The controversial, gated apartment complex proposed for the blighted St. John’s Catholic Seminary site next to Mission Concepción received unanimous final approval from the Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) on Wednesday.

After the required permitting process and archaeological digs slated for November, the development team expects it will take 18-20 months to complete the more than $30 million project, which will see three historic buildings renovated and erect seven new structures. Other non-contributing structures and two homes will be demolished. The 12.15-acre parcel is owned by the Archdiocese of San Antonio. Part of the redevelopment plan includes new office and community meeting space for the Catholic church, in addition to more than 240 market rate apartments.

Preliminary site plans, which were approved by HDRC in 2014, had called for three-story structures closer to the mission that would have been more visible from the mission’s grounds. Preservation advocates cried foul. The plans approved today shortened several structures to two stories in order to comply with viewshed protection restrictions put in place in anticipation of the World Heritage designation in July 2015.

(Read more: Apartments at Mission Concepción Could Violate Height Restrictions)

The proposed apartment complex at Mission Concepción will comply with the viewshed regulations. Image courtesy of B&A Architects.
The proposed apartment complex at Mission Concepción will comply with the viewshed regulations. Image courtesy of B&A Architects.

Rather than seek an exemption to the viewshed overlay, design team members from 210 Development Group and B&A Architects reworked the plan to avoid the need for any exceptions.

“We felt, based on stakeholder input, this would be the best direction to go,” said 210 Development Group President Michael Wibracht after the vote. “There are some (people) that will never agree to (any development). We wanted to come through here with final approval.”

An aerial view of the proposed Villa Concepción apartment complex looking east. Rendering courtesy of R&A Architects.
An aerial view of the proposed Villa Concepción apartment complex looking east. Rendering courtesy of R&A Architects.

Alliance for San Antonio Missions spokesperson Carroll Brown was pleased with the plan, now that it complies with the viewshed rules, but said the rules themselves need to be more restrictive.

“Wherever visitors go they shouldn’t be able to see (new construction),” Brown said in a phone interview after the meeting. “We’re basically happy with the outcome that no exemptions were granted because it could have started a very bad precedent. … If they (developers) try something like that next to the next three missions, we’ll be up in arms.”

Several citizens signed up to speak against the development, including members of the Alliance and several descendants of Native American tribes indigenous to the area. They expressed concerns that the development will disturb the remains of indigenous people as well the aesthetics and culture of the surrounding Southside neighborhoods.

Lance Aaron, a member of the Alliance, accused the HDRC of “institutional corruption” and said that the project and public process surrounding developments near the Missions are “embarrassments.”

Maria Torres, tribal chairwoman for the Pacuache Indian Tribe First Nation of Texas, suggested that the former seminary become a public center for World Heritage events and include a museum.

Other neighbors welcome the Villa Concepción apartment complex that will bring people and activity back to the historic site. Candie Beltran, who lives in the Roosevelt Park neighborhood located next to Mission Concepción, said she would rather not see a gated community there, but it’s better than leaving the site vacant for vandals, stray dogs, and vagrants to hang out in.

“The neighbors are afraid of what goes on in there,” Beltran said. “If you see the property as it is now, it is not anything that (indigenous people) would be proud to hold their beloved deceased people to.”

Al Arreola, president and CEO of the South San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, also spoke in favor of the “responsible” development as it will bring more customers to local businesses.

Some of the comments made by opponents led HDRC Vice Chair Michael Connor to believe some people were voicing concerns in the wrong forum.

“Institutional corruption and so forth – that’s a bit outside of Historic Design Review’s purview. We’re the design police,” he said. “We don’t go after cases of corruption. That would be the Police Department. The thing we do police is the appropriateness of a design in a given situation or given location.”

Because the staff has found that the proposed development meets the planning, zoning, and viewshed restrictions and requirements, Connor said, “the design looks appropriate to me.”

HDRC Chair Michael Guarino agreed, adding that the City’s viewshed ordinance is strong yet simple.

“This is the first major test of that and these gentlemen have conformed to it,” he said.

Line of sight model from Mission Protection Overlay marker without existing foliage. Rendering courtesy of B&A Architects.
Line of sight model from Mission Protection Overlay marker, without existing foliage.  Rendering courtesy of B&A Architects.

As for why it has to be a “gated” community, Wibracht said, “It has to be. We can’t finance an un-gated community. … You want to build a project that’s going to feel secure to a single mom.”

The fences that surround the property will be tasteful, he added. Most units will have yards and the site plan includes plenty of greenspace.

The Alliance for San Antonio Missions will host a public meeting this Sunday to discuss the progress – or lack thereof – in managing growth and preservation around the Missions. “World Heritage Designation One Year Later: WHERE ARE WE?” will take place at the Mission Branch Library, 3134 Roosevelt Ave., from 3:30-5 p.m.

The City of San Antonio’s World Heritage Office will host two public input sessions on Sept. 20 and 24 to collect community feedback on land use plan amendments for the neighborhoods surrounding the Missions in the wake of the World Heritage designation. Preliminary feedback was gathered at the City’s public symposiums and through a 30-day open house program at public libraries. Comments can still be made online here or by calling the World Heritage Office at 210-207-2111.

“We want to make sure that people know about this and have an opportunity to provide their feedback,” said World Heritage Director Colleen Swain. Ultimately, the land use plan amendments will require City Council approval.

Top image: Looking northeast out over Mission Concepción.  Photo by Scott Ball.

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Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...