A review board for the City of Alamo Heights voted Tuesday to recommend the demolition of four structures on a picturesque street in the suburban town, a setback for residents who oppose a proposed development.
Shabby from neglect, the multifamily structures on Katherine Court are decades old but not historic. The owner wants to raze them to make way for a modern two-story apartment building that would span the four lots.
But the residents of this tree-lined street don’t want it and in recent months have banded together to fight what they fear will become housing for college students, changing the quiet and quaint character of the neighborhood.
Blue signs reading “Save Katherine Court!” have popped up in yards. One resident set up a website to keep everyone informed, and another, a former developer, hired an architect to render an alternative design for the development.
They called on the mayor and council members, and since June, they have shown up in force at board meetings and commission hearings to counter requests by developer Trebes Sasser Jr. And on Tuesday evening, when the Architectural Review Board (ARB) heard the developer’s request for demolition, the residents had their own request: vote for a delay.
“Many are praying that the ARB members will be successful in delaying the current process and encouraging developers and neighbors to work together,” said Patience McGuire.
‘Just doesn’t fit’
Katherine Court is a two-tenths of a mile stretch between Broadway Street and North New Braunfels, in close proximity to the University of the Incarnate Word. In the early 1920s, it was known as Country Club Heights, a subdivision built on land purchased from the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word. Several tall palm trees lining the street are original to the development, said resident Jim Loyd.
Located in a multi-family zoned district of Alamo Heights, the residential street is a seamless blend of single-family bungalows and federal-style homes. There are older multifamily homes and some newer townhouses, but even those structures were designed with facades that make them look like homes.
John Feitshans and his wife Elizabeth Yust purchased their home on Katherine Court two years ago as a place to raise their children. Yust works as a pediatric emergency room physician and their neighbors are a retired clergyman and veterans, professors, teachers, and business owners, he said.
“Each street that’s in the multifamily district is completely different,” Feitshans said. “If you go down Harrigan Court, which is one street up from us, there are no single-family homes. For some reason or another, our street has escaped most of the bad development that has taken place over the past 50 or 60 years.”
That is, until now, he said. In a view Feitshans shares with other neighbors on the street, the building Sasser is planning on the four lots he owns “isn’t ugly, it just doesn’t fit with the street.”
He is also worried that he’ll soon be living across the street from something akin to university housing. “One of the residents on our street made the point that if you have college students there, that’s going to be ‘party central’ Friday and Saturday nights, and I just can’t imagine living across the street from that,” Feitshans said.
The religious Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word reside in a 1921 home next door to the proposed development. Sisters Margaret Snyder and Jane Farek attended the ARB hearing. Farek said she hopes the developer will compromise with the residents.
In early September, the Alamo Heights Planning and Zoning Commission and City Council approved rezoning one of the four lots from business to multifamily and replatting as one lot. It was a disappointing ruling for residents, Feitshans said in an email after the meeting.
The development proposed by Sasser and his father, Trebes Sasser Sr., of Ridgemont Properties would be another of many such multifamily properties they own and manage in the area.
The proposed three-story brick and wood structure would have 35 units — 11 two-bedrooms and 24 one-bedroom and studio units. There are 51 off-street parking spaces planned along the back of the property and 10 on-street spaces.
Design plans show a large common-space patio overlooking Katherine Court and several units with patios. The structure would have the required 20-foot setback from the street, according to renderings and documents prepared by the architecture firm CREO.
Sasser said in an email that the development is targeting young professionals, retirees, military personnel, and young families. “These rentals will provide an opportunity for these families and individuals to reside in the highly desirable bedroom community as an alternative to purchasing a home,” he stated.
It will fill a need for more “in-between” scale of multifamily development in Alamo Heights, where most new development is either large-scale (150 units) or very small (three or four units), he said. The project is also designed to “interact with the streetscape” and adjacent properties through pedestrian walk-ups and stoops.
Preliminary documents show the developer will be requesting at least three variances to city code, including one that would increase the allowed units from 27 to 35 and another that would reduce the number of required parking spaces per unit.
The Board of Adjustment will most likely hear the case in November, said Alamo Heights City Manager Buddy Kuhn, and if filing deadlines are met by the developer, council could review the board’s recommendations in December.
The Alamo Heights City Council is sympathetic to the residents’ concerns, Kuhn said. “They really are listening to the residents; they see exactly what they are talking about,” he said. “But what we’re trying to get residents to understand is that there’s a lot of this stuff they really don’t have control over, they just don’t.”
The City of Alamo Heights, which has ordinances based on the Comprehensive City Plan adopted in 2009, also has little control, he added.
“The state legislature has preempted a lot of cities’ ability for local control of different things,” Kuhn said.
One example is legislation passed in 2019 that states municipalities can no longer regulate building materials. “If somebody wanted to build something out of all metal that was red, or purple or whatever, that doesn’t look anything like the neighborhood, our ordinances are preempted by state law on that. So that’s been pretty hard for a lot of people to swallow.”
The rezoning, replatting, and demolition approval aren’t necessarily “points on the board” for the builder to move ahead with his plans. Before variances can be approved, the developer will need to make his case before the board of adjustment that complying with zoning standards will present a hardship.
Once the board of adjustment, which is regulated by the state, makes a decision, the City cannot overturn it. “The only recourse that any resident has to turn over a board of adjustment decision is in district court,” Kuhn said.
The Katherine Court situation is reminiscent to some of the 2015 controversy over a midrise apartment complex built at the corner of Broadway Street and Austin Highway. Alamo Heights residents expressed concerns over the building’s size and density on less than two acres and possible adverse impacts on local water supply, traffic, school resources, and drainage.
In the end, the council approved a special use permit (SUP) that allowed the Magnolia Heights project to move forward but kept a side street open for emergency service access.
Place 1 Councilman Lawson Jessee met with Katherine Court residents about their concerns, which he feels are valid. “The street’s been the same way for a long time [and now] there’s change coming in,” he said. Alamo Heights officials are looking into ways it can help “keep a fraternity house popping up” by regulating parking, he said.
Kuhn also said a traffic study analysis of Katherine Court could help officials determine how to respond to the developer in this case.
‘Pleasant place to live’
Joan Cunningham moved into the neighborhood in 2014 and resides in a triplex next door to the proposed development. “It’s a comfortable and pleasant place to live,” she said, and neighbors are relieved to see something being done with the rundown buildings and weed-filled yards the developer owns and manages.
“Our objections are primarily the complete lack of sensitivity to the rest of the neighborhood, the rest of the street [and] the fact that there has been no attempt at all that we can see to consider the impact to people — as if it’s been designed in a total vacuum,” she said.
Retired real estate developer Jim Loyd, who lives on Katherine Court, decided he could do better. In addition to his concern that the view from his front windows could face a trash dumpster at the end of the one long driveway entrance to the development, he thinks the entire design is out of line with the street.
“Plopping down a large multifamily project in that neighborhood is incompatible with the rest of the neighborhood,” he said, adding it’s more suited to places like the Pearl District or Southtown.
Loyd sketched an alternative proposal with about the same number of units and square footage and commissioned an architect to do the design renderings. The alternative design also establishes a deeper setback from the street, Loyd told Architectural Review Board members at Tuesday’s meeting.
Board Chairman John Gaines reminded the five voting members present Tuesday that the request was not for a compatibility review at this point in the process. “This is a demolition review, and that’s the only thing before us,” he said. Members voted unanimously to recommend demolition approval.
With that request getting a green light, Katherine Court residents said they are now ready to confront the issue over how well the development fits with the homes on the street. “Compatibility is going to be a real battle,” Loyd said.
The two groups plan to meet with the mayor on Thursday. The developer is required to submit final design plans to the ARB before the project can begin.
“I’m receptive to working together and so exactly how that plays out, that’s to be determined,” Sasser said.