City Zoning commissioners heard from more than a dozen Mahncke Park residents Tuesday afternoon, but each painted a different picture of a local hairstylist’s plan to operate a salon in a renovated historic home. Several members of the Mahncke Park Neighborhood Association argued that allowing commercial use would diminish the neighborhood’s historically residential fabric and home property values, while other neighbors and salon clients testified to the changing dynamics of the neighborhood block that already hosts large apartment complexes and is steps away from the bustling Broadway commercial corridor.
After more than an hour of discussion, the Zoning Commission unanimously rejected the request for a critical zoning change that would allow Andrew Guerra to open Ritz Hair Studio at 143 Perry Ct. The decision was not an easy one, most commissioners said, but concerns raised by neighbors regarding the risk of losing housing continuity were too strong to set aside.
“It may be a beautiful restoration of a home, but it’s commercial,” said Commissioner Paula McGee.
City Council will take up the request when it votes on zoning changes in the coming weeks. Council members are not beholden to commission recommendations, but they are typically followed.
“We’re hoping to still come to some type of agreement,” Guerra said after the vote.
Whatever the outcome he plans on staying in the neighborhood and figuring out a compromise.
“I feel bad for ya,” Commissioner Cecilia Garcia told Guerra, echoing the sympathies of her colleagues. “(But) if the citizens want it to remain residential … then I think it is incumbent upon us to really, really look at that carefully and stop allowing the changes.”
The change would not have been as contentious if the proper procedure was followed by Guerra, said Commissioner Orlando Salazar after hearing from determined, sometimes emotional residents. The hairstylist invested $350,000 on the property itself, various renovations and retrofits. Guerra had been operating illegally for months without the correct zoning and licensing and only recently closed.
“What is making this decision difficult is investment that’s already made,” Salazar said, asking the commission to leave Guerra’s investment outside of their deliberations. “If this project had happened in the matter that it should have happened” the owner would have applied for the zoning change before starting work or even before purchasing the home.
Guerra apologetically admitted ignorance to how the zoning and permitting processes worked, but called on the City to make it easier for the average person to understand the system or at least notify home owners that they will need technical and possibly legal help.
“You shouldn’t do this yourself, my friend, because you’re not smart enough,” he said.
Commissioner Joy McGhee said this demonstrated a citywide problem of awareness and property rights education for people who buy properties and are looking to do something extra to improve or change their homes or businesses.
But Guerra also underestimated the reaction that the close-knit neighborhood association would have to his salon, he said.
“The steam these people have … they’ve got to get a massage,” he said to scattered laughter. But as his language escalated into retorts toward specific neighbors, Commission Chair William Shaw (D2) asked him to calm down at least twice.
Shaw was philosophically torn by the request made in the district he represents. Filling vacant lots and fixing up abandoned properties is a priority for District 2 and Guerra took a long-vacant, dilapidated home and restored it to more than working order.
“(Vacant lots) are a nuisance in our district,” Shaw said, but “I understand the neighborhood’s concern about the encroachment of commercial property.”
A glimmer of compromise arose when Commissioner Reinette King suggested that if the house looked and functioned like a home, “there would be no problem” with her.
Ironically, Guerra said after the vote his son was living in the home while attending the University of the Incarnate Word before the zoning process began, but he moved out, concerned that it would work to his disadvantage. He’s considering the option of converting at least part of the home back into residential.
Top image: Local hairstylist Andrew Guerra listens to Zoning Commissioners discuss an unrelated case before his zoning request called for consideration. Photo by Scott Ball.