The City's Zoning Commission voted 8-2 against a request from Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) to down-zone 36 acres in San Antonio's Northwest side on Tuesday after a conversation that highlighted deep divisions over property rights and sustainable development issues.
Zoning changes typically come from private property owners and developers, but this particular request was initiated by Nirenberg when the land was owned by the federal government in January 2016. Residents that live directly adjacent to the land have long-complained that the undeveloped land attracted vagrants and trash and don't want to see a high-density apartment complex in its place.
The new owners, a California investment group doing business as Babcock Riverwalk LLC, purchased the land after Nirenberg filed for the zoning change. Kenneth Brown, a local attorney representing the group, said that while there are no solid plans to develop the land any time soon, the land was purchased with zoning that would allow for 33 housing units per acre. If Nirenberg's proposal is successful, the new zoning would allow for only 11 units per acre.
"It’s not about reducing development, it’s about making sure the development is sustainable and in the best interest of the community,” Nirenberg said, citing the infrastructure strains that another high-density project would put on area streets. While he supports density in the city's urban core and economic centers, this particular area needs low-density, mixed use.
"In this case, we have the authority," he said of the timing of his proposal when the land was still owned by the federal government – after it was seized last year from other previous owners that fled the country under charges of money laundering for drug cartels. The public should always take advantage of public land to "zone it when we own it," he said.
But he'll need the support of at least eight of his colleagues for the zoning change to go through and hopes that his wants – and the wants of his constituents in the area neighborhood associations – will be heard.
The commission's recommendation and the Planning Commission's down vote in March will be considered by City Council in the next couple weeks – as will the testimony from more than a dozen business owners and residents.
“I feel good about (the proposal's) chances at Council because every council member is charged with making decisions in the best interest of their community, and the merits of this case speak for themselves," Nirenberg said. "It’s just a matter of how they withstand the pressure of the lobby, who are making some pretty outlandish claims. ... The letters that were sent (by the opposition to the Commission and City Council) are as forceful as they are wrong."
Speaking in opposition to the proposal both in person and in writing on Wednesday were representatives from the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, the local commercial real estate association, Greater San Antonio Builders Association, the Real Estate Council of San Antonio, and of course representatives of the land owner. Most arguments centered around the rights of property owners and many of the commissioners agreed that the City didn't demonstrate a significant need to override those rights.
"There’s no compelling need that’s going to benefit the citizens of that area,” said Commissioner Cecilia Garcia, adding that there should have been a greater effort on the City's part to communicate to the new property owner that a rezoning process was underway.
"This is spot planning that we're doing right now," Brown said. "We're not applying these principals evenly to all the properties in the area. We went through the planning process and we went through the zoning process in (2008) where all the stakeholders were involved and now we're trying to do it where there is only one involved (the City)."
Brown was referring to a land covenant that worked out between previous land owners and neighborhood associations in 2008. The agreement would have allowed for about 23 three-story apartment buildings and some single family homes on acreage adjacent to other neighborhoods. The site plan would have averaged about 20 housing units per acre.
"The problem in this situation is the process," Brown said, claiming that the zoning case was fast-tracked in favor of the City.
"I have no sympathy for an out-of-town speculator who has lost the opportunity to profit off of a neighborhood becuase he wasn’t paying attention at an auction,” Nirenberg said of the new land owner. “And the notion that we’re somehow penalizing someone — the public is being penalized when we make poor development decisions in which the taxpayer has to foot the cost of repairing infrastructure."
Not all of the business community was opposed to the change.
"We are unequivocally in favor of the downzoning," said Manuel Pelaez-Prada, who spoke for the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "These bidders (new land owners) are big boys and walked into this with eyes wide open.”
The zoning change, Nirenberg said, fits into the SA Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan due to come out this spring.
"Sustainable cities are good business," Nirenberg said. The study carried out by City staff which he initiated before requesting the zoning change found "the highest and best use" would be mixed residential.
Commissioner Francine Romero, the associate dean for the College of Public Policy at UTSA who represents District 8, abstained from the vote on Wednesday but suggested that a compromise could still be reached between the City and land owner.
"I respect (Councilman Nirenberg) a great deal," Romero said. "But he understands I have a philosophical disagreement on this. ... Downzoning is a very serious step to take and it shouldn’t be taken lightly.”
Though she abstained, she made it clear she didn't see a "substantive state interest" in the zoning change as a solution to the infrastructure problems that it may or may not cause.
"Our district is growing like crazy. This is not somehow unique (to) this particular property," she said.
Looking between Brown and City staff, she urged that the two sides continue to meet before the Council vote that could come as early as next week, and noted that a zoning change that would allow 18 housing units per acre might be somewhere they could meet in the middle.
"I'm disappointed," Nirenberg said of Romero's comments and the Commission's vote. He disagrees strongly on this point but "I appoint the people I do becuase I want them to use their own conscious to guide them."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story had the acreage of the property in question at 33 acres. It's 36.
Top image: An approximate outline of the 36 acres up for rezoning. Image via Google Maps.