It’s been about two months since the City of San Antonio’s Zoning, Planning, and Historic and Design Review commissions have met as the coronavirus pandemic caused further delays in what are typically months-long approval processes for commercial and residential development projects.
But on Friday, the Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) approved a slate of projects that can finally move forward – and sent some back to the drawing board – during its first-ever videoconference meeting.
There were some audio issues and confusion on whose turn it was to talk, but no glitches beyond what has become typical for most colleagues working from home: navigating various videoconferencing platforms (the City uses Webex).
“It’s strange, but it’s working out well,” said Shanon Shea Miller, director of the City’s Office of Historic Preservation (OHP). “Luckily we have the technology in place and the people to make it work.”
Commissioners decided that a modern door for a home in Monticello Park needs further review, a metal fence in Dignowity Hill is OK, a certificate of appropriateness for four structures on the last vacant lot facing Lockwood Park should be extended, and took action on a host of other projects.
While these public meetings – required to approve new work – were paused, work continued at the City’s Development Services Department (DSD) with little interruption, said Melissa Ramirez, assistant director of land development.
“We are still working full speed ahead from a development services perspective,” Ramirez said. “We haven’t missed a beat.”
City Council has approved several agendas full of zoning requests after a brief hiatus.
Development officials haven’t seen a significant decrease yet in applications for permits or active projects, she said, “but it’s a little too early to say” if there will be a slowing of activity due to an expected economic downturn. Construction is considered an essential function and is allowed to continue according to local and state emergency orders.
But while that work continues, some are concerned that the lack of in-person meetings – and the distraction of the pandemic – will lead to a less-informed and less-engaged public. The testimony of people who live in the neighborhood of proposed projects inform commissioners’ decisions on how a property should look, how big it should be, or what it can be used for.
Commission meetings were already being livestreamed online with Spanish and sign language translation available, but the City has added a way for residents to call in on their phone to listen in and speak on projects they support or oppose, Ramirez said.
“[For zoning and planning issues] the ones that we anticipate or we already know will be controversial … until we master these in-person meetings we’re going to hold off on scheduling those,” she said. “We’re making sure that we are thoughtfully placing items on the agenda.”
The HDRC has a somewhat similar policy, Miller said, but there’s a significant backlog of cases in their system that required three- to four-hour meetings even before the pandemic.
Staff has been giving more attention to potentially controversial items by increasing outreach to residents and trying to resolve issues they and staff members may have with developers before meetings, she said. “It’s going to take a while before we get caught up.”
Over the past month, City staff has been collecting input from residents on how to best make these meetings and information available, Ramirez said.
All meetings will be conducted via videoconference, which people can call in to using a landline or cell phone, for the foreseeable future, she said. Residents can call ahead about a project to record a voicemail that will be played during the meeting, email the case manager, or be called during the meeting to speak live.
Planning Commissioner Cherise Rohr-Allegrini, who is better known these days as an epidemiologist who serves on the COVID-19 Health Transition Team, said concerns about public engagement at these meetings existed long before the coronavirus pandemic.
“The digital divide [lack of internet] in this City been an issue for years,” she said. Adding a call-in option helps, but while “you don’t need a computer to call in, you need access to information,” which is typically online.
“I think if developers are more proactive in getting that buy-in from the community, it will make everything go more smoothly,” said Rohr-Allegrini, who also is president of the Lavaca Neighborhood Association. “The good ones already do.”
It also helps to have a strong neighborhood association keeping tabs on these meetings, she said, yet another challenge that existed before the pandemic.
“Nothing replaces an in-person meeting, but it might be a little better in terms of people being able to access it,” she said.
Normally, the meetings are held south of downtown in the afternoon during workdays, which precludes many people from attending due to work or commutes.
“I don’t know when we’ll be able to go back to in-person meetings,” Rohr-Allegrini added.
At HDRC on Friday, commissioners listened as Jeffrey Olivarri delivered a passionate plea to keep the $8,000 custom-made iron french doors on the front of his home in Monticello Park. The old, historic door was white and included a separate security gate that he said was not only outdated but dangerous.
The commission spent almost 20 minutes discussing the merits of the new french doors, which were bold and black featuring tightly-woven bands of iron with glass filling the gaps. Some thought it looked fine and agreed with Olivarri; others were still not convinced that the original doors should be cast aside.
In the end, the commission decided to hold off on voting and move the discussion to a committee for further review. The entire meeting lasted three hours, the commission leaving no design element unturned. For homeowners or developers hoping to slip something past the notoriously detail-oriented HDRC during a pandemic, its first meeting indicates that won’t be easily done.
OHP has received dozens of calls and emails from residents reporting unpermitted, illegal construction, said Cory Edwards, deputy historic preservation officer.
The office and Code Enforcement has conducted 70 field investigations of such claims since mid-March, Edwards said during the meeting. To the commissioners and anyone listening, he added, if you see something like this, “please report them.”