The Tobin Endowment's Planned Unit Development for 46 acres near Oakwell Farms. Courtesy image.

Oakwell Farms, a gated community in Northeast San Antonio, is one step closer to receiving a sizable new multi-family development opposed by neighbors that Tobin Endowment representatives said conforms to the master plan envisioned by Robert Tobin.

The San Antonio Planning Commission on Wednesday voted 7-1 to approve Tobin Endowment’s request to redesignate a 46-acre tract of land it intends to sell for the development of 956 apartment units.

The commission’s decision, still to be considered by the City Council, supported city staff’s recommendation to establish the Tobin Tract Planned Unit Development (PUD) at the southeast corner of Harry Wurzbach Road and Oakwell Court.

A PUD is meant to allow a property owner and potential developer flexibility in planning one or more types of construction with consideration toward preserving existing natural resources and protecting nearby properties.

San Antonio Planning Commission hosted a standing room only crowd while discussing the Tobin tract plan on Wednesday. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.
San Antonio Planning Commission hosted a standing room only crowd while discussing the Tobin tract plan on Wednesday. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

Last fall, the Endowment that manages the late businessman, arts patron and philanthropist’s estate sold a 43-acre tract – one of the last large undeveloped pieces of prime real estate inside Loop 410 – to Houston developer David Weekley Homes. The idea, initially, was to develop 400 single-family homes there.

J. Bruce Bugg Jr., the Endowment’s chairman and trustee, then told the Rivard Report that proceeds from the sale of the 43-acre parcel, recently appraised at more than $7 million, would benefit the Endowment, a local private charitable foundation that has made more than $53 million in grants since 2000, including the lead naming gift of $15 million for the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. The sales price was not disclosed.

Bugg had said the land sale was made in hopes that the buyer would pledge to develop the property in much the same way Tobin set up the adjacent 450 acres as Oakwell Farms, starting in 1977 when he formed the Oakwell Farms Corporation. Tobin worked with local developer Laddie Denton to launch in 1982 a $250 million residential and small office development on Oakwell Farms, then billed as the largest mixed-use development in San Antonio.

But the Tobin Endowment’s recent actions sparked a debate with some current Oakwell Farms neighbors who voiced concern about the high-density development affecting area traffic, drainage, property values and schools. The Oakwell Farms Homeowners Association (OFHOA) tried hammering out a compromise with the Endowment, acknowledging the highly desired land will be developed one way or another.

But opposition has increased so much in the past few months that, on May 12, Bugg wrote that the Endowment would consider finding a new buyer for the land with apartments instead of single-family homes in mind for the tract.

More than 50 people signed up to speak at the lengthy commission meeting, with most yielding their time to a handful of individuals. All of the speakers opposed the PUD as presented. The plan calls for 43 acres to support apartment buildings with multi-story detached parking garages ,with three acres that include Tobin’s original home left intact to continue as the Endowment’s offices.

Bugg was traveling abroad and not in attendance at the meeting.  Trey Jacobson, a development specialist with the local law firm Golden Steves Cohen & Gordon, represented the Endowment. He said no variances or exceptions were being sought from the city, and that the PUD met all of the city’s criteria. He added that considerations have been made toward drainage, setbacks, and a natural buffer between the new development and existing properties.

The new development would have two main points of entry and exit, one at Harry Wurzbach and the other at Oakwell Court. Jacobson said the PUD could accommodate turn lanes and a revamped traffic signal.

San Antonio Planning Commission view a map of the Tobin Endowment's 46-acre tract on Wednesday. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.
San Antonio Planning Commission view a map of the Tobin Endowment’s 46-acre tract on Wednesday. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

Barbara Lowry, one of the neighbors opposing the PUD, said she has never opposed a sale of the land for some kind of development. But she and others said the plan calls for a level of density detrimental to community interests, and the PUD will not protect neighboring properties.

“We know it won’t stay barren. We just want an opportunity to have dialogue with the Endowment, and see if they can scale it down to something more reasonable,” she added.

Resident John Dunlap of the nearby Oak Park/Northwood neighborhood said he fears the potential for adding up to 6,000 new vehicular trips on Harry Wurzbach per day will result in more cut-through traffic in his community.

Longtime apartment developer Robert Hunt said he typically supports a property owner wishing to do as they please if the development conforms to code, but the Tobin PUD, he said, represented “one of the worst designed plans I’ve seen in my career.”

“It violates almost every design principle,” Hunt said, adding that it is “barely a base plan” and lacks solid details. Denton took to the podium, saying he remains a friend and colleague of the Endowment and Tobin family. Oakwell Farms, he argued, was planned as a low-impact, self-sustaining development surrounded by plenty of greenspace that is not compatible with the proposed density or design.

“This is not in keeping with Oakwell Farms. This is totally inappropriate,” Denton said of the PUD. Ken Brown, an attorney representing Oakwell Farms and the HOA, tried to plead the case that the base zoning would not allow the Endowment to down-size from the current commercial/residential zoning to residential. But city staff said the Endowment was in its right to request such a change.

Following two executive sessions, commissioners concluded that the submitted PUD met the city’s rules, at the same time acknowledging the neighbors’ concerns.

Commission member Andrea Rodriguez said Tobin indeed had a thoughtful vision about how the estate should evolve, but current neighbors have a chance to make an impact on whatever development arises on the 43 acres.

“I hope everyone comes together and collaborates. It’s really about the future,” Rodriguez said. “It’s really important we grow together as a community.”

Commission member Angela Rinehart cast the lone dissenting vote. When asked by reporters about the reason for her vote following the meeting’s end, she declined to give one. As soon as the vote was rendered, virtually all of the attendees left the meeting room with many saying they were disappointed with the outcome.

“It’s a game. When you have the resources they have, you can’t do much,” Denton said afterward, referring to the Endowment and its team of attorneys and engineers.

*Featured/top image: The Tobin Endowment’s Planned Unit Development for 46 acres near Oakwell Farms. Courtesy image. 

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Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.