Bekah S. McNeel

Driving through Alamo Heights the other day (as I do whenever I need groceries and basic goods), my husband and I saw a new yard sign on a couple of front lawns. This form of protest is prevalent in Alamo Heights’ neighborhoods, but this one was new to us.

“No highrises.”

Highrise? Where? And why not?

Here’s what we found out:

Alamo Heights Gateway is a proposed mixed-use development at the intersection of Austin Highway and Broadway. It is the kind of development that would warm the heart of Jane Jacobs and Jeff Speck. Retail on the bottom floor to create vibrant sidewalk life, concentrated public space with clear boundaries, and the creation of a “complete street” with the possibility for more.

Site plan for Alamo Heights Gateway. Image courtesy of Overland Partners
Site plan for Alamo Heights Gateway. Image courtesy of Overland Partners

If completed, the project would provide a high-profile precedent for the benefits of mixed-use development. Such a case study could be a boon to other neighborhoods debating the same options.

Most notably, these would be the first new apartments within the city limits of Alamo Heights in 44 years.

Also news to me was that a “highrise” is technically any building over 75 feet tall, roughly six residential stories. In response to community concern over the size of the project, Alamo Heights Gateway has reduced their scope from 85 feet and 244 units to 58 feet and 165 units. So it’s no longer, technically, a “highrise” – which is unfortunate for the opposing yard signs.

The developer maintains that further cuts to the height would compromise the viability of retail space on the ground level, which is crucial to the success of the project. Drawing shoppers and diners to fill vibrant, bustling sidewalks is essential to creating a village feel.

“I think it’s critical that it’s a mixed-use project,” said Rick Archer, an Alamo Heights resident and principal at Overland Partners, the architects of the development.

Current view of Broadway and Austin Hwy. Photo courtesy of Overland Partners
Current view of Broadway and Austin Hwy. Photo courtesy of Overland Partners

Currently, the site is home to a few vacant single family homes, all of which have fallen into disrepair as they sit, rendered practically unusable by the unwieldy block structure between Ellwood Street and Ausway Lane, where traffic comes whizzing off of Austin Highway.

Rick Archer, FAIA, LEED AP
Rick Archer, FAIA, LEED AP

So the developer, Dallas-based Alamo Manhattan, wants to build something usable across from the little traffic-island park.

Alamo Manhattan is working with local architects Overland Partners and asking for a lot of community feedback on the design and retail tenants. They have a vested interest in making something people like to use because that’s how they will make money – it’s good business to make things that people like to use.

So what’s to oppose?

Activists opposing the project have raised a full slate of concerns, some more critical than others. Flood control, parking and shading issues are challenges that mixed-use developments have been overcoming for decades all over the world. Archer explained that most of the issues are resolved in the design of the buildings and feels confident that his firm can design an underground garage with flood controls for the 100-year flood plain.

Other issues offer a clearer look at what is driving the opposition: distaste for density, neighborhood character and what can only be called “architectural acrophobia.”

Alamo Heights calls itself the “City of Charm and Beauty.” Known for its good schools and cradle-to-grave community, the city has been rather loathe to change anything that could interfere with that reputation.

They don’t want to be hip. They want to be charming.

However, times are changing around them, and Alamo Heights now has a notable attrition rate to show for it. The population of Alamo Heights is lower than it was in 1950, and businesses have been leaving as well. While one could hardly call it a city in decline, falling population is an indicator of trouble.

Alamo Gateway
Alamo Heights Gateway (southeast facing view). Image courtesy of Overland Partners

For many years now, the conventional wisdom was that Alamo Heights schools were the only good public schools inside Loop 410. I’ve heard plenty of people cite that wisdom as “the only reason we moved to Alamo Heights.”  But now, with the rise of charters within SAISD, that distinction is fading quickly.

Southtown has stabilized into a huge magnet for empty-nesters and young professionals who might have once stayed in Alamo Heights by default. And now it’s getting a grocery store. These changes spell competition for a city that doesn’t like to get in the fray.

But it might be that Archer’s greatest battle will be overcoming the little city’s fear of tall buildings.

“The places we love have buildings of height,” Archer said.

He cites cities from Paris, France, to Fredericksburg that have notable, tall buildings giving definition to the main thoroughfares. Far from “looming,” these buildings gently signal prosperity and gravitas. Driving through Alamo Heights right now, that’s not the story the buildings are telling.

With high tenant turnover giving way to things like payday lenders, retail spaces along Broadway are starting to look like a series of low-brow strip malls.

Archer explains that Alamo Heights Gateway neatly fits within the Alamo Heights Comprehensive Plan, a road map for the future of the city that enjoys wide support, but was never codified. The plan anticipates more height, multi-family housing, and live/work space that the current zoning allows. At the Jan. 6 hearing before the Alamo Heights Planning and Zoning Commission Archer and Alamo Manhattan will make the case that the development merits a special use permit to overcome its current zoning restrictions. The project has the unanimous endorsement of the Alamo Heights Architectural Review Board.

Citizens can lend their voice to supporting the project online. Public support can go a long way in what is, inevitably, a political fight.  Many communities have been devastated by exploitative and irresponsible projects, pushed through by outside interests. So it’s not without reason that when it comes to redevelopment – especially along the edges of neighborhoods – dialogue is derailed by guerrilla activism. The unfortunate result of which is that those developers who do seek community input in good faith often find themselves confronted with campaigns of misinformation and shock-and-awe tactics. I’ve seen it in my neighborhood. You might have seen it in yours.

Marrying progress and tradition is a tricky subject. Like all good marriages, it requires healthy compromise. But like carriages and phone booths there is a fine line between charm and irrelevance, and hopefully this vital link along the Broadway corridor will find its place on the better side of the line.

Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey, and is a frequent contributor to the Rivard Report. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.