In 2022, the community in Alamo Heights marked its centennial year as an incorporated city. There was a celebratory parade, history displays, sports events and hors d’oeuvres on the lawn of The Argyle club.
Throughout neighborhoods in the municipal enclave north of downtown San Antonio, signs went up denoting the approximately 200 homes that were built at least 100 years ago.
But the affluent city of 7,400 residents, known for its good schools and upscale businesses, is also experiencing the loss of its older homes to buyers who want to demolish smaller dwellings and replace them with larger new homes.
Now in an effort to save older homes from potential demolition, some residents are looking for that city to establish historic districts within Alamo Heights’ two-square-mile boundaries.
The City of San Antonio has designated 32 historic districts in San Antonio. Historic districts are areas containing structures or sites that have historical, architectural, archaeological or cultural significance, or that contribute to the characteristics of a landmark, according to the city’s Office of Historic Preservation.
Accordingly, structures in historic districts are protected from hasty demolitions.
San Antonio’s ordinance requires that a historic district designation must be supported by at least 51% of the area property owners. King William, designated in 1968, was the first residential historic district in Texas.
“One of the reasons people have wanted historic districts over the last 100 years is that they preserve their value, they preserve their investment that they’ve made in their home or in some cases in their business,” said Vincent Michael, executive director of the Conservation Society of San Antonio.
While San Antonio is a sprawling metropolitan area where ordinances don’t apply in its many municipal enclaves like Alamo Heights, no matter how historic, the Conservation Society doesn’t operate with such hard boundaries.
“We’ve given [preservation] awards in these communities,” Michael said.
In recent years, the organization has worked to promote the value of historic district designations to local municipalities, Michael said, such as Olmos Park which, unlike Alamo Heights and Terrell Hills, does not have an architectural review board or process.
“It would be a shame to lose” some of the homes in Alamo Heights, Michael said.
But such losses are occurring at a pace that concerns some residents of the city where homes were first built in the 1890s.
In the last five years, more than 75 houses in the area have been razed or approved for demolition, according to Sarah Reveley, who used city documents to map the razed structures and raise awareness of the issue.
In addition to historic homes — structures that are more than 50 years old, retain their character and are connected to historic events or people — Alamo Heights also features dwellings designed by noted architects like O’Neil Ford clustered on streets like Patterson Avenue and Cambridge Oval.
The widespread demolition of homes was not a problem before 2019, Reveley said. The longtime Alamo Heights resident lives in the cottage district of Alamo Heights, a collection of about 40 mostly Craftsman-style homes built between the 1920s and ’40s.
The issue is so important to Reveley, a retired professor of interior design, that she decided to run for Alamo Heights City Council, with her main issue being the establishment of historic districts. She faces attorney Karl Baker, a member of the city’s Architectural Review Board, for the vacant place 2 seat.
It wasn’t until the state Legislature passed a law in 2019 that restricted a municipality’s authority to regulate building materials or limit teardowns that the demolitions began to add up, she said.
“All of a sudden, the developers just pounced upon us,” said Reveley.
Builders razed homes that she asserts were in good condition, replacing them with structures she regards as out of scale and character for the neighborhood.
“That’s one nice thing about Alamo Heights — all these houses have always been kept up,” she said. “Alamo Heights has always been lovely and we want to keep it that way.”
In November 2022, a coalition of residents attending the centennial event at the private Argyle club decided to form a nonprofit to advocate for historic districts. Michael Carroll is president of the Alamo Heights Historical Association and Reveley serves as a committee chairwoman.
“While AHHA … does not endorse any specific political initiative, we are very concerned with the destruction of the cultural heritage of Alamo Heights, a unique community which dates to the latter nineteenth century,” Carroll said in an emailed statement.
“AHHA encourages anyone who is planning to build a new house in Alamo Heights by razing an existing structure to consider that they are destroying a part of that which attracted them to this area.”
‘Charm of the city’
Demolition requests in Alamo Heights are considered by the Architectural Review Board, an advisory group that sends its recommendations to the six-member City Council.
The board makes most of its recommendations according to existing building codes and zoning criteria.
Between 2018 and 2023, the board approved 100% of the demolition requests it reviewed. Of those, just one was approved “with modifications,” according to city documents.
In addition, the board gave the green light to nearly 70% of requests for review of design compatibility — to ensure harmony with the existing neighborhood — with 32% approved with modifications.
John Gaines is chairman of the seven-member Architectural Review Board in Alamo Heights.
“For the most part, the demolitions that occur are really appropriate,” Gaines said. “Either the particular structure is in disrepair or has problems with it structurally or it doesn’t really meet the capacity of the lot.”
Gaines said he could think of only one demolition request in his decade on the board that he didn’t want to support. “And that actually ended up not happening,” he said.
As for maintaining the character of Alamo Heights, Gaines said the city has “every kind of architectural design imaginable … and that’s part of the charm of the city.”
In Alamo Heights, the median list price of homes is $734,500, according to the home sales site Realtor.com, or $340 per square foot, almost twice that of San Antonio, which comes in at $168 per square foot.
Prices on active listings range between $224,000 for a two-bedroom apartment to $4 million for a multi-level, three-bedroom house overlooking Olmos Dam.
New-build, spec homes are rarely found in Alamo Heights.
Gaines said he has bought and renovated one home in Alamo Heights, removing the asbestos siding, and bought and razed another in order to build a custom home.
“This was not a significant house — it was really in bad shape,” Gaines said. His new house, built in a French cottage style, is different from every other home on the street, but still fits in with the neighborhood and adds value to the community, he said.
Revamping the board
Prior to 2019, the Architectural Review Board “had some teeth,” when it came to having input on design and teardowns, said Alamo Heights City Manager Buddy Kuhn. That changed with the passage of Texas House Bill 2439.
At the request of the City Council, in February, Kuhn gave a briefing to the council about potential changes to the architectural review board process and ordinance.
Maintaining and promoting the city’s character is one priority of the potential code revisions.
“We are trying to revamp our ordinance to strengthen and give our architecture review board some additional say,” Kuhn said.
But that does not necessarily mean the city will pursue historic districts in Alamo Heights, he said, despite a comprehensive plan developed in 2008 that mentions adopting a historic district designation process. That came about before Kuhn was hired by the city in 2009, he said.
The City Council has not said it is opposed to designating historic districts, “but we just haven’t had any discussions about it,” Kuhn said, adding a public input process would also be needed.
Council candidate Baker said he is not opposed to historic districts in Alamo Heights.
“If I was going to support a historic district, it would have to have the broad support of the homeowners that would be affected by it,” he said. But Baker would like to see more effort put into preserving the existing homes and neighborhood character, and historic designations are just one tool to do that.
Revising the city code to offer incentives to property owners might be another way to promote compatibility in development without running afoul of state laws, he said.
For instance, if a design plan is found to be consistent and compatible with the neighborhood, that might make it eligible for a “bonus” in its floor-area ratio formula — the ratio between the floor area of the building and the lot size — and provide the city with a way to manage density.
Real estate agent Ann Van Pelt said she is a strong believer in preservation and finds some of the new construction in Alamo Heights to be “quite dreadful.”
But she thinks residents would push back against designating historic districts in Alamo Heights because of concerns over the impact on their property values.
The Monte Vista resident also said Alamo Heights can’t be compared to her neighborhood, a historic district where the homes had not been altered to a great degree before it was designated in 1975.
Attitudes toward the city and its character are different there as well.
“Alamo Heights is all about, ‘We have the best school district in the world, we are this, we are that,’” she said. “In Monte Vista, that’s not what we talk about. We talk about the value of the historic district itself.”
A recent poll on the NextDoor app asked residents whether they supported historic districts in Alamo Heights. A number of comments leaned in favor of the measure while others stated that just because a home is old, that doesn’t make it historic.
One commenter feared that without some protections in place, a developer could buy the Alamo Heights Swimming Pool to build “eyesores” there.
But another called the designation of historic districts a slippery slope, which could make it more expensive for property owners to remodel homes and result in dilapidated and uninhabitable houses in the neighborhood.
As Alamo Heights enters the first year of its second centennial, Kuhn said he can’t recall another time in the city’s history that anyone has proposed historic districts there, except for when a resident proposed naming a single street as historic.
“The council did not have the appetite to do that,” he said.