Alamo Heights is known by its 7,547 residents and anyone who drives through the leafy small town as the “city of beauty and charm.” Some deride its general affluence and lack of diversity, but the quiet municipality doesn’t quite fit the stereotypes. It’s home to some of the metro area’s best public schools with a diverse student body, neighborhoods with modest bungalows and cottages, and its own a stretch of Broadway dotted with small family-owned businesses.
Part of the town’s beauty and charm has been its resistance to change and its preservation of community, except for a spate when City Council allowed period homes to be demolished and mature hardwoods to be felled to accommodate construction of oversized residences squeezed on to small lots.
These days there is clamor for change in Alamo Heights, with expectations that the local municipality’s elected leadership will adopt policies designed to revitalize the commercial corridor and encourage new residential growth. A growing number of residents and merchants see untapped potential that city officials have been slow to leverage. It’s a sense driven by the influx of mixed-use and higher-end residential developments to the north around Alamo Quarry Market and, more dramatically, to the south down Broadway and the Pearl.
Alamo Heights residents have moved past last year’s often contentious debate over a proposed multi-story apartment complex in the heart of the city. Alamo Manhattan pulled the plug on its plan for the development at Broadway and Austin Highway, but Argyle Residential awaits the completion of floodplain reviews and the resolution of property ownership issues to proceed with its project there.
Months of divisive quarreling and public meetings convinced officials that city codes need to be updated to welcome multi-family and commercial projects that complement the city’s look and feel. City officials want to revitalize the town’s declining stretch of the Broadway commercial corridor, but in ways that are safe, sustainable and consistent with Alamo Heights’ existing small-town atmosphere.
Editor’s Note: The Rivard Report was notified on Monday that the University of Texas at San Antonio will host two public meetings/exhibits on Wednesday and Thursday to unveil architectural proposals for the Broadway Street corridor in Alamo Heights by architecture, construction, and planning students studying under UTSA Assistant Professor Antonio Petrov. The students “will present their many researched-based strategies and individual architectural propositions – in the forms of scale models, designs, and other material – that they have work on over the Fall 2015 semester to local citizens, scholars, and officials.” The first event – part public meeting and part exhibition – will take place at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 9, at the Alamo Heights Fire Station, 6116 Broadway Street. The event will be repeated at 6 p.m. at Brick in the Blue Star Arts Complex, 1414 S. Alamo St. building # 108. “Two nights of the same event, but in completely different venues that will attract very different people,” said UTSA spokesperson Nicole Chavez. Click here for details.
The movement is gradual but coming. The first step came Nov. 9 when the City Council voted to modify the local building code that could transform Broadway from Burr Road north to Albany Street into a more pedestrian-friendly sector.
Revisions for new multi-family structures include having zero setbacks between the buildings’ exterior and the sidewalk. City codes also call for such new developments to include 10-foot wide sidewalks and 5-foot wide planter spaces for trees. New multi-family projects also will have to include street-level retail.
While opposition to the Alamo Manhattan and Argyle mid-rise projects was not insignificant, the notion of having a high-end, mixed-use rental community in the middle of Alamo Heights appeals to two groups: long-time residents who like the idea of downsizing from family homes, and Millennials and young families who want the amenities of Alamo Heights, but can’t afford a traditional single family residence.
Mayor Louis Cooper said the right type of multi-family projects would re-energize Alamo Heights.
“Our kids are grown up. We’d like to be able to downsize, but there’s no place right now in Alamo Heights that we could move,” Cooper said. “Younger folks are upsizing and older folks like myself are downsizing.”
Cooper acknowledged that the lack of updated development codes worked against Alamo Manhattan, and then Argyle, when they sought approval for their respective multi-story apartment projects. The height and mass of the buildings, even with numerous reductions and revisions, drew negative reactions from some residents and city leaders who seemed unable to imagine buildings different than the existing stock.
Ultimately, Alamo Manhattan decided its project was no longer financially viable. When Argyle stepped into the picture, that developer also secured variances for its project.
“Because there was essentially no code, (developers) could ask the Council for anything,” said Cooper. The recent update of multi-family development codes will provide developers with clearer guidelines, he said, and protect nearby residents and merchants. “We don’t know if it’s all a perfect fit right now, but we’ve taken the fear that has existed off the table.”
Community debate over the development at Broadway and Austin Highway has triggered several side discussions in social circles. Supporters of more high-end rental/multi-family properties believe that style of developments will spark economic revitalization and make the town more walkable and livable.
Cooper said Alamo Heights is now set to update its commercial development codes, making it easier for current commercial land and building owners to improve their properties and make them more appealing to new or relocating businesses.
Advocates for the pending Argyle development say they look forward to new small businesses opening on the property, and that Argyle’s envisioned infrastructure improvements around its property will make the streets more pedestrian and bike friendly.
Elizabeth Lyons, marketing and public relations manager for the Casa Rio family of restaurants, is a multi-generational resident who rents a home not far from H-E-B Central Market. Alamo Heights could learn from the more pedestrian and bike-friendly environments found at the Pearl, in Southtown and Monte Vista, she said. With Broadway rapidly redeveloping north toward Hildebrand Avenue, Alamo Heights could leverage its superior public schools, low crime rate, small town ambience and near-downtown location to attract a new generation of residents.
Lyons sees a slow shift in mindsets.
“Alamo Heights is a very generational neighborhood. For a generation or two, it was the norm to go to a college like (University of Texas at Austin) or (Texas) A&M, come back and then your kids did the same,” Lyons said. “That has shifted. Millennials are looking for fresh culture, more walkable neighborhoods.”
Lyons supports preserving the small town’s “beauty and charm,” and does not see a Pearl-like development in the town’s future. Balanced growth is the answer, she said, which will require an effort to overcome the negative publicity that grew out of the fighting over the Alamo Manhattan and Argyle projects..
“I think (the debate) was a lot of hoopla over nothing,” she said. “We should have a conversation about these things rather than a battle.”
Lyons is concerned about Alamo Heights; elected leaders pondering a ban on short-term rentals. Some residents oppose Airbnb, HomeAway and the growing shared economy, even though the availability of such services within the city limits is limited. The notion strikes Lyons and others as more fear of any change among a minority. The services, proponents say, can introduce newcomers to San Antonio to the virtues of Alamo Heights.
AirBnB and HomeAway hosts in Alamo Heights pride themselves on offering quality accommodations. One HomeAway user said her great-grandparents built her Craftsman-style cottage more than 100 years ago, preceding Alamo Heights’ incorporation. The quaint cottage sits on a quiet street just a short walk from Central Market and nearby restaurants and businesses. Past guests have left positive reviews. An AirBnB host describes her guest house as a charming sanctuary a short walk from Local Coffee and Bike World. Guests there also report positive reviews.
The City currently has codes only relating to home-run businesses. No bed and breakfasts exist in City limits due to zoning.
Mayor Cooper said the City has not received complaints from residents about short-term rentals. He said the issue is not a high priority for Alamo Heights.
Local business owners Robby Grubbs of Local Coffee and Cindi Snell of Bike World love what the Alamo Heights community provides. Local Coffee has three locations, including its venue in former Bike World space on Broadway. The open wall between Local Coffee and Bike World on Broadway creates a sense of community, consumers say. Local Coffee has become a popular hangout for local college students to meet and study.
Grubbs recalls his initial interest in the area.
“It was the only place in San Antonio, back then, that seemed to have potential walkability between restaurants, shops and coffee shops. It was a front-yard community,” Grubbs said.
Grubbs opened his first Local Coffee shop in Stone Oak and it was an instant hit. Still, he could not wait to open a second location in a place with a stronger sense of community. Time and good fortune was on his side as Cindi Snell and her husband, Bike World co-founder Whit Snell, who also had opened shops at Loop 1604 near Blanco Road, and at the Pearl, decided to downsize their presence in the Broadway building.
“Alamo Heights people got used to us being together pretty quick,” Grubbs said.
“Local Coffee coming to this location was a game-changer,” Cindi Snell said. Grubbs and Snell agree the City would benefit by providing infrastructure improvements to promote a more bike and pedestrian-friendly culture. Even with the 30 mph speed limit, Grubbs said pedestrians and cyclists must use extra caution in Alamo Heights.
“You have people going across the street to places like Bird Bakery or Paloma Blanca, but it is a dangerous intersection,” he said. “I look forward to the city progressing. The most advantageous thing it could do is create a way for more walking and cycling.”
“A lot of the street improvements I’m thinking of are not that expensive, like more striping to help drivers and cyclists,” Snell said. “I know paint isn’t cheap, but I think it can be done. Signals for drivers to slow down and let people cross, that can help. It would be so much fun if more people were on their feet or cycling.”
Businesses could promote a bike-friendly atmosphere by installing bike racks for visitors, and offering incentives for employees to bike to work. Snell, who served as the volunteer executive director of San Antonio B-Cycle, said the bike share program changed the way San Antonio looks at cycling.
“Alamo Heights does need to get itself on a fast track,” she said.
Longtime resident and former council member Bill Kiel sits on the Commercial Code Committee that will recommend code revisions for future commercial and multifamily development. Updated development codes should stimulate the renovation of existing apartment complexes and retail properties.
“Many of us would love to see more restaurants and other small business in the city as much as we’d love to see more quality multi-family developments,” Kiel said.
Broadway is so wide it’s “a waste of real estate,” Kiel said. With cooperation from property owners, a road diet reducing lane widths would result in more sidewalks, street parking and space to plant shade trees.
“We envision something making it palatable to walk across Broadway,” he added.
City officials will have to work with officials at the Texas Department of Transportation since Broadway remains designated as Loop 368 and a state roadway, but that is already happening farther south on Broadway where TXDOT and San Antonio are working to have the state’s portion of the street deeded over to the city.
“That would be a big financial obligation,” Kiel added.
Kiel said it could take years to realize the full potential of Broadway through Alamo Heights as a walkable, sustainable community. Whatever needs to happen, he said, it needs to starts now.
“There has to be more than codes, there has to be a vision of what the city should be and look like,” he said.
*Top image: Local Coffee’s neon sign that faces Broadway Street. Photo by Scott Ball.