Alamo Heights officials and residents are debating two proposals that target a compact piece of prime real estate at the heart of the city, a small plot of land that could help define the future of the upscale community known for its good schools, small town feel, and leafy environs.
A group of hometown landowners want to develop underutilized property at the junction of Austin Highway and Broadway in partnership with Austin-Argyle Residential and an San Antonio’s Overland Partners to build a $30 million, four-story mixed-use midrise.
The proposed investment represents the most dramatic financial investment in Alamo Height’s deteriorating commercial corridor in decades, and would infuse the community with new residential dwellers, retail outlets and tax revenues.
In an eleventh-hour counter-proposal of sorts, an Alamo Heights developer has suggested turning most of the property into a city park.
Amid the process and debate such a development project requires, the City Council in the “City of Beauty of Charm” faces a small but loud group of activists who appear to oppose any kind of multifamily residential development on the property.
For the moment, the city is in a holding pattern as it seeks to answer a key question: Which public entity owns the triangular, sloping sliver of land at that intersection, south of Ausway Lane, a remnant one-block street few would be able to identify by name or location?
Let’s go back a bit: The private property owners, Broadway Ellwood Co., and Austin-based Argyle Residential have proposed a 150-unit apartment complex that is scaled down from the 240-unit project rejected by Alamo Heights City Council on the same location last year. The new plan includes retail space and two stories of underground parking.
The partners on this project spent much of the past year meeting with area residents and small business owners, establishing a set of design and development values that they believed addressed community concerns, yet would still spark redevelopment of the community’s fast-declining commercial corridor. They also believed the majority of Alamo Heights residents — the “silent majority” — favored such thoughtful development.
Broadway Ellwood owns the swath of land between the west-east roads of Ellwood Avenue and Ausway, between Broadway and Austin Highway. Broadway Ellwood also seeks to acquire publicly owned land and right-of-way so it can make the overall footprint of new development more contiguous.
The Argyle project proposes a right-of-way acquisition that involves abandoning Ausway, and closing a part of Ellwood. The Alamo Heights Planning and Zoning Commission was to meet Monday night on this matter, but the project partners asked the city to postpone the public hearing.
That leaves more time for the city, which tasked the Chicago Title Co. to verify ownership of the sliver of land. Mayor Louis Cooper said there are some indications that Bexar County owns the tract, while the right-of-way, where Broadway and Austin Highway meet, belongs to the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT).
After the Broadway Ellwood proposal was made public, Alamo Heights developer Glenn Huddleston of Harper Huddleston Inc. presented his idea for a park on that tract and on an adjacent .1517-acre parcel. Huddleston pledged a cash payment of $100,000 to acquire the two tracts in their current condition, a sum likely to fall short of its current market value as a property suitable for development.
Huddleston said the proposed development could send floodwaters toward the vintage Mobil gas station he owns across the street, which now houses an upscale retail business.
“If ownership of the tract south of Ausway Lane truly is with the county or even TxDOT, Glenn would have to talk with them,” Cooper said last week. “If it is city property, then we’d invite Glenn to make a formal presentation.”
The city faces a larger issue, Cooper said: Does it want to sell its property in the targeted area? If so, what would be a fair price?
Local appraisal firm Stouffer and Associates provided the city and the partners on the mixed-use midrise project with an appraisal for four public tracts on which the partners would want to do their development at Austin Highway and Broadway.
The four public tracts measure a total of .6343 acres, with the adjacent center swath of land owned by Broadway Ellwood, a tract measuring .7303 acres. The appraisers suggested that the value per square foot of the four public parcels be 10% of Broadway-Ellwood’s tract.
That calculates to $3.40 per square foot, a figure that balances he value of the property to the developers and the reality that the odd sliver of land is of little to no value to anyone else. The valuation nonetheless enraged some residents already critical of the new development.. Argyle and its partners say their new development plan has been carefully engineered and would not be in the floodplain – the triangle-shaped tract – and would have minimal impact on neighborhood traffic and schools.
Still, change comes slowly in Alamo Heights and almost all development proposals are met with suspicion by a small but vocal opposition. Even CPS Energy has experienced the wrath of Alamo Heights residents who are convinced the utility’s new “smart meters” present a cancer risk and can be used to gather data and spy on the private lives of residents. Faced with such concerns, CPS Energy executives quickly retreated and declared a moratorium on installations there. Others in the broader metro area mocked the residents’ concerns and the utility’s response.
Several residents in two council meetings and an architectural review board in January railed against the proposal in other ways, saying it is too large for the property and is simply not a good fit for the neighborhood. Other critics say selling public land for a private development is not a good idea.
“It’s not something I cannot get behind. It’s going to be a huge eyesore in the middle of our city,” local realtor Lisa Noble Price said at the Jan. 12 meeting.
“Please consider the negative and positive impacts of this project. I think it’s premature to say this would enhance economic development,” Donna Balin said at the same gathering.
“The developer has nothing to lose by asking for a closure or sale, but residents there have everything to lose. Ellwood is a front door,” Bryan Gray said at the same meeting, referring to a small street that could be abandoned if the project goes forward.
Attendees at the Jan. 26 meeting grew even more frustrated that the council did not officially address Huddleston’s proposal, as it was not a formal item on the meeting agenda.
Resident Kimberly Lubianski said she prefers that city-owned property should be used for public projects, such as Huddleston’s park/greenspace idea.
“The choice to use city-owned land for a park area does not in any way prevent Broadway Ellwood and Argyle Residential from developing the (land) that they currently own,” she said.
Huddleston told the council at its Jan. 26 meeting that he has no qualms with the midrise project partners, and hopes they could bring their idea to fruition. In his letter to the city, Huddleston wrote that he envisions a park at Austin Highway and Broadway as a site for art and craft fairs, temporary public art installations, and small-scale civic events.
“It is my intention that together we will create a heavily landscaped centerpiece for the city of beauty and charm,” he added.
John Burnham, managing director for Argyle, said his firm’s proposed development now only could spur economic redevelopment in the city, but it could make the Austin Highway/Broadway area more walkable and livable.
“It’s a meaningful building. We do have a mindset of compromise about our plan, but it was very thoughtfully put together,” Burnham said, adding that it carefully follows what the city’s comprehensive plan suggests for the area.
Burnham also believes Huddleston’s park idea could only be bolstered by the development of a concept such as the one his company currently envisions for the center of Alamo Heights.
“I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive, but for that land to be truly useable, I firmly feel our project needs to go forward,” he added.
While the Argyle proposal has been criticized by residents in meetings, only a few individuals have spoken out publicly in support of the project. One is Perry Donop, who owns commercial property across from the targeted land. He also backed the Alamo Manhattan project. Additionally, Lawson Jessee, a professional and homeowner in his 20s, expressed support for both proposals.
The project’s partners hope to encourage more of their backers into the public eye. Late last week they unveiled a website, www.progressforalamoheights.com, which lays out how the development would benefit the community. The website addresses residents’ questions about the development’s impact on flooding, parking, local schools and traffic.
“A great deal of misinformation about the proposed development for the corner of Broadway and Austin Highway is being circulated throughout our community,” representatives of Broadway Ellwood wrote in a Jan. 30 letter posted on the website. “We wanted to take this opportunity to provide you with the facts.”
“A majority of people likes the idea of what we’re doing. We just haven’t seen them come out to meetings,” Burnham said.
*Featured/top image: This photo taken last week, looking east on Ellwood Avenue, captures part of the land (right) where the four-story, 150-unit apartment complex would sit. On the left are the Brighton Square condominiums. Many condo residents have expressed worry about the proposed development, note the red yard signs in front of the condos on the left, where some tenants are voicing their opposition. Courtesy photo.