The Hays Bridge in the city's Eastside.
The Hays Street Bridge is located just East of downtown San Antonio and was restored Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

City staff received the go-ahead Wednesday from a City Council committee to continue work on enabling viewshed protections – and development restrictions – for areas surrounding various cultural landmarks, including the historic Hays Street Bridge, San Fernando Cathedral, Tower Life building, and six other sites.

Such protections would limit development that encroaches on key views of historic landmarks and other culturally significant city vistas “that make San Antonio special,” Shanon Shea Miller, director of the City’s Office of Historic Preservation, told Council members on the Arts, Culture and Heritage Committee.

Council examined the issue after protesters called for such viewshed protections of the Hays Street Bridge on the near Eastside, where a local developer has tentative plans to build a five-story mixed-use apartment complex that would block neighborhood views of the bridge. Councilman Cruz Shaw (D2), whose district includes much of the Eastside, and Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) submitted an official request for City staff to investigate expanded regulations in November 2017 after the project adjacent to the bridge was delayed by the Historic and Design Review Commission. A redesigned version of the project was denied by HDRC on March 9, but City Manager Sheryl Sculley – who has ultimate authority over all the commission’s rulings – approved the project with stipulations two weeks later.

Viewshed protections, applied through a zoning overlay, are already in place for the city’s World Heritage sites: the Alamo and four other missions on the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River. These overlays restrict building heights that would interfere with views of the site. However, buildings that violate these rules have been granted exception by HDRC, as was the case for an apartment complex behind Mission Concepción.

Before rules for specific sites can be developed, the first step is to modify existing city rules regarding viewsheds in general, Miller said. The unified development code includes terms such as “front door” when referencing main entrances to structures. “Obviously the Hays Street Bridge doesn’t have a front door,” she said.

There are already several other sites that are eligible for viewshed protection as identified by the code, but community input collected through several public meetings indicates that the Hays Street Bridge, San Fernando Cathedral, Arneson River Theatre, Mission Marquee Plaza, Tower Life Building, Woodlawn Lake, Japanese Tea Garden at Brackenridge Park, Tower of the Americas, and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower are the community’s top priorities. City Council will ultimately decide which are eligible for viewshed protection.

The code amendments also would include evaluation criteria that will be applied to future viewshed consideration, including the site’s iconic snapshot (if it’s often photographed or part of the public memory), cultural ties (representing a familiar aspect of the city’s cultural or social history), and urban planning benefits (enhancing the quality of the urban environment and way-finding).

The new code will be brought to the Council committee again for review before going to full City Council consideration, Miller said. Council is expected to vote on the update in May.

Once the eligible sites are in the code, only then can City staff work with community stakeholders – property owners, neighborhood associations, and developers – to formulate specific rules for each site that outline what view they want to protect.

“It’s a zoning overlay just like an historic district or a [neighborhood conservation district], so properties subject to the viewshed once it’s created will then have to be re-zoned to have that viewshed apply to that property,” Miller told the Rivard Report. “We will be looking at each one to see if we can create a range of standards so it’s not completely black and white. But it will be a unique conversation for each one.”

An appeal process would also be put in place. Property owners or other “aggrieved” parties related to a decision would have 30 business days to appeal the decision to the Board of Adjustments.

Protesters against the project next to the Hays Street Bridge are concerned that this process will take too long; the project could be approved by staff before May.

Graciela Sánchez, director of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, and attorney Amy Kastely attended the committee meeting and asked for a moratorium on development in the area.

“It’s the viewshed of the bridge, not only from the bridge,” Sánchez said. “The [viewshed] of the bridge should be 360 degrees.”

The apartment developer and property owner, Mitch Meyer, said property rights should be prioritized in these discussions, too.

“It’s presumptuous and naive to think a property owner is supposed to lose the value of [their] property to provide a view,” Meyer said in a text. “If someone wants a view, they need to purchase the property and protect the view.”

There are interim controls on construction permitting that the City could enact while the City considers each viewshed, Miller said after the meeting, but those won’t be in place until that process starts – likely after May. And Meyer has already filed his application, so the rules in place at that time are the only ones that legally apply.

Click here to download Miller’s presentation to the committee.

“This is what we are going to be losing,” said local photographer Kristel Orta Puente, who lives in the Deco District. She held up a large photograph of the bridge at night, back-lit by San Antonio’s downtown (see images above). “This is really really important and it’s disappointing that the HDRC spent so much time listening to citizens just to have their decision overturned.”

During an earlier discussion about the Office of Historic Preservation programs and processes, Shaw suggested that the HDRC should become an autonomous board – making its decisions final rather than subject to the city manager’s approval.

That conversation would have to be taken up by City Council, Miller said. “The City could establish parameters [in the unified development code] where commissions make final decisions. And then a person [would be able to] appeal a commission decision instead of a staff decision.”

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) chairs the Arts, Culture and Heritage Committee with Council members Shaw, Greg Brockhouse (D6), Shirley Gonzales (D5), and Rebecca Viagran (D3). Brockhouse was not present for Wednesday’s meeting.

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

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