210 Development Group has been working on plans for a gated, 228-unit apartment complex at the derelict St. John’s Catholic Seminary campus next to Mission Concepción for more than three years. If the Historic Design and Review Commission approves changes to the already-approved project during its meeting on Wednesday, then work could finally start on the controversial project this year, said Mark Tolley, a partner at 210 Development.

But the developer wants the Commission to grant an exception to the City’s Mission Protection Overlay District, which limits the height of buildings relative to the historic Missions and aims to protect the surrounding viewsheds. The proposed design, which had to be adjusted for roofing and drainage issues, according to 210 Development, features four buildings throughout the complex that would be one to 11 feet taller than what the overlay allows.

Tolley admits the three-story buildings would exceed the overlay, but points out that the Mission, other historic buildings, and foliage on site would essentially block out views of the new construction anyway.

These estimations are based on views from the Mission Protection Overlay District “marker pin” located 150 feet from the main entrance to Mission Concepción.

“These [new] buildings [would] not be visible from anywhere in front of Mission Concepción,” Tolley said. The overlay rules, in this case, are “protecting a viewshed that has been proven to not exist.”

The project was initiated before the Mission and its four counterparts, including the Alamo, received World Heritage designation in 2015. The designation was solidly on the company’s radar, Tolley said. 210 Development adjusted original designs to comply with overlay rules that were discussed in 2014 while the project was making its way through the City process and approved soon after.

The orange dotted line indicates where the buildings of the apartment complex will be in relation to Mission Concepción and former St. Johns Seminary campus, which is located about 100 feet northeast of the Mission.
The orange dotted line indicates where the buildings of the apartment complex will be in relation to Mission Concepción and former St. Johns Seminary campus, which is located about 100 feet northeast of the Mission. Credit: Courtesy / 210 Development Group and R&A Architects
A break down of which buildings of the proposed apartment complex will violate the height overlay.
A breakdown of which buildings of the proposed apartment complex will violate the height overlay. Credit: Courtesy / 210 Development Group
Mission Concepción Protection Overlay Zoning District circumference extends 1,500 feet from a designated point at the Mission's front entrance.
Mission Concepción Protection Overlay Zoning District circumference extends 1,500 feet from a designated point near the Mission’s front entrance. Credit: Courtesy / City of San Antonio

In August 2016, HDRC approved plans for the project that stayed within these height restrictions, but since then drainage and roofing issues have been raised by project engineers and architects, Tolley said. The project was slated for discussion during last month’s HDRC meeting, but the developer pulled the request for approval to give the staff and commission members more time to consider the project details.

“Staff’s recommendation for this item is pending and will be finalized prior to the July 19, 2017, HDRC hearing,” the City’s website states. Typically the Office of Historic Preservation has a staff opinion on a project prior to the agenda publishing.

The more than 12.5-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. 210 Development would essentially have a long-term lease on the property with the Archdiocese.

Broken and boarded up windows are visible in most of the buildings in St. John’s Catholic Seminary site next to Mission Concepción.
Broken and boarded up windows are visible in most of the buildings in St. John’s Catholic Seminary site next to Mission Concepción. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The project has elicited mixed reactions from neighbors. Some welcome the redevelopment of the property that had attracted crime (like arson and drug use) and vagrancy to the neighborhood for years. Others, especially some members of the Alliance for San Antonio Missions, say that no private projects should be allowed so close to the historic Mission and want even stricter height and development codes surrounding this and other World Heritage sites.

Some critics of the project are concerned that the proximity of a gated community to the Mission will endanger the World Heritage designation.

Local historian and activist Lance Aaron told HDRC members last month that the project puts the sanctity and the history of the Mission Concepción neighborhood and indigenous people at risk.

“What we should be talking about today is what is the City doing to protect one of the most significant World Heritage sites?” he asked.

The developer’s plans were reviewed by UNESCO representatives in the months prior to the designation. The promise of restoration and preservation of the St. John’s Seminary buildings were key parts of the designation application.

The construction project is expected to take 18 months, Tolley said, which is longer than the typical timeline for a project of this size because of the “extraordinary” investment in preserving the large, historic seminary building and associated structures.

As for the gates that will line the property, he said, that was a condition of investors in the project.

“Our lenders want to ensure that a single mother with children will feel comfortable in this property,” Tolley said. “We want San Antonians to migrate back to the urban core.”

Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a significant housing investment in the near-Southside for decades, he noted, adding that this project – with the help of City incentives – will bring more than 200 relatively affordable units to the area.

A one-bedroom apartment is expected to go for $780 per month and two-bedroom units for $1,200-$1,180. Rents for larger units have yet to be determined. For perspective, most one-bedroom or studio apartments in the area just north of downtown near the Pearl Brewery complex are more than $1,000 a month.

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