Zoning Commission Opposes Tobin Hill North Historic District

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Some residents in Tobin Hill want thier homes to become part of an official historic district.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Some residents in Tobin Hill want their homes to become part of an official historic district.

With a 6-1 vote on Tuesday, the City’s Zoning Commission rejected a request that would designate a sliver of Tobin Hill as a historic district.

But while backing the idea of a historic district in the neighborhood north of downtown, commission members were critical of the Office of Historic Preservation (OHP) and the process by which the City investigates a historic district application.

It is not yet known when City Council will consider the proposed Tobin Hill North Historic District, which has prompted oft-heated debates among neighbors. Whenever it does, Council will consider conflicting recommendations from OHP, which recommended approval of the new historic district, and the Zoning Commission’s recommendation of rejection. Tobin Hill Community Association has endorsed the designation.

Boundaries for the proposed Tobin Hill North Historic District.

Courtesy / City of San Antonio

Boundaries for the proposed Tobin Hill North Historic District.

“It’s not over,” said Anisa Schell after the Zoning Commission’s vote, following nearly two hours of discussion. She and husband Rick led the application effort last fall, collecting signatures from owners of properties within an area measuring less than 14 acres. The proposed district is mostly along a stretch of East Mistletoe Avenue between McCullough Avenue and Kings Court.

Supporters said a historic district designation would best protect their part of Tobin Hill from encroaching development and speculation. The neighborhood contains a variety of structures, including bungalow-style homes built nearly 100 years ago.

Terramark Urban Homes’ proposal to build eight single single-family homes in the 400 block of East Mistletoe, in the proposed historic district, sparked the proponents into action.

421 / 425 E. Mistletoe proposed site plan.

Courtesy / Terramark Urban Homes

One of several designs proposed by Terramark Urban Homes for lots on the 400 block of East Mistletoe Avenue.

Modern-style condominiums proposed for a lot zoned for multifamily on West Craig Place in nearby Beacon Hill also has become a point of contention for historic district backers.

“We’d like to really protect the character of the neighborhood,” said Vivian Rule.

Yvonne Gonzalez said her neighborhood features homes that help to make San Antonio one of the most unique cities in the country.

She expressed concern that an increasing number of property owners are only interested in flipping their property in favor of development potentially incompatible with the community.

“San Antonio is unique and, if you allow these things to happen … we’re going to lose that uniqueness,” Gonzalez added.

Paula Starnes echoed a growing issue for many older, inner-city neighborhoods, saying communities like Tobin Hill must be maintained “before someone destroys them.”

But opponents said a historic district would prove burdensome, and impose expensive rules on property owners who could otherwise revitalize the neighborhood. Others accused historic district petitioners of misleading their neighbors, adding that most affected property owners oppose the application.

The petitioners initially said 99 properties would be covered by the historic district.

Tobin Hill, San Antonio. Google Maps image.

Google Maps

Tobin Hill, San Antonio.

But a handful of property owners objected, leading the petitioners to drop those homes from the proposed district boundaries, resulting in a current 88 affected properties.

That has drawn the ire of several stakeholders, who claim the petitioners effectively gerrymandered the boundaries in order to keep a 51% approval rate among property owners.

A historic district petition requires a minimum of 51% approval to initiate the historic designation process with the City.

Speakers such as Lynn Swanson, a property owner from Houston, questioned the current rate of district support within the boundaries.

Bill Oakley said the applicants, the Schells, have lived in Tobin Hill only a few years and are not as invested in the neighborhood as many other property owners.

He added there exists “a silent majority” of opposition that has not been acknowledged by the City.

Sandra Levy said the notion of having to obtain the City’s approval for even minor repairs and upgrades in a historic district rubs people the wrong way.

“You have to do what what (the City) says, not what you want to do,” Levy said, adding that many homeowners are older and on fixed incomes with no desire other than to maintain what they have.

Property owner David Honkala said many homes in the proposed Tobin Hill North area have been improved by their owners who otherwise may not have had the ability or funds to abide by historic district requirements.

“We just want to be left alone and want no part of a historic district,” he added.

Some critics of a historic district say they would not mind if Tobin Hill were to become a Neighborhood Conservation District. But historic district supporters fear an NCD may not be strong enough to handle the appropriateness of new and infill construction.

Anisa Schell said she and fellow proponents have done their best to follow City rules and help alert all affected property owners, providing them with factual information. She added several public, neighborhood meetings have taken place on the issue.

“We are excited to be empowered, to have a say as a neighborhood as it continues to grow and develop,” she added.

Kathy Rodriguez, deputy historic preservation officer, asserted that some property owners on both sides of the issue have been misinformed about a few things, including how the designation process works and how the City reviews project proposals in a historic district.

Rodriguez said there is no current effort to re-evaluate the rate of support among the property owners. She tried to allay critics’ fears, saying that most repair and construction proposals in a historic district are approved either by OHP staff or by the Historic Design and Review Commission.

The City sought proposed delaying a vote of the case to the chagrin of many residents who wanted a firm decision after weeks of delays and debates. Zoning department staffers recommended rezoning approval.

Commission members cast doubt on the City’s argument for rezoning. They lamented a lack of hard, updated data on the percentage of opposition, and the number of property owners who had been notified of the designation process.

“It has been challenging to make a determination on this issue if we don’t know the percent of people opposed,” said Commissioner Siboney Diaz-Sanchez (D1). “I’m disappointed in the process.”

Commissioner Cecilia Garcia, appointed by the mayor, expressed shock that nobody seems to know exactly how many people are opposed to the proposal, and that other residents did not know about the proposal until recently. But Garcia said there is nothing wrong with a historic district itself.

“To have that (unknown information) kind of hanging out there, it doesn’t feel right,” she added. “I think we could’ve done this a lot better. There’s some vagueness here.”

Commissioner Joy McGhee (D3) agreed: “I’m also disheartened in the process. It’s hard to process this with the information we do have. It seems to me the community is saying ‘we don’t want it.’”

Commission Chair Dr. Francine Romero (D8) voiced support for historic districts, but shared her dissatisfaction with the City’s case on Tobin Hill North.

Romero said she could understand the rationale for gerrymandering the district boundaries, but that concerned property owners mistrusted the initiative from the start.

“This process hasn’t been helpful,” she added.

Diaz-Sanchez hesitated before moving to deny the rezoning. Among seven members on hand, only McGhee voted to approve the request.

Afterward, Anisa Schell said she and fellow supporters would reach out to all affected property owners to see how they could move forward.

14 thoughts on “Zoning Commission Opposes Tobin Hill North Historic District

  1. I’m sorry to say it but your homes are not that unique nor are they that old – if you’ve ever visited places like Astoria, Oregon or the heart of San Francisco – those are old, historic homes. San Antonio is growing and we need to allow for compact growth to reduce sprawl and be good stewards of environment sustainability. Allowing for multi-family development is necessary in order to keep housing affordable for everyone, not just a select few.

  2. Many of the historic homes in Tobin Hill have been split up into multi-unit residences. Why can’t the developer do the same? Build a large house that matches the neighborhood, add a couple of extra entrances and rent away. (Oh, he wants to sell them, you say? Have you seen how long houses are hanging out on the market in Tobin Hill?) There’s nothing “affordable” about what’s being put in.

    There are a lot of old buildings in San Francisco that no longer exist because of your exact argument. Exactly how old does the building need to be?

  3. This is what really gets my goat, though:

    Bill Oakley said the applicants, the Schells, have lived in Tobin Hill only a few years and are not as invested in the neighborhood as many other property owners.

    Seriously? Because they’re newer in town and active in the community, they’re not as invested? Really, Bill? You beg for development then criticize the people who move into the ‘hood.

    I suppose we should post the appropriate waiting period newcomers should observe before getting involved.

    They have every right to be involved in the process.

  4. Dawn, you need too take a hard look at what’s going on in our near downtown hoods. Affordable infill housing is NOT what we are seeing. A recent new development in Beacon Hill brought in 6 units going for around $300,000 each. Our property values are escalating at an unsustainable pace for many neighborhood residents. Revitalization is welcomed, but forced gentrification is an unfortunate and unwelcome side-effect.

    It is also unfortunate that residents feel forced into going historic, because our NCDs aren’t respected or adequately enforced due to massive loopholes left in the language of these rules intended to protect our precious near-downtown communities.

    Our NCDs must be respected and strengthened. Put hard working residents first, developers second!

    • Furthermore, downtown San Fransisco essentially burned to the ground in the great quake of 1906. Many of our wonderful old hoods are of this vintage on up to the 1920s. #knowyourhistory

    • You just reiterated my point, multi-family properties are necessary to keep prices from sky rocketing. If we don’t want a 2bdr going for $300,000 near downtown then we need density, not single family homes. Yes, not every multi-family unit is going to be ‘affordable’ but the more supply the cheaper places will be – basic economics.

      I live very close to that development in Beacon Hill and I think it was done tastefully, much more tastefully than the single family remodel that was done two doors down and that still hasn’t sold because it’s listed at a much too high value.

      • Most are in complete disagreement with you. And you are intentionally missing my point. These developers are not interested in creating affordable housing. They are not part of the fabric of our community – they want to get top dollar and split. I get it. It’s a free market. However, it is up to the community to make our priorities known and for development to positively reflect that.

        Bad flips are a subject we agree on. Part of the reason for creating historic districts and strong NCDs is to mitigate this type of development, as well. There is a 1926 apartment building near my home that will never be the same after it was destroyed by an irresponsible out-of-town developer. It is currently a part of our vacant buildings program. A failure in every regard.

        • I am sure most are in disagreement with me. There is strong nimbyism against multi-family development (done tastefully or not), especially in San Antonio. Design standards for multi-family may be a good solution, but even too strict of design standards can inflate costs to much in order for them to be affordable. Making every near Downtown neighborhood a historic district is not a solution. Limiting multi-family development in certain neighborhoods leads to segregation of poverty, which is unjust.

          I have seen similar circumstances when I lived in Astoria, OR. There was great pushback against multi-family development, so the city caved. What has resulted is sky-rocketing home prices and an extreme scarcity of rental properties. Now only upper middle class and wealthy can afford to live there. It’s a shame. Diversity is lost.

          I have never seen more power given to NCDs than I have living here. From my perspective what is lost is cohesiveness in planning. This lack of comprehension is planning is hindering growth and hindering good transportation options. This is causing the city to also lag behind other cities in attracting top businesses. We need to be more comprehensive in our planning and stop giving so much power to NCDs. Historically, NCDs do not represent lower income populations or renters – they don’t represent everyone.

  5. These ticky-tacky “Terramark Urban Homes” are neighborhood character killers. Don’t believe me? Drive thru Mahncke Park and check out all the cloned dullard residences springing up like weeds. They’re cookie cutter robots. Yes, it’s a pain in the butt to salvage an old home into a thing of beauty and integrity – but worth every penny! I live in an Historic District – one of the prides of our city – and if people don’t care about preserving what’s unique and appealing about our older neighborhoods please go live in a sparkling new tract home on the northside. (You wouldn’t really like living inside 410 anyway.)

  6. San Antonio needs an RENT controlled ordinance, meaning limit the number of rentals on each street…less rentals people will be willing to move back into inner city, but who wants to live in a neighborhood mostly all rentals. A lot of larger cities are doing this and it is bringing neighborhoods back to life…If people want to rent they should just rent an apartment, renters do not like yard work and following rules to keep yard nice….

    • renters tend to be people who cannot afford a down payment on a home – which is most people in society, most people that make less than $100K/year – your statement is a very snooty thing to say and is classist/racist. Rent control is not about limiting the number of rentals on each street, it is about limiting the amount landlords can rent out their units for. If cities were limiting the number of rentals on a street there would be multiple lawsuits based on discrimination.

  7. I was at this hearing, and video of it was posted by NOWCastSA. 15 people spoke in favor of the Historic Designation and 8 people opposed it. Of those 8, one was from Houston, one was from Helotes, and one is a developer. Of the 8 opposed, only three live within the proposed Historic District.
    It’s a shame that the Zoning Commissioners failed to recognize what the homeowners in the proposed district overwhelmingly supported, what the HDRC unanimously recommended, and what Staff recommended for approval as well. Since our Zoning Commissioner, appointed by Roberto Treviño, is the one who moved to deny the recommendation, it calls into question just who the Commissioner, and in turn our Councilman, is actually representing here.

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