This rendering shows the proposed Trail Street Townhomes in the River Road Historic District as designed in 2018. Credit: Courtesy / Mark Odom Studio

Plans for new townhomes in the River Road neighborhood got kicked back to a Historic and Design Review Commission subcommittee, where developers hope to resolve issues with neighbors.

In considering the project for conceptual approval, commissioners unanimously voted Wednesday to return to their Design Review Committee (DRC) a proposal for 23 condominium units on a vacant lot at 355 Trail St.

HDRC also voted unanimously Wednesday to give final approval to the first phase of a brownstone development in Dignowity Hill.

River Road

Austin-based developer MNO Partners’ Trail Street Townhomes would be located within the River Improvement Overlay (RIO) 1 District and inside the River Road Historic District.

The development would sit on less than 1 acre of land currently owned by attorney Robert Price of local firm Price and Martinez Law and zoned for a maximum of 33 residential units per acre.

The height of each three-story home would be several feet lower than the 45-foot limit set in the neighborhood. Plans show three unit types ranging from 20 feet wide to 30 feet wide. Each unit would feature three bedrooms, two-car garages, and vary in size from 1,500 to 2,500 square feet. The structures would be organized in three rows with a single driveway.

Residents and guests would have access to amenities, such as communal picnic and seating areas, pedestrian pathways, and a pool – all integrated on site.

Plans call for a range of vegetation to provide a more natural atmosphere, and a 6-foot-wide, crushed granite walking trail from Trail Street to the River Road Community Garden and East Huisache Avenue.

Project principal David Morin, chief executive officer of Austin-based Site Identify, described the project as being “a very reasonable plan.” The project is being designed by Mark Odom Studio’s San Antonio office.

Morin said the townhomes would blend into the community and provide prospective homeowners with a high-end housing option north of downtown. Home sales would start around $380,000.

“We just want to have a viable project that’s respectful of the neighborhood,” Morin added.

While the River Road Neighborhood Association looks forward to seeing the vacant lot on Trail developed in a compatible way, its Chair Richard Reed said the current concept is too dense for the lot.

355 Trail St. is being considered for construction of twenty-three residential units.
The currently empty lot at 355 Trail St. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Reed also said the proposed heights may still be too tall for a historic neighborhood of mostly single-story houses, and that the development’s density may harm a nearby acequia that dates back to the 18th century.

“The neighborhood association is invested in getting a development into this property that we like,” Reed said. “Nevertheless, given the conceptual plan that’s come before us, this has a series of flaws and shortcomings.”

According to Reed, there could be more natural buffers between the proposed development, the acequia, and nearby existing homes, including the Zambrano Homestead, an official historic landmark.

Reed suggested the streets that bound the proposed development may not be equipped to handle the increase in vehicular traffic.

An early version of the plan had Trail Street accessible from the individual parking garages at the townhomes, with a single main entry and exit point on Huisache.

The plan now envisions a secondary access onto Trail Street, which Reed said “would reduce the remaining pervious cover at the back of these properties.”

The larger the development, Reed said, the more impervious cover could cause rainwater runoff to flow the wrong way toward more sensitive neighborhood spots, such as the acequia.

Neighbors also want to see heritage trees around the lot preserved, Reed said.

“If you notice in the design, you’ll see there are very few elements that fit into a historic district,” he said.

City staff did not recommend conceptual approval, but instead suggested a number of steps, including a reduction in the number of units and in height, to help address problems in the plan.

Morin said much of the current concept already addresses many of City staff’s or neighbors’ issues with the project, including concerns about traffic impact. He at least four existing trees could be preserved, and more trees would be planted around the development.

Several Commission members said the concept has potential and expressed satisfaction that the developers are willing to talk further with neighbors. But they also said the plan is not yet ready for conceptual approval.

Commissioner Curtis Fish said the lies in making development on a compact site compatible with the neighborhood at-large.

“I think it’s a puzzle, and it’s a tight puzzle,” Fish said, suggesting the DRC review the concept.

“I think the neighborhood has been supportive of the overall concept,” Morin replied. “I think we have more talking to do [with neighbors] and work with them throughout the process.”

Dignowity Hill

Terramark Urban Homes received a certificate of appropriateness to begin building City Center, four duplexes on vacant lots at the corner North Swiss and Center streets.

Each duplex will contain two three-story, three-bedroom units with entrances on all street sides. Each unit will measure 1,670 square feet and include two enclosed parking spaces.

This rendering shows one of the initial buildings planned for the City Center brownstone development at North Swiss and Center streets in Dignowity Hill. Credit: Courtesy / Terramark Urban Homes

HDRC granted the project conceptual approval in February, but the developments plan has since changed to address concerns from the commission, City staff, and neighbors.

Conceptual approval came with stipulations, including that Terramark ensure architecturally appropriate proportions, façade arrangement, and materials.

Terramark is also eyeing a second phase of 18 duplexes on lots across Swiss Street, west of Phase 1 construction. Commonly found in the Northeast, the brownstones would be unique in the near Eastside neighborhood that continues to be a hub of residential redevelopment.

Commissioner Jeffrey Fetzer said he felt Terramark was “trying a little too hard for [the brownstones] to look historic,” but overall the commission agreed with the proposal.

“It’s a very complete package,” Commissioner Sandi Wolff said.

City staff recommended approval with a few stipulations, and neighbors also offered comments.

“We support staff’s recommendations and strongly support staff’s comments on the high level of false historicism proposed in the drawings,” resident Valerie Cortez said, reading remarks from fellow Dignowity neighbors to HDRC and the Office of Historic Preservation. One drawing in the plan “depicts an ideal exterior elevation that acknowledges the highly historic setting of businesses, churches, and the G.J. Sutton Complex across the street.”

There is a request to HDRC to construct four structures on the properties of 126, 130, and 134 N. Swiss St. (This is 134)
The current property at 134 N. Swiss St. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Final approval from the HDRC gives Terramark a green light to finalize sale prices, said Ricardo Turrubiates, Terramark project manager.

If City Center proves successful, he said, Terramark would look at doing similar developments around Center Street. Phase 1 construction should begin in a few months, he added.

“City Center would be a great addition in the St. Paul Square area, especially with The Baldwin down the road,” Turrubiates said, referring to the nearby luxury apartment high-rise.

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.