The last hurdle to transform the long-abandoned and blighted St. John's Seminary into a $26 million multi-family development in the shadow of Mission Concepción was approved by City Council Thursday after a parade of neighbors, activists, business leaders and developers spoke for and against the project.
The Archdiocese of San Antonio, which owns the property, is working with the 210 Development Group to redevelop the 11.1 acre property with construction of 200-240 apartment units and the renovation of at least five historic structures that were part of the former St. John’s Seminary school complex. Two of those will be maintained by the Archdiocese as office and community organization space. The “courtyard architecture” project was designed by California-based Moule & Polyzoides, the same firm that designed the River North District Master Plan.
Thursday's zoning cases were heard by eight Council members, with Councilmember Joe Krier (D9) presiding as mayor pro tem. Mayor Ivy Taylor was called away to a CPS Energy Board meeting at which she and other trustees emerged from an executive session to offer departing CEO and President Doyle Beneby Jr. yet another contract offer to remain in place. Whether Beneby is willing to give that offer serious consideration remains to be seen. Click here to read our coverage.
Councilmembers Ray Saldaña (D4) and Shirley Gonzalez (D5) also were absent Thursday afternoon. The vote in favor of the 210 Development project was a unanimous 8-0.
The redevelopment of St. John's Seminary could prove to be a seminal case for how San Antonio approaches infill development in and around the Missions, which were unanimously approved for World Heritage site designation by UNESCO at its annual meeting, held in Bonn, Germany this year. Four days of commemoration and celebration begin Thursday evening as UNESCO and federal, state and local officials gather here for the formal World Heritage Inscription ceremonies this weekend.
(See World Heritage Weekend: Celebrating San Antonio History and Preservation for the full schedule of events.)
For Councilmember Rebecca Viagran (D3), whose district includes the four Spanish colonial missions, the project has been a two-year test of balancing efforts to bring new economic development to the Southside while assuring that new development respects the history, culture and character of her district. The $384.1 million San Antonio River Improvements Project, which includes the $271.4 million Mission Reach project, and now the World Heritage designation, have only heightened interest in the near-Southside, which has suffered for decades from a lack of public or private investment.
"This weekend we will be holding a ceremony commemorating the San Antonio Missions UNESCO World Heritage designation. It will be a proud day for all of us who have worked for years to secure this honor," Viagran said before she made a motion to approve the project's final zoning issue requiring Council approval. "At last, the world will know what we have known all along – the San Antonio Missions are a jewel that we must protect and preserve.
"But the UNESCO World Heritage Designation also ushers in an era of opportunity. Tourists from all over the world will be visiting our city and they will need transportation, hotels, meals and so much more," she said. "With this in mind, any development around our Missions must be carefully vetted, to ensure that we are respecting our UNESCO designation and at the same time allowing for smart economic growth and opportunity. Each proposal for development around the Missions, big or small, should be evaluated individually to determine its appropriateness – after all, each one of our Missions is unique and tells a different story about the history of our region."
Viagran cited the "outstanding universal value" UNESCO language that undergirds all World Heritage sites and surrounding development.
"The case that is before us today, is one that I will be supporting," Viagran said. "It’s a decision I have made after much thought and careful consideration. I have been to the neighborhood meetings that took place in July. I believe this development will enhance the neighborhood. A building that was once abandoned and vandalized – frankly an eyesore to those who pass it each day – will be transformed for the better. I have the formal support of the Archdiocese and surrounding neighbors, like Mr. John Rodriguez, Candie Beltran, and Ms. Maria Rosales, who live directly across the street. I want to thank Father David Garcia for his vision and leadership on this project. "
Viagran did tell 210 Developers that she opposes the company's proposed multifamily project adjacent to Mission San José.
"There are other development proposals, like that near Mission San José. I am not in support of the development of multi-family housing proposal that is currently being entertained across the street from the Mission San José Visitor Center," Viagran said. "I look forward to having conversations with residents, business owners, and concerned citizens on the possibilities of development that is creative, respectful and appropriate fitting for this site which is largely already appropriately zoned."
Fr. Garcia, the rector at Mission Concepción parish, led the effort to raise more than $15.5 million to restore the four Mission churches, all of which are active Catholic parishes, a restoration effort that was a key element in the U.S. application for World Heritage designation. He and other Archdiocese officials have been strong vocal advocates in favor of the 210 Development project and partnership. The developer's plans were carefully reviewed by UNESCO representatives in the months prior to the designation, according to Fr. Garcia, who also serves director of the Old Spanish Missions.
“I see absolutely no threat to the World Heritage designation from this project,” Fr. Garcia said at a previous Zoning Commission hearing in response to individuals who claimed development could threaten the UNESCO designation.
Still, Thursday's Council meeting included a number of speakers who continue to oppose the 210 Development project and other multifamily projects in the Missions district that have been proposed.
"It's not too late to say no to inappropriate development around the Mission," said Terry Ybañez, a public schools arts educator.
"We want to make sure that whatever happens here today doesn't set a precedent for future development around the other Missions," said Margaret Johnson, an Alliance leader.
Immediate neighbors of Mission Concepción, spoke in favor of the Archdiocese and 210 Development's project.
Edward Huizar, a seventh generation descendant of Pedro Huizar, the Mexican-born 18th century alcalde of Mission San José and the surveyor who laid the Mission's cornerstone, was one of them.
"Our family fully supports the revitalization of those Mission lands," Huizar said.
Maria Rosales, a 77-year-old resident who lives at 230 Felisa St. across from Mission Concepción, said she welcomed an end to crimes and vagrancy that have plagued the former seminary and neighborhood.
"I live right across the street from Mission Concepción and the properties there have been deteriorating for years, they've become a high crime area," she said. "I welcome anyone who will improve my neighborhood."
The Mission Concepción neighborhood will be alive with celebration Friday night as World Heritage celebrations continue with the “Restored by Night” event, which includes a light projection on the exterior of the mission that will illustrate its original facade. The event includes family-friendly activities, guided portal tours, music by DJ Steven Lee Moya and local food trucks on-site. VIA and the City of San Antonio will provide free bus service to Mission Concepción that night.
*Top image: Site plan for the proposed Mission Concepción apartment and office building complex. Orange buildings indicate existing historical structures. Image courtesy of Moule & Polyzoides.