The Historic and Design Review Commission on Wednesday unanimously recommended a proposed process that could increase the number of historic landmarks eligible for viewshed protection and introduce Viewshed Protection Districts.

The proposal will next go to the Zoning Commission, and then City Council. Residents attending the meeting said that protections would boost efforts to preserve certain historic structures and landmarks, especially in older neighborhoods.

Two local developers who spoke to the Rivard Report later Wednesday said they don’t oppose historic preservation, but that there are too many unanswered questions about the proposed viewshed protections.

City Council members Cruz Shaw (D2) and Ana Sandoval (D7) filed a council consideration request last November asking City staff to explore the possibility of amending the City’s Unified Development Code (UDC) to provide greater viewshed protection to certain historic areas.

The issue came to the forefront in recent weeks on the Eastside, where a local developer has plans to build a five-story mixed-use complex that would block some views of the historic Hays Street bridge.

HDRC denied a redesigned version of the project, but City Manager Sheryl Sculley later overruled the commission and approved the project – with conditions.

The UDC currently limits the types and opportunities for viewshed protection. For example, provisions currently do not allow for more than one view to be protected from a single site.

The UDC also does not consider natural views, and requires protected sites to be buildings with a main, visible front entryway. Other structures, such as bridges or public art pieces, are not currently considered for protection.

City staff’s findings on the council consideration request can be found here.

Viewshed Protection Districts would function as a zoning overlay, under which projects are reviewed for conformance with any height restrictions as part of the development review process, which would include the HDRC.

Viewshed protection could be extended to more than 20 eligible sites, such as all Spanish-colonial Missions, Jefferson High School, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower, the Hays Street bridge, and Woodlawn Lake, according to City staff.

In 2016, City Council approved an ordinance creating Mission Protection Overlay Zoning Districts, which provide buffer zones to protect the Alamo and the four Southside missions and their viewsheds. This was part of the City’s effort to gain the UNESCO World Heritage designation for the missions.

Azza Kamal was the lone commissioner to address the proposed amendments, seeking to modify proposed language that prohibits encroachment by a restored neighboring structure into a viewshed or mission protected area.

Kamal suggested verbiage to change from “…shall not encroach…” to “…shall not cause additional encroachment…”

“I think it just needs to be clarified. Otherwise it’d be very ambiguous,” she said.

Only three people spoke at the meeting, and all were residents expressing support for unobstructed views of local historic sites.

District 7 resident Kristel Orta-Puente said she appreciates having unobstructed, 360-degree views of historic landmarks in her Westside neighborhood.

“Protecting a 360[-degree] view to and from surrounding places such as Little Flower, Woodlawn Lake, Woodlawn [Avenue] toward Little Flower, the [Woodlawn Lake] lighthouse, and Thomas Jefferson [High School] is essential to keeping our communities intact for future generations,” she said.

District 8 resident Yaneth Flores and Tobin Hill resident Beatrice Moreno both said landmarks and structures such as the Hays Street bridge are vital to the city.

“These landmarks belong to the community,” Flores said. “These are the things that make San Antonio.”

Peter French, GrayStreet Partners’ development director, did not attend the meeting but said later that San Antonio has iconic landmarks worth protecting through viewsheds, but that some local officials have higher priorities.

“I think we’ve already done that with the Alamo and Missions,” French said. “Supporting a vibrant downtown, creating world-class public spaces, improving the pedestrian and cycling experience in San Antonio should rank much higher on the priority list than the creation of additional viewsheds.”

Principals at 210 Development, who plan to restore some buildings at the former St. John’s Seminary and transform other parts of the property near Mission Concepción into an apartment complex, said viewshed protections would inhibit economic growth and development in San Antonio.

“The proposed viewshed initiative, although formulated with good intentions, is a plan that will be severely detrimental to the continued economic growth and development of the City,” they stated via email.

“This plan as proposed would subvert the zoning process and impose unnecessary restrictions that are already governed by existing zoning ordinances and development code.”

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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.