The vacant lot at 532 Dawson St. and 417 N. Mesquite St. Image via Google Earth.
The vacant lots at 532 Dawson St. and 417 N. Mesquite St. Image via Google Earth.

I never really thought Dignowity Hill was in danger of losing its unique sense of place. Our city and our own organized and vocal community provide safeguards to ensure this place and the people living here are respected and considered. I thought the historic district designation was one of those vital safeguards keeping the neighborhood character intact for the long-term enjoyment of the whole city.

I was wrong.

Since attending Sept. 2 Historic Design and Review Commission (HDRC) meeting, my eyes are opened to the reality of the pressure for high-density, high-profit development at all cost inside a protected historic district of mostly single family homes. They are setting a precedent that will harm our neighborhood in the future.

In that meeting HDRC appeared to force an agenda that will damage the historic district we all steward, even though many of us showed up at the meeting to voice our concerns. I watched members of the HDRC pick selectively from the Historic Design Guidelines they’ve been charged to uphold as they made rulings to promote private-interest agendas well beyond the scope of what HDRC is charged to do. Worst of all, their decisions were disrespectful of my neighbors.

Those of us who live in Dignowity Hill love our community’s genuine character and rare, handmade atmosphere. When we noticed an influx of developers proposing new projects that run the gamut in terms of scale, density and contextual appropriateness, the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association formed an Architectural Review Committee (ARC).

Because our neighborhood does want good new development that’s more dense than what we currently have, we also needed predictable guidelines for what new projects we find appropriate or harmful. To help us more clearly define this, the ARC relies on the city’s existing Historic Design Guidelines. We also crafted a series of public statements on demolition, density and new development tailored to the specific conditions of Dignowity Hill. 

We recognize, for instance, that density needs to increase in our neighborhood and we can’t make urban planning decisions as if it’s still the 1850s when the neighborhood was formed.

Our existing historic district currently has between 3.9 and 8.8 living units per acre (not very dense). Research and community discussions pointed us toward 16 living units per acre as a healthy new maximum density to aim for. Doubling our current density gives us enough flexibility to encourage creative new development without blotting out the local character here that everyone is attracted to in the first place.

We’ve had great success with our neighborhood architectural review process. Most developers who’ve proposed projects to us have been very respectful of our process and our neighborhood in general. They accept our invitation to discuss their project knowing that if it is in the best interest of our neighborhood, we will make our support known loudly to the Office of Historic Preservation (OHP) and HDRC.

Developers also know that when their project does not fit Dignowity Hill’s historic character, we’re available to work with them on design solutions. We’re generally an optimistic group, having voiced our support for about 40 new projects in the past few months.

The ARC has publicly promoted several larger projects after some initial concerns were addressed. CVF Homes forthcoming project of four new housing units on an empty single-family lot on Hays Street evolved greatly after we expressed concerns about the site density and harsher minimalist character of the initial plans. The resulting four units now fit within our guideline of 16 units per acre and creatively works with the character of the neighborhood, and we’re very excited to see it breaking ground soon.

This project happened the right way. Sensitive developers worked with a good architect, aiming for uniqueness and quality. They were willing to listen to the community they would affect.

San Antonio needs more density in the city core. It also needs a long-term vision. A historic district designation’s purpose is to safeguard the city’s heritage communities from the cheap, quick and dirty pillaging that can happen when markets turn favorable without boundaries in place.

Recently I’ve witnessed some strange breaks in this system: OHP is now promoting new higher-density development projects that violate OHP’s own Historic Design Guidelines and their sites’ current zoning. HDRC is meanwhile ignoring the unified comments of affected neighborhoods as it accepts OHP’s recommendations.

These troubles were on full display during the Sept. 2 HDRC meeting.

A diverse group from Dignowity Hill voiced our unified opposition to a particular new high-density housing development on Dawson Street. The opposed development is seeking variances from a number of governing entities in order to squeeze itself onto its proposed site – plopped amid small-scale single family homes in our district. The Zoning Commission unanimously approved the request this week, proving how easily projects like this one flow through the city’s governing structures.

The four-structure development at 532 Dawson St. and 417 N. Mesquite St. Courtesy image.
The four-structure development at 532 Dawson St. and 417 N. Mesquite St. Courtesy image.

It’s far denser than anything around it and far denser than the doubled increase in density limits our neighborhood typically supports. This project flies in the face of the city’s Historic Design Guidelines, first and foremost because its size, character and density do not “ensure that historic buildings remain the central focus of the district.” It’s meant to look sort-of “craftsman” style but without the proportional care and attention to materiality and craft that a well-done house in any historic district would possess, whether traditional or contemporary.

No citizens came out to speak in support of it. The neighborhood came out in strong opposition, and yet the majority of the HDRC commissioners bent over backwards to find reasons to praise it instead.

Commissioner Betty Feldman suggested that the high density project was a great example of sustainability because maximizing the size of the building on the lot reduces the amount of yard space that might require watering and lawn care.

Commissioner Michael Guarino and others insisted that the ARC’s use of the “housing units per acre” measurement wasn’t a good way to measure the density of this particular project.

It should also be noted that Commissioner Daniel Lazarine, District 2’s own HDRC representative, was one of the few dissenting votes siding with the neighborhood. 

HDRC passed this project with conceptual approval and without clearly addressing any of the concerns our neighborhood association raised. The project will be up for final design review by HDRC next month.

An aerial view of the vacant lots at 532 Dawson St. and 417 N. Mesquite St. Image via Google Earth.
An aerial view of the vacant lots at 532 Dawson St. and 417 N. Mesquite St. Image via Google Earth.

The next item on the agenda was a single-family new house that our neighborhood widely supported. The modestly scaled home Michael Britt designed for himself is thoughtfully detailed and sited according to the unique conditions of its lot. The contemporary style works with its historic neighbors on both sides because of the historic “shotgun” precedent it emulates. This house does exactly what the city’s Historic Design Guidelines ask of new construction, which is to be a contemporary interpretation of a traditional design.

Britt will go before HDRC during its next meeting, fighting the battle that many of his single-family neighbors have had to fight. Many have made multiple trips before the commission, fighting longer and harder than developers seeking much more dramatic variances from historic design.

The neighborhood voiced its full support of this project in person and written statement, hoping it could receive final approval as had been requested by the applicant. No citizen came out to voice opposition to it. And yet, the majority of the HDRC commissioners seemed to bend over backwards to find reasons to challenge and delay construction. 

The single-family residence and guest house on a conjoined lot at 914 and 916 N. Mesquite St. Courtesy image.
The single-family residence and guest house on a conjoined lot at 914 and 916 N. Mesquite St. Courtesy image.

Commissioner Guarino began the discussion with a curious anecdote about the first house he had ever designed for himself and how it was almost exactly like the current house Britt was proposing, adding wistfully that he didn’t get to build that first house because “the neighbors didn’t like it.”

Clearly this was not the case with Britt’s design. Britt’s neighbors made it clear that his proposed house modeled the scale, character and craft the neighborhood wants on every empty lot possible in our district.

One of the commissioners voiced concern about the look of one of the south-facing roof shapes where solar panels would be placed. (It was not a gable shape to match the rest of the project.)

Commissioner Feldman stated that some of the windows were not in keeping with the shapes of their neighbors and that “the architecture isn’t quite there yet.”

Commissioner Lazarine again was the only vote in favor of final approval for this house and made a point to say that it was very strange for the commission to withhold approval to a project with such a high level of neighborhood support.

The Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association wants infill development as much as anybody. We simply value our neighborhood enough to expect development with a high level of quality worthy of any historic district.

Our neighborhood has been victim to greed, mismanagement, and bad policy for long enough. HDRC, OHP, and Councilmember Alan Warrick (D2) should be able to see the difference between development with long term value and the kind of the quick, cheap projects that will leave the neighborhood shabby and compromised 20 years down the road. If they do know the difference, we’re hoping that they have the integrity to stand between a still-vulnerable neighborhood and those that would do it harm.

*Top image: The vacant lot at 532 Dawson St. and 417 N. Mesquite St. Image via Google Earth.

Related Stories:

Learn more about Dignowity Hill’s opportunities and challenges – including vacancy and infill development – by exploring our Place Changing series.

Infill Development in Dignowity Hill Wins Commission Approval

Vacant Lots in Dignowity Hill Will Be Filled

Dignowity Hill Townhouse Design Rejected 

Commentary: Dignowity Hill Gets a Swimming Pool…No Lifeguard

Lewis Maverick McNeel is an architect based in San Antonio, Texas. He earned degrees from the University of Virginia and then worked in East Africa designing schools and community buildings with Engineering...