Scott Ball / Rivard Report
The Texas Supreme Court agreed Friday to hear oral arguments in the appeal brought by the Hays Street Bridge Restoration Group that challenges a lower court's ruling that the City of San Antonio is immune from certain breaches of contract. No date has been set for the high court to hear the case.
The 2012 lawsuit stems from the City's sale of land adjacent to the historic Hays Street Bridge to the owner of a beer company. The land at 803 N. Cherry St. was supposed to become a public park, the group says. The parcel has since been sold to a local developer, who now plans to build a controversial multistory, mixed-use apartment complex there.
“The City welcomes the Court’s interest in these very important matters and will continue to work with the community on smart development for the area surrounding the Hays Street Bridge,” City Attorney Andy Segovia stated in a news release.
Amy Kastely, who is representing the Restoration Group, told the Rivard Report that the court's action on Friday could be the first step toward reclaiming the land for a public park.
"All the odds were against us," Kastely said. "But we expected this."
"We’re ecstatic," said Graciela Sánchez, executive director of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, which supports the group.
In 2014, a Bexar County district court jury agreed with the Restoration Group's contention that the City failed to comply with the 2002 memorandum of understanding it entered into when Anheuser-Busch distributors Berkeley and Vincent Dawson donated the land to the City to become a park. However, an appeals court ruled that the City is immune to being sued for such a breach of contract, and the Restoration Group appealed to the Supreme Court in June 2017.
The City sold the land to Eugene Simor, founder of Alamo Beer Company, who wanted to build its first brewery there. After litigation began, Simor instead chose to build on the vacant lot on the other side of the bridge and sold the other lot to developer Mitch Meyer. Simor received nearly $800,000 in development incentives to build the $8 million brewery. The City sold the property to Simor for $295,000.
The apartment complex Meyer proposes sparked further controversy in the community over its design and concerns about gentrification. Some neighbors, however, support the development of the long-vacant lot.
If the Supreme Court does rule in the group’s favor, it is unlikely that the decision would impact the ownership of the property, said James McKnight, Meyer's attorney. That appeal pertains to the City’s immunity, not the original case or sale of the land, he said.
"It's really surprising that they [the Texas Supreme Court] took the case," McKnight told the Rivard Report. "I believed that it should be dropped because ... whether or not [the city has] immunity is really black and white.”
But the merits of the case – who owns the land – could be heard again in appeals court, Kastely said.
"We won’t have a new trial but, there could be a new hearing on whether the City has violated the [district court's] judgment," she said.
Elizabeth Provencio, first assistant City attorney, told the Rivard Report that there is "no path," regardless of how the Supreme Court rules, towards any court overturning the sale.
"If there was any basis to affect the actual sale, that would have occurred already,” Provencio said, during previous legal arguments. Right now, what's in question is “can a governmental entity be specifically required to do something in response to a breach of contract claim."
And if it did go back to hearings, all the court could compel the City to do is to comply with the memorandum of understanding, something Provencio said the City already has done by applying the land sale proceeds, $295,000, to the restoration of the bridge.
Sánchez said she hopes the Supreme Court's decision to hear the case would put a stop to Meyer's development plans. The City has no such plans, however.
After the apartment complex was rejected by the Historic and Design Review Commission, City Manager Sheryl Sculley approved the design but attached certain requirements.
McKnight said that the design concerns cited by Sculley and the new members of the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association's Architectural Review Committee have been addressed and that the development is close to final approval.
Asked if the lawsuit will impact Meyer's plans for the lot, McKnight said, “I don’t believe it will.”