If all goes as the Archdiocese of San Antonio and 210 Development Group plan, some 200-230 apartments will be built a stone's throw away from Mission Concepción, redeveloping the site of the old St. John's Seminary school. A zoning change that would allow the project to proceed was unanimously approved by the City's Planning Commission on Wednesday. The change will go before the Zoning Commission and then to City Council for final approval later this month.
Plans for the Concepción apartments took shape almost two years before the sites' World Heritage designation when Archdiocese struck a deal with 210 Development to redevelop the site. The Historic and Design Review Commission approved preliminary designs of the multi-building complex last year. The final design, which may include commercial space for a restaurant or other retail, will go through another round of that process later this year.
"We've gotten a lot of community support from (neighbors) in the area," said 210 Development President Michael Wibracht on Wednesday. While the developer's other proposed project near Mission San José has received some pushback from the surrounding community, Wibracht said the conditions of the derelict seminary site at Concepción is a more clear-cut case of badly needed development. "It was attracting nuisances like vagrants, drug users, and some arsonists. And it was also an attraction for wild animals – wild dogs. A fair amount of neighbors were scared of the (property). ... It's a safety issue."
He said they've assigned a security detail and reinforced the perimeter fence.
The nearly seven-acre property, owned by the Archdiocese, is flanked by single-family homes to the east and south, juvenile justice facilities (probation and detention) and a gas station to the north, and Mission Concepción to the west. A small bar and motel are also nearby.
One would be hard-pressed to call a walk around either side of Mission Concepción as an acceptable path to a World Heritage site: the sidewalks (if any) are narrow and overgrown with weeds, trash fills the grass and blows into the property grounds if it's not first caught by the fence, a man – apparently drunk – stands idly outside the gas station, asking passersby for change. While Concepción's ground, parking lot, and path to the Mission Reach Trail are well-maintained, physical and psychological barriers prevent residents from accessing the Mission via any other route.
A mixed-use development would likely improve and activate the surrounding streets with residents and pedestrians.
Fr. David Garcia, director of the Old Spanish Missions who played a key role the Missions' renovations and bid for World Heritage status, welcomes the new development at Concepción. He worked closely with the Archdiocese to figure out a plan for the seminary and when it became clear that church members couldn't afford to redevelop the land itself, they issued a request for proposals (RFP).
"This will bring more people to the neighborhood," Garcia said. "It's going to be positive for the Mission, for the parish, and for the neighboring community."
All four Missions are active parishes. "Growing parishes," he added. "We're bursting at the seams most Sundays."
Garcia, who graduated from St. John's Seminary school himself in 1967, said he hasn't been as involved with the San José development, but he is confident that the UNESCO inspection and subsequent approval of the current mechanisms to control growth should probably be enough to move forward.
"I'm not fearing any kind of revocation (of World Heritage status). They were satisfied that we had enough protection ... but I also don't have a problem talking about (reopening the overlay)," he said. "Development is coming, there is no question. How and what kind of development and infrastructure goes where – that's what we need to talk about."
Much of the concern is born out of simply not wanting high-density housing in the neighborhood, he said. "Which is fine. You can argue that. But don't say it's because they'll take away the designation."
Several of the buildings will be demolished, but the large, historic '20s brick building will remain with at least two others that the Archdiocese hopes to use a portion of for office space. Specific designs and plans are still pending.
"We want to bring to the Missions quality, affordable projects," he added. "A typical one-bedroom is going to be $800-900. We're telling people that we're going to about 25% cheaper than what's going on downtown," near the Pearl in Mid-Town, or near the projects going up in Southtown where one-bedroom apartments are typically more than $1,000. "We want to differentiate ourselves from that."
Since the Spanish colonial Missions were designated as a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage site this summer, the community has taken a heightened interest in developments near the historic structures. While the current design, planning, Mission protection, and view shed overlays were found by UNESCO representatives to be sound enough to warrant World Heritage site designation, many preservationists and neighbors have urged city leaders to reopen the discussion on how to manage development surrounding the Missions. Some preservationists have even called for a moratorium on all development near any of the four Missions until more specific guidelines are enacted. Most of this conversation has centered around 210 Development's early plans for a 144-unit complex across Napier Avenue from Mission San José.
The site of the proposed San José development doesn't have the public safety problems that the seminary does at Concepción. That and the size and scale of the existing industrial buildings near San José that the apartments would replace are far smaller than the new development. The Concepción project more closely fits into the existing viewshed of the seminary and its tiered design that builds up to three stories and back down to one-story buildings will blend the development into the surrounding single-story neighborhood, Wibracht said. The project is designed by California-based Moule & Polyzoides, the same architectural firm that designed the River North District Master Plan.
"We went with the UNESCO inspector, while she was here meeting with the World Heritage Committee, about our project," he said. "We completely comply with the (view shed) overlay" established by the committee and approved by City Council. Those overlays were later adopted by the World Heritage as buffer zones.
Wibracht said he was looking forward to continuing community meetings on the San José project which has yet to formally be proposed to any committee or commission.
"The Roosevelt corridor is littered with vacant commercial retail (lots). The only way I know to activate that is to bring people with disposable income to the area to do this," he said. "We're planning to do a lot more community outreach, an open house, to let people voice some of their opinions on what should be there and to get as much input as possible."
Less than 10% of the property is not zoned for multi-family residential, he said, and he is confident that the zoning change will be approved by Council this month. There were no citizens signed up to speak for or against the change at Wednesday's meeting.
*Top image: An expansive lawn on the grounds of the abandoned St. John's Seminary school. Photo by Iris Dimmick.