City Council denied a controversial request Thursday to create a new, small historic district in Tobin Hill.

Property owners who account for the 88 properties originally envisioned to create the Tobin Hill North Historic District have been involved in a heated, months-long debate over the issue. The proposed district would have encompassed less than 14 acres, mostly along a stretch of East Mistletoe Avenue between McCullough Avenue and Kings Court.

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) made the motion for the denial, urging those in favor of the historic district to consider a new application with different boundaries.

After district supporters initially gained enough backing to begin the designation process, opposition arose and increased, with many critics saying they were misled by district proponents. According to an email statement from Treviño, 52% of the affected properties voted to oppose the historic designation.

Other detractors said the proposed district had little backing among property owners, and that they should be allowed to do whatever they want with their property with less governmental oversight. Critics also claimed backers of the request were misusing the tools that a historic district provides and that the City’s designation process is rife with flaws.

The City’s Zoning Commission rejected the proposal in May, as members were troubled by a lack of objective data supporting a historic district designation.

In an effort to allay concerns, proponents most recently floated a compromise – a revised boundary map covering only 39 properties, virtually all in the western half of the originally proposed district.

Office of Historic Preservation (OHP) Director Shanon Shea Miller said 23 property owners supported the proposed compromise map, and nine opposed it. The rest did not voice an opinion. Still, OHP staff recommended rejecting the application altogether.

“We feel dividing the district as … suggested will be a compromise that will satisfy the most property owners,” said Anisa Schell, the original applicant.

Many supporters of the proposed Tobin Hill North Historic District wore orange “I am Tobin Hill” shirts during a City Council meeting on Thursday. Credit: Edmond Ortiz for the San Antonio Report

Schell and her husband Rick live near a property that Terramark Urban Homes is eyeing for redevelopment. Their opposition to the project, which many other neighbors argue is not compatible with the neighborhood, prompted the couple to begin the petition.

Several property owners spoke Thursday and more than 30 people came in support of the district, with many of them clad in orange “I am Tobin Hill” T-shirts. Another 20 or so stood against the proposal.

“We want to focus on a compromise that’ll make the majority of our residents happy,” said resident Niki McDaniel.

Resident Cary Cardwell read a letter from a neighbor expressing concern that Tobin Hill is under pressure from redevelopers and house-flippers. Others claimed some individuals own properties in the proposed district, but don’t live there.  Critics pushed back, saying all property owners deserved a say in the matter.

Two residential organizations in Tobin Hill have different views on the matter: The Tobin Hill Neighborhood Association (THNA) opposes the designation and the Tobin Hill Community Association (THCA) supports it.

“I don’t want anyone from the historic board telling me what do with my residence,” said Richard Moore, the original THNA president.

Resident Clayton Oakley said it was wrong for proponents to try and use historic district designation to keep out undesired development.

“It’s a gross misuse of historic designation as a tool to stop a zoning designation,”  Oakley said.

John Cooley, COO of Terramark Urban Homes, said “the insinuation that our product would destroy the character of the neighborhood is false.”

Other critics said some redevelopment can improve an aging neighborhood, but could be scared away by a historic district designation. David Honkala, an opponent, suggested creating a commission to study how a historic district affects a neighborhood, and that there should be moratorium on new designations.

The smaller compromise map was not enough to appease critics or Council members. Treviño said the City is concerned about the numerous map changes that have occurred since the original application, and about the level of opposition.

Seven Council members voted to deny the application. Councilman John Courage (D9) voted to approve the application, and Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) recused himself from the vote. Neither Mayor Ron Nirenberg nor Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) were present for the vote.

“It is difficult to support to an application that has created so much division and strife in the community,” Treviño said. He added that City staff should be more proactive in educating a neighborhood when considering a historic district designation.

Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) said there could be other ways to maintain the East Mistletoe area’s character without granting historic district status. “I appreciate the passion that people show to conserve their neighborhood,” she said.

Afterward, Anisa Schell said she and her fellow district supporters will consider their options.

GrayStreet Project Advances

Meanwhile, Council also approved a series of zoning changes to permit GrayStreet Partners to develop a major mixed-use community off Broadway Street across from the Pearl.

The Council quickly and unanimously upheld the Zoning Commission’s recommendations favoring land use revisions that GrayStreet Partners proposed for 23 acres in the Government Hill neighborhood.

The local developer has plans for a variety of multi-family, single-family, entertainment, retail, office, and green space across the acreage, much of which is currently owned by the San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD).

GrayStreet officials have touted their project as more “approachable” and one with rent and retail prices that will be less than those of many similar ventures in the City’s urban core.

Edmond Ortiz

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