Eastside neighbors and protesters rejoiced late Wednesday night after a city commission firmly rejected plans to build a four-story apartment building next to the iconic Hays Street Bridge.
The decision came around 10:30 p.m. after more than three hours of discussion by the Historic and Design Review Commission and residents who packed the board room during an unusually long meeting. Most of the 53 residents that signed up to speak wanted to see the land at 803 N. Cherry St. developed into a public park or at least incorporate more public access and views of the bridge. Others wanted a smaller building or more affordable housing units – anything from which the largely low-income surrounding community could benefit.
“They’ll be back,” Gary W. Houston, a member of the Hays Street Bridge Restoration Group, said of developers Eugene Simor and Mitch Meyer. “We won today, but they’ll be back. And so will we. …. The bridge should be protected. If they submit a plan that protects the bridge, we’ll take a look at it.”
Houston said he hopes next time the developers will meet with and listen to community members more often. A community meeting held just one week before Wednesday’s vote isn’t enough, he added.
A few residents supported the project, saying it would bring new life to a long-vacant lot that is adjacent to the bridge and Alamo Beer Company, which Simor owns.
But for commissioners, the crux of the issue was more technical. It’s their responsibility to review the design integrity of the project in specially-designated areas of the city using city guidelines, several commissioners and the attorney representing the project owners noted. HDRC routinely considers testimony from community, but some issues like potential lawsuits and affordability are outside its purview.
“I want to support it,” said Commissioner Daniel Lazarine. “It could be a prime example for good development, but I just don’t think the execution is there.”
Several community members and commissioners cited the street level parking “hidden” behind a green, living wall as a poor way to activate the street. Others raised concerns about plans for a restaurant between the bridge and apartment building.
The developer’s presentation still doesn’t respond to commission feedback and downtown guidelines, said Michael Guarino, HDRC chair. For such a high-profile case, Guarino said, there is a need for high standards.
“The case has not been made here,” he said, adding that he’s not confident that the building fits into the fabric of the community.
Meyer told commissioners that he’s open to compromise on the design. “I’m a big boy, I could change it,” he said. Ultimately, however, too much compromise would be needed than what could be addressed on Wednesday.
Asked after the vote if he plans to return to the commission with a new design, Meyer said, “Let me sleep on it.”
Out of seven HDRC commissioners present Wednesday night, five voted to reject the plan. Lazarine abstained from voting in hopes of having more time to deliberate. Commissioner Edward Garza cast the lone vote to approve the plan.
“More eyes on the streets [and bridge] is the highest goal of this project.”