Bekah S. McNeel

The proposal to build a dense, pedestrian and bike friendly urban complex in ’09 and thus extending the redevelopment of Broadway to the north into Alamo Heights, is probably dead.

After another marathon session of harshly divided “citizens to be heard” on Monday, Jan. 13, the council voted 3-2 to approve an amended specific-use permit (SUP) which did not provide an obvious path forward for Overland Partners and Alamo Manhattan’s $30 million project.

In what appears to be a game of “chicken” with developers (or perhaps “limbo” is the more appropriate party game, as in, “how low can you go?”), the City Council has whittled the project down from its original intent, and simple cost analysis may send Alamo Manhattan packing.

On that note: If Alamo Manhattan would like a list of Bexar County’s development-friendly environments, I can think of some people who would be glad to provide them.

The amendments were proposed by Councilman Bobby Rosenthal, who stated that he suspected the SUP request was doomed in the form requested by the developer. He wanted to keep the conversation open, while addressing concerns from the community, and thus presented, in his words, “a compromise.” The compromise drastically lessens the approved height and density of the project. It remains to be seen if that will appease the opposed citizens, and whether the architects and developer can devise an economically viable way forward within the new parameters.

“In a perverse way, based upon my mediation experience…I hope that everyone in attendance is displeased with this proposal,” said Rosenthal.

Councilman Dr. Elliot Weser called the motion to amend the SUP a “hasty, last-ditch, and disastrous idea.”

Councilman Bobby Hasslocher also opposed both the amendment and the passage of the amended SUP, saying, “[The developer] already said they couldn’t go any smaller.”

Alamo Heights Gateway. Image courtesy of Overland Partners
Alamo Heights Gateway. Image courtesy of Overland Partners

Weser and Hasslocher, who seemed opposed to the project under any terms, wanted a once-and-for-all vote based on the developer’s requests as presented to the Planning and Zoning Commission last week.

The other three members of the council seemed more open to amended proposals.

Alamo Manhattan had requested 11 variances from the current zoning. The amended SUP calls for a shorter, less dense development with setbacks along Broadway and Ellwood St. The developer will be required to work with city landscapers.

Councilman Fred Prassel proposed an amendment to the amendment that would provide a handful of parking spaces that were larger than the rest, citing the length of his personal pickup truck as a gauge for necessary space size.

At one point Robert’s Rules of Order ran slightly amok, and it took the council some time to figure out exactly what they were amending and voting for or against. Once they sorted it out, the amended SUP passed.

When asked if this amended SUP was workable, or whether the City Council might as well have voted “no,” lead architect Rick Archer of Overland Partners and developer Matt Segrest of Alamo Manhattan had little comment.

“We’ve got to think about it. This is a public/private partnership,” said Segrest.

“The question is: how do we move forward with the city? We’re not clear on that,” said Archer.

Earlier in the evening the “citizens to be heard” fell along a spectrum of intensity in their support and opposition.

The vast majority of the technical concerns has already been addressed by lead architect Rick Archer in his opening presentation. Many citizens, including Councilman Prassel, stated that they simply did not believe the architects’ and engineers’ claims to mitigate flooding, exhaust, and parking concerns. Many were unconvinced that mixed-use development would actually spur revitalization or that it would not place a burden on the school district.

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

In addition to these technical concerns were the earnest desires of citizens who want Alamo Heights to stay the way it is. They say that they don’t oppose progress, they just don’t want to lose what they love about their neighborhood.

Some said that they didn’t see the retail along Broadway as diminished, and insisted that commercial Alamo Heights still served their needs. Most of these were older citizens, though the small town feel did appeal to Bettina Perez, a newlywed who recently moved to Alamo Heights from her small hometown.

“Do you want to keep it the beautiful ,charming, small town Alamo Heights?” asked Perez.

Others were concerned about the precedent set by allowing developers to skirt the zoning requirements by obtaining SUPs. They cited current zoning as a protection against unmitigated development up and down Broadway.

“We’re going to be putting the fox in charge of the henhouse,” said Janet Hans.

Setting a precedent was also on the minds of those in favor of the SUP. They wanted to set the precedent that development is welcome in Alamo Heights. Turning away Alamo Manhattan may cause other developers to steer clear of the vacant, high profile property.

The prevailing discourse among supporters of the SUP was summarized by citizen David Hornberger.

“Don’t let fear tell you what to do,” Hornberger said.

Other young people expressed a desire to see bold and progressive development similar to what is happening just a couple of miles south on Broadway. In their estimation, Alamo Heights is being passed by the city center and quickly losing its appeal. They blamed an overly cautious approach to change.

This frustration with excessive caution was shared by long time members of the community as well.

“We need to get off our heels and onto our toes and stop resting on our fading laurels,” said Ken Bentley.

Also in support of the project were many from the business community, as well as principal architects Boone Powell from Ford, Powell, & Carson and Lowell Tacker of OCO Architects.

And that, in this writer’s opinion, gets at the heart of the disagreement. Looking at the same city, people see different things. Some were persuaded by the expertise of the architects and engineers. Others simply do not believe them.

There’s a difference in interpretation. Some see the support of architects and developers as an indictment; some see it as a commendation. Some see density as a boon; some see it as a threat. Some see young people as an ephemeral demographic that comes and goes while shopping online. Some see them as one of the pillars of a vibrant community. Some see new, bold, even aggressive development as necessary to jump-start development. Some see it as a threat to all that is good about the status quo.

Some think Alamo Heights needs to change. Some think it’s great the way it is. Some think it needs change…just not this kind of change.

More meetings will determine what other road blocks await the project as they seek to purchase public land and move forward. It’s possible that with the amended SUP, the ship has sailed on a project that would actually accomplish the visual and economic catalyst originally envisioned.

“You can build some pretty bad buildings under code,” Overland Partners’ principal Bob Shemwell said.

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.

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.