A man takes a photograph of the downtown skyline from Woodlawn Lake Park.
A man photographs the skyline, including the yellow domes of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower, from Woodlawn Lake Park. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

After several months of discussion with developers, neighborhood advocates, and staff from the Office of Historic Preservation, the City of San Antonio has effectively dropped a proposal to implement development restrictions surrounding several popular sites.

Expanding the viewshed ordinance that currently protects the Alamo and the four Southside missions was an unpopular idea among developers and urban planners, but preservationists saw it as a way to protect other iconic views of San Antonio – especially activists who want to prevent the development of land next to the historic Hays Street Bridge.

Two out of the four sites initially recommended for possible protection in April – San Fernando Cathedral in Main Plaza and the Tower Life building downtown – couldn’t realistically benefit from implementation of the viewshed ordinance, OHP Director Shanon Shea Miller said Tuesday. For the other two – the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower as seen from across Woodlawn Lake and the historic Hays Street Bridge in the East Side – new zoning rules and design guidelines would instead be the right tool to guard against development, Miller said.

“Viewshed is still a tool in the toolshed,” Miller told Council members at the Arts, Culture, and Heritage Committee meeting Tuesday. “But the viewshed [ordinance] is not the best tool for either of those sites.”

On Thursday, City Council is likely to approve a measure that will start the process of developing a zoning overlay district for Woodlawn Park that would limit the height of new buildings and preserve views of the basilica as seen from across Woodlawn Lake. The five-member committee was supportive of that, though Councilman Cruz Shaw (D2) was absent from the vote.

The Woodlawn Park process was prioritized at the request of Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7), whose district includes the park, in light of the park’s 100th anniversary this year. Sandoval does not sit on the committee and did not attend the meeting.

“I think this is a smart approach,” said Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1). “[Zoning] overlay is going to be a good fit.”

Miller said the City will convene other stakeholders for a conversation about how best to protect Hays Street Bridge and similar cultural sites, but any new rules would not apply to the five-story apartment complex already approved for the adjacent vacant lot.

It’s possible, she told the Rivard Report, that process could involve adjusting the City’s Downtown Design Guide to take into consideration building heights around historic or cultural sites.

“We will be, over the next several months, looking at updates to the Downtown Design Guide,” she said, “so we think that it might be the most appropriate way to handle Hays Street Bridge.”

City Council was slated to consider the sites for viewshed protection this summer, but a technical advisory committee ultimately agreed with City staff that it couldn’t apply as expected, Miller said.

“You came in gangbusters with a really big idea and upset a lot of folks and you came back, started a listening tour … and you came back [to the committee] with something that was the right fit,” said Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6).

The San Fernando Cathedral is surrounded by land that is already developed save for one plot that will be part of the University of Texas at San Antonio’s expanded downtown campus. A 40-story building would have to be built there to interfere with views of the cathedral, Miller said, and that’s highly unlikely under the university’s plans.

The advisory committee found that no one could agree on which view should be protected for the Tower Life building, she said. “There’s just no consensus in the community.”

Graciela Sánchez, executive director of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, said she was frustrated that the proposals never made it to a Council vote and that there’s no timeline presented for the process surrounding Hays Street Bridge.

“We have no power,” she said. “We waited forever … then [City staff] just made a decision [to drop it].”

Esperanza is associated with the Hays Street Bridge Restoration Group, which is awaiting a Texas Supreme Court decision on a case related to the City’s sale of the land. Sánchez said if the court rules in favor of the group, that could open the door to stopping the apartment complex. The City’s attorneys and others have said that door is firmly closed.

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. Contact her at iris@sareport.org