ready to go, he just needs to start,” Walsh said. So when approaching the compromise “we collectively … didn’t feel like we needed to chase any deals here. It had to be something that made sense for us, for the neighborhoods, for Mitch.”
Meyer said Wednesday the deal is still not final.”We’re dating and in love,” he said via text. “Marriage is possible and probable but not imminent. Lots of crazy in-laws and moving parts.”
At a recent Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association meeting, residents were largely receptive to the deal.
The compromise is largely a result of good timing, Walsh said, citing Hall’s interim tenure and a Texas Supreme Court’s ruling against the City in regards to an appeal of the still-active lawsuit brought against it by the Hays Street Bridge Restoration Group.
“When the supreme court sent that case back to 4th Court of Appeals [in March], we saw it as an opportunity to kind of revisit the story,” Walsh said. Hall’s five-month appointment in February also allowed for a “fresh approach” to the issue. Both candidates in a runoff for the District 2, where the properties are located, have said they support a compromise land swap in this case – as have Mayor Ron Nirenberg and his runoff challenger Councilman Greg Brockhouse.
“There were no backroom deals and council approved this twice,” Houston said.
But the Hays Street Bridge Restoration Group contends that the City’s original sale of the land to Eugene Simor, owner of Alamo Beer Company, was illegal in the first place. The group’s lawsuit centers around the intention that the land was supposed to be a park and it raised money towards bridge restoration under that agreement.
“It’s troubling that the City appears to be trying to fix one corrupt deal by entering into another,” said Amy Kastely, an attorney representing the group.
In court proceedings, the City has pointed to a memorandum of understanding that does not contain the word “park,” City Attorney Andy Segovia said. The City maintains that it has complied with a lower courts ruling that the City breached the agreement – where the two sides differ is the action that the City must take.
The City has filed to drop its own appeal, but the next steps of the lawsuit is up to the Hays Street group or the courts to decide, Segovia said.
“If the deal goes through, the lawsuit still goes forward unless the city commits the land to the Hays Street Bridge [Restoration Group] project,” Kastely said. That would include public space and educational elements surrounding the railroad’s history in San Antonio and the contributions of the African American community that lived in the East Side.
Hall said he understands there is still controversy surrounding the sale of the land near the Hays Street Bridge, but that the community should get to decide how to move forward.
“No matter the history, or no matter the perception of history: we’ve heard you,” Hall said.
The land swap idea evolved over time with broad community input, Walsh said. “We’re not going to look backward.”