It's been about 11 months since two young developers first came to the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association with a proposal for four, two-story homes in a vacant lot in San Antonio's Eastside historic district.
Property owner and developer Logan Fullmer and his business partner George Herrera expected the development process to take about half as long, but ran into some substantial neighborhood opposition to the design. They finally walked out of the City's Historic and Design Review Commission with conceptual approval with a dramatically different site plan and renderings on Wednesday.
Beyond approval, they received praise from several commissioners that lauded the project as a "model" for how design evolution and neighborhood involvement should work.
“You've seen various reiterations, I’m sure you guys are tired of seeing us by now,” Herrera said.
Developers won't be building single-family homes on the corner of Dawson and Mesquite streets anymore. Plans changed dramatically after Fullmer and Herrera, of McAlister Real Estate, started engaging more deeply with residents over the past six months. Building plans for the "Residences at Mesquite" are now for two small buildings that will host a total of five apartments.
"I hate that it took a year but the reality of the situation is, what is coming out of this process is pretty exciting," said Liz Franklin, who serves on the Neighborhood Association's Architectural Review Committee.
During a heated Zoning Commission meeting in September 2015, commissioners had to consider 15 letters in favor and 16 letters against the zoning change from nearby property owners. The zoning change, in which developers requested more flexible criteria for setbacks and and off-street parking, was eventually approved by City Council. HDRC had already given conceptual approval for the four-structure plan, but many residents, including Franklin, were concerned that the project "crammed" too many boxy houses on the vacant lot and called for more communication between the developer and the neighborhood.
So Fullmer started meeting with the Architectural Review Committee and other architects that live in the area.
"I started to hear the words duplex, triplex and a little flag went up in my head that said, 'listen for a minute,'" Fullmer said. "So I took my hands off the steering wheel for a little bit."
The neighborhood association, residents and the Office of Historic Preservation started to steer while Fullmer looked into the market feasibility of rental units. He found that there is indeed a low stock of one- and two-bedroom apartments in the neighborhood and shifted gears.
Because he's a smaller-scale developer – in terms of business and project size – Fullmer is more flexible and able to do that.
"We're basically taking a Tetris piece and sticking it into Jenga," he said, adding that such a significant shift in project scope and model would be unheard of for a larger developer.
Most developers would baulk at an 11-month design and review process and even Fullmer and Herrera wished it had gone faster. The preparation required to make it through often tedious HDRC meetings is already daunting, but HDRC Chair Michael Guarino hopes this example can be "used as case study about how to do this right.”
Guarino congratulated the developers on responding so thoughtfully to feedback from the neighborhood.
"This is an outstanding exampling of how a project can benefit from this process,” said Commissioner Michael Connor (D4). "This is a fantastic addition to the neighborhood.”
Rents for the units, which will be between 600-1,000 square feet, are yet undetermined but will be market-driven, Fullmer said. "We're seeing pretty strong demand in that area."
Fullmer and Herrera will be back in front of HDRC in the next month or so for final approval, when details like window size, materials, and other construction details will be complete. Once they get started, the project will take about six months to build.
"We don’t have a whole lot of variety of housing stock," Franklin said. "Not everybody wants to, or can afford to, live in a historic home, they just want to live in proximity.”
Explore Dignowity Hill housing and other neighborhood dynamics by visiting our Place Changing series here.
*Top image: Rendering of the "Residences at Mesquite" from the intersection of Dawson and Mesquite streets. Rendering courtesy of Logan Fullmer.