Last night the City of Alamo Heights met to discuss what one city councilor called the largest and most divisive project to come before their city council in years.
The developer, Alamo Manhattan, proposed to redevelop the tract of land at the crossroads of Broadway and Austin highway in what is to be called the Alamo Heights Gateway Complex.
The marathon-length Alamo Heights City Council meeting lasted just over five hours and heard remarks from over 70 citizens. The issue before the council was whether to allow a series of exceptions to the zoning rules for the development of a mixed-use property that would hold over 165 units, all but 10 of which would be apartments.
The project, which percolated for several years, gained a good deal of both community outcry as well as support. The city’s own planning and zoning board rejected the variances outlined in the special use permit (SUP) the developer requested.
But that was last week.
In an unexpected turn of events, the city council approved a special use permit for the development of the land by a vote of 3-2, but one for a project about ten feet shorter, nearly twenty units lighter and with larger parking spots. It was an eleventh-hour compromise that city council member Bobby Rosenthal admitted was designed to disappoint both sides of this issue.
"I’ve been on the council for now nine years and I think I have a pretty good read on my fellow council members and I knew there was no way any of us were going to approve a five-story project. There had been too much community opposition to it," Rosenthal said. "By the same token I didn’t think it was fair to just say, ‘No we don’t want anything thanks for all the effort' because they’ve spent a lot of time and money."
Rosenthal readily admitted that this might not work for the developer, and his concern was to not turn people away that want to build in Alamo Heights, an older community that hasn’t seen a large construction project in years. Rosenthal noted the fact that on the outskirts of their city on either side were large buildings.
What has emerged from this debate has been two competing narratives of the city. One sees Alamo Heights as a suburb with a small-town feel that is doing fine and has a great school district. The other sees a city that has a hard time holding onto retailers, has a decaying commercial core highlighted by the city’s first title loan outfit, and wants to see young professionals move into the community as they are flocking to developments at the Quarry, the Pearl and Downtown.
Rosenthal said he sees some of the latter:
"I kind of buy into it," he said. "I agree we don’t want payday lenders in here, we’d much rather have a restaurant or something else."
Dwight Lieb, resident and commercial property developer, gave his support to the project in his public comments saying the current structures on the property are dilapidated, in his words a "pile of junk," and a bad introduction to the community. He believes the city is on the wrong path.
"Look around and you can see that," Lieb said. "One of the finest women’s stores used to be in Alamo Heights, one of the finest men’s stores."
San Antonio’s Overland Partners were contracted to design the Alamo Heights Gateway Complex, a 244 unit structure that has shrunk in size by 60 percent and by density by 30 percent according to the company to try and accommodate community outcry related to the project.
Rick Archer was lead architect on the project and gave a comprehensive presentation that lasted over an hour hoping to dispel several of the myths he felt were being circulated by the opposition, as well as those commonly associated with dense developments. From increased stress on the school district, to the size and beyond he attempted to make the case that these types of developments were what the millennial generation wants and where Alamo Heights wants to be.
Several concerns still exist from the project, issues of increased stress on the city’s water infrastructure and what many on both sides have called the fundamental transformation of Alamo Heights.
Brighton Square Condominiums are on an adjacent property to the proposed new development and several Brighton residents spoke in opposition to the project. Many don’t put much stock in the idea that Alamo Heights is declining.
"I don’t believe that it’s in decline. People still see it as a nice spot in San Antonio," said 24 year-old Kayln Davidson, who is now a resident of Brighton Square after finishing college at Incarnate Word. She is considering selling her condo if the project moves forward. One of her chief concerns is area traffic.
"I don’t understand how it can’t add all this traffic to Austin Highway and Broadway when it is already bad and you are adding 200 cars," Davidson said.
Davidson is referring to the developer-sponsored traffic study done by Pape-Dawson Engineers that concluded there would be no impact to traffic. Council Member Dr. Elliot Weser also took issue with the study, saying it was conducted on a single day and questioned its validity.
The council approved an SUP for a complex that was at tallest four floors and would hold no more than 148 units, a number lower than the lowest possible economically viable according to developer Alamo Manhattan. Matt Segrest, president of Alamo Manhattan was noncommittal about the future,
"We’ll have to think about it, evaluate it and see if there is anything there," Segrest said. "I know that everything to date says it probably isn’t feasible, but we’ll study it and see."
Alamo Manhattan will need to communicate if the deal is still viable at the new number of units. If it is the next step will be additional studies for things like flood patterns as well as negotiating the sale of city property.