The developer behind a controversial townhome project in San Antonio’s unique River Road neighborhood is calling it quits.
MNO Partners’ David Morin told the San Antonio Report that he decided a couple of weeks ago to pull The Oaks at River Road development from consideration by the Historic and Design Review Committee (HDRC) after more than two years of seeking approval from City commissions.
“We seemed to have a project that I think by all reasonable standards looked really good, met all the objections of the neighborhood [but] the neighborhood kept asking for more density reductions,” Morin said. “There was never a point where it was going to stop.”
Six of 10 commissioners voted over a year ago, on Dec. 18, 2019, to give final approval to the project, a 21-unit complex at 335 Trail St. But in February 2020, that decision was overturned following a neighbor’s appeal through the Board of Adjustment.
In June and July 2020, MNO sought waivers that would have allowed the developer to submit new design plans within the year, under rules defined by the city’s Unified Development Code. The waivers were denied and commissioners at the July meeting said the developers had made compromises on the design, but not enough to satisfy concerns about the height and size of the structures.
But by November, City staffers said the project had been sufficiently revised and recommended both approval of a waiver and a certificate of appropriateness with some stipulations. However, during the Nov. 4 meeting, MNO requested a continuance and the seven commissioners present approved the request.
In recent weeks, the developer determined that pursuing the project would be a waste of time, Morin said. “The economics don’t work out, and I really think what the historic board is asking for … it’s going to be very difficult to make it work, so we just decided that there are better opportunities elsewhere.”
MNO began the process in November 2018, requesting approval for the development on a vacant, 1-acre lot in the historic River Road neighborhood, a unique enclave nestled between U.S. Highway 281 and a bend in the San Antonio River where it flows along the Brackenridge Park Golf Course.
The property where the townhouses were planned is zoned “MF-33” which allows for multifamily structures up to 33 units per acre.
Several River Road residents supported the MNO project, including Broadway Tire and Automotive owner Kevin De La Garza, who lives across Huisache Street from the lot. But other residents voiced concern that the project would be incompatible with the surrounding neighborhood and its cottages and bungalows, and that it could adversely impact a historic acequia and a landmark home located at 104 Anastacia Place.
A similar battle between developer and residents was waged in 2015 over a proposed multifamily project at 112 Lindell Pl., where a six-unit condominium development now sits.
After gaining conceptual approval in January 2019, over the course of the following year, Morin and his design team met with commissioners and the neighborhood to revise the project from a 23-unit condominium development with three-story, contemporary-style structures to a 21-unit townhome property with a traditional look, reduced building heights, front porches, and other modifications to address density and massing.
The developer made plans to preserve a heritage tree, protect the acequia, and create a walking path. But the bar for approval kept getting raised higher and higher, Morin said, with “rich and entitled” River Road homeowners and politics getting in the way.
“It’s [the residents’] weird little hobby to keep people out of their neighborhoods and quite frankly the historic board bends over backwards to them,” Morin said. “We did everything we possibly could to respond to the challenges imposed upon us by the HDRC.”
John Hertz, who owns a rental home adjacent to the property and serves on a neighborhood association committee, said the project dragged on for too long.
“They started out with just some ideas that were just so off base,” Hertz said. “And that really got the neighborhood very, very resistant to them and wasted a lot of time.”
And though the changes MNO made to the project were positive, they weren’t substantial enough to satisfy the neighborhood’s perspective, he said.
In December 2019, commissioners gave final approval for the project to move forward. Displeased with that decision, Hertz filed an appeal with the Board of Adjustment. At a February 2020 meeting, the board heard from nine River Road residents in favor of the appeal and three against, and granted the appeal.
Hertz puts the blame for delays and the ultimate failure of the project squarely on the developer.
“This is what I lament more than anything – not that the project is built or not built – it’s just the amount of time those guys wasted on the part of everyone, including the Office of Historic Preservation,” Hertz said. “This thing just dragged on forever. That I put on them. That’s their fault.”
The neighborhood wants to see development on the vacant lot, which Hertz said is worth a considerable amount of money. “But we’ve always said we want something that’s appropriate in scale and density,” he said. And the townhouse developer seemed too inexperienced for a project in a historic neighborhood, Hertz said.
“You can’t just cookie-cutter and do whatever you want to do,” he said. “San Antonio has its way of doing things, you know, and tradition matters.”
At the Board of Adjustment hearing in February, attorney James McKnight, representing the property owner, Robert Price, emphasized that the Office of Historic Preservation and the developer followed the defined approval process and rules required for development in historic districts, obtaining conceptual approval to move forward, following guidelines and meeting stipulations.
“The neighborhood simply doesn’t like the outcome,” McKnight said. “This is not the first time this has happened. They don’t like the outcome, but we follow the process. The process was correct, and it was done right.”
Shanon Miller, director of the Office of Historic Preservation said it’s obvious the neighborhood had a lot of influence on how the commissioners looked at the project. “But I think that’s always true,” she said.
“When you get an item where you have 20 or 30 or 40 people signed in to speak, the commissioners of course are going to take notice of that. And that’s really why we have a public process to begin with.”
Though the project was given conceptual approval, it was a close vote, Miller said, a signal that there were still a lot of changes that needed to be made. Still, final approval is up to the commission and not the neighborhood, she added.
“So I think the key is for applicants to really listen to the process and make changes to reflect the input that they’re receiving throughout,” Miller said.
In the end, the significant time and investment Morin said he and his team put in to alter the plans to satisfy some of the neighbors and HDRC commissioners proved too much. It no longer makes economic sense, he said.
“You need a certain amount of density. You need a realistic price for the dirt. You need your construction costs to be at a certain level,” he said. “Your density keeps getting reduced, and if some of those other elements don’t go down or don’t go up, it’s hard to make the numbers work.”