The 12-member Alamo Heights City Planning & Zoning Commission voted Monday evening to approve a Specific Use Permit (SUP) that will allow The Argyle to construct a parking lot on land zoned for residential use.
If approved by the City Council at its regular Nov. 13 meeting, the 2-acre lot at 423 Argyle Ave. will become a 28-space parking lot for the club’s employees.
Located at the corner of Argyle and Patterson avenues in the oldest part of Alamo Heights, The Argyle is a membership-based organization that operates as an event center and social welfare organization supporting the Texas Biomedical Research Institute.
Membership in The Argyle requires an initial and annual contribution to Texas Biomed, which leases the historic building, land, and parking lot to the club for $6,000 a year. Members contribute $3 million annually to Texas Biomed.
Texas Biomed purchased the land next to The Argyle in 2009 and shortly after demolished the 1950s-era home that once occupied the property overlooking the Olmos Basin. It is one of four lots on a cul-de-sac at the west end of Argyle Avenue and sits adjacent to the home John and Carolyn Seals purchased in 2000.
Built into the hillside to take advantage of the views west, the Seals’ 2,300-square-foot home is considered one of the best examples of modern mid-century residential architecture in San Antonio. At 77, the Seals consider it their retirement home “oasis.”
The proposed employee parking lot, planners say, would reduce parking along the residential streets surrounding the club and supplement limited parking on the north side of the Argyle’s property and on an undeveloped lot belonging to a nearby homeowner. Plans for the parking lot also include a new storage and kitchen support structure.
When the Seals’ daughter, Chesley, spoke against the project, neighbors told her, “’It’s [The Argyle’s] land and they can do with it what they want. It’s a done deal,’” she said. “Our frustration is that we had no voice. No one would listen to us.”
The Seals took their concerns about the parking lot to the Planning & Zoning meeting Monday night. “Consider yourself in my place and consider if you would vote for a commercial parking lot in your front yard,” John Seals told the commission. He cited a long list of concerns that included air, noise, and light pollution, the potential for loitering and crime, as well as the impact of a parking lot on property values.
“With all the traffic and congestion, this will, without a doubt, transform the ambiance of that street as it exists today,” he said. “We bought it as a retirement home … and now we’re faced with the prospect of living in an industrial and commercial thoroughfare.”
According to Alamo Heights City ordinance, a SUP can be authorized only for off-street parking for property owned by institutions of a religious or philanthropic nature in single-family districts of the city. A land use attorney representing the Seals argued against the SUP, saying The Argyle has a charitable mission, but is ultimately a business.
John Oberman, Argyle president and Texas Biomed founding board member emeritus, defended the process by which The Argyle approached the project. “We knew this would be difficult for all our neighbors, so when we first began planning it, we made a list of all the things we could do to make it better,” he said.
That includes building a 12-foot wall at a setback of 7 feet from the property line, he said, planting fast-growing shrubs in the landscape, and positioning the entrance and exits to the parking lot as far from the neighbor’s property as possible.
Don McDonald, a local architect who designed the parking lot and also worked on the Seals’ home remodel, said the solid stucco barrier will be 14 feet on the high side to reduce the noise and light pollution from cars in the lot. “The idea is to keep it dark and quiet all around,” he said.
An outdoor employee break area will be located in the lot 140 feet from the shared property line. The Argyle employs 50 people, with groups of about 30 rotating in three shifts. McDonald said he is especially sensitive to the project given he remodeled the Seals’ home. “Honestly, we feel we’re doing everything we can,” he said.
Oberman said Monday that The Argyle canvassed all homeowners within 200 feet of the property and found that 11 supported the plan and one opposed it. Chesley Seals responded that she lives only a block away from The Argyle but was not contacted.
“I understand they have so much support because no one is affected by this but my parents,” she said. “The Argyle swoops in and buys this property. It’s a free market, but there are laws. There’s Planning and Zoning. I feel this was ramrodded down our throats … I understand a residence [built on the property] would be taller than a wall but is still 100 times more preferable over this. [Oberman] has not talked to my parents. There’s been no collaboration.”
The Seals contend the first time they heard about plans for a parking lot was when Oberman was walking the property and mentioned to Carolyn Seals that funding had suddenly been secured. Both sides disputed the purpose and scope of a Sept. 7 meeting to discuss the plans with neighboring residents.
“I’m a firm believer of property rights on both sides, but when you acquire a property within the vicinity of a commercial enterprise, you know what you’re getting into, or you should,” said Al Honigblum, who serves on the Planning & Zoning commission. He added that the City often sees the reverse of this case – in which someone wants to build on an existing parking lot. “And if they have met the necessary requirements to build those buildings … we’ve allowed that.”
Honigblum told the Seals that if he was in their place he “would have tried like hell” to buy the property when it was on the market. The Seals responded that they, in fact, made an offer to purchase the property at the asking price, hoping to create a sculpture garden there, but Texas Biomed outbid them.
Honigblum said he feels The Argyle is “a responsible neighbor that will do what is right,” and also challenged the Seals’ assertion that the decision to build a parking lot next to their lot had already been approved. “It’s not a done deal until the recommendation is put forward to City Council, and the Council approves it … ,” he said. “So regardless of what people said to you, it’s not a done deal.
“I believe that Texas Biomed and The Argyle have gone through the proper channels to acquire, to determine the need, to determine their wants, and now are trying to do the execution of what they have the right – should this board and the City Council and the ARB [Architecture Review Board] approve it – to use that property for,” Honiglum said.
Prior to the final vote, Planning & Zoning Commission Chair Lori Becknell asked City Attorney Michael Brenan whether zoning commissioners who are members of The Argyle could legally vote on the matter due to a potential for conflict of interest. Honigblum was the only commissioner who identified himself as a member of The Argyle.
Brenan responded that because there was no financial gain to being an Argyle member, City rules would not prevent Honigblum from voting. The vote to approve the SUP was unanimous.
“I have to say I’ve walked that cul-de-sac for 30 years and it used to look like a dump,” Becknell said. “I think [this] will not only enhance the neighborhood, but also increase property values around there. It will look finished, not like a back parking lot, more like a park. That’s just a ‘walk in the neighborhood’ view.”