A meeting Tuesday about a proposed historic district in Tobin Hill turned into a heated debate about property rights and the effectiveness of City government in preserving neighborhoods in the face of surrounding development.
More than 80 residents from the area envisioned for the proposed Tobin Hill North Historic District attended the meeting at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church, with some residents expressing concerns about the the potential designation.
City Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) and other City representatives were part of the gathering where several residents criticized City leaders for failing to stop unwanted development nearby or offering what they felt was conflicting information about the historic district designation.
Last October, residents on East Mistletoe Avenue and Ewald Street applied to designate 88 properties collectively as a historic district. Homeowners Rick and Anisa Schell led the application effort, helping to secure the signatures of the required minimum 51% of affected property owners in the neighborhood that includes many bungalow-style homes built around the 1920s.
They and other backers of the effort say a historic district designation could give them a better shot at preserving the character of their community. The City’s Historic Design and Review Commission (HRDC) recommended the historic district designation in December.
The other option would be for the City to classify Tobin Hill a Neighborhood Conservation District (NCD), which some residents fear would not be strong enough to address the appropriateness of proposed new and infill construction. There’s been no application for a Tobin Hill NCD.
The next step in the process of finalizing a historic district designation is obtaining approval from the Zoning Commission, which was set to deliberate on the issue in February. But the City extended the timeline to allow more opportunity for community input, and the matter is now scheduled to go before the Zoning Commission in mid-May. Zoning staff have recommended approval.
The Tobin Hill Community Association also has endorsed the proposed historic district, which would encompass Mistletoe Avenue east of McCullough Avenue and west of Kings Court and include portions of Home, Ewald, Carleton, and Valentino Place.
Some homeowners and landlords within the proposed district’s boundaries are opposed to the designation, Anisa Schell said, and are pressuring backers of the proposal to withdraw the historic district application. She criticized Treviño for not communicating enough with residents during the application process, saying some in the community believe he is favoring developers over residential property owners.
“We want to have a broader discussion so we’re not dividing the community or giving any sense of leaving anyone out,” Treviño told the crowd.
Treviño attempted to allay fears that the historic district designation was a done deal, saying the entire public information process is ongoing.
“This is something that does not have to be rushed,” he said.
Assistant City Manager Rod Sanchez said a historic district contains many protections for property owners but comes with “tremendous responsibility.” He and Shanon Miller, director of the City’s Office of Historic Preservation (OHP), explained that exterior structural improvements in a historic district are subject to City review.
Miller noted that more than 90 percent of historic district improvements filed with the City in 2016 were approved, with most of them being approved by City staff without the need for an HDRC hearing. Some more significant exterior alterations in a historic district do go before the HDRC, with most being approved, she said.
Miller mentioned tax exemptions offered to property owners in a newly designated historic district, and some programs that help property owners who are financially unable to rehabilitate their structures to meet district standards.
But the notion of having to go through the City to alter an historic district structure bothered some individuals, such as Haley Catlett, a realtor who owns property in the proposed district but does not live there. Catlett said she’s not comfortable with the City determining whether she could, for example, replace windows on her property.
Property owner and real estate investor William Oakley said he, too, did not like the idea of the City approving or disapproving what he does with his property in a historic district.
“It’s absolutely not about freezing [a place] in time,” Miller said about City oversight of historic districts. “It’s about managing changes.”
Catlett said she preferred that the area become an NCD, but that those rules leave a lot to be desired. Some residents contended the current NCD rules would give them little protection against encroaching development they deem incompatible with the existing neighborhood.
“An NCD doesn’t seem very powerful, and it seems people work their way around it,” one audience member said.
A few homeowners argued that, under the current designation, property owners could simply request a variance from the City and redevelop the lot in an NCD however they wished as long as they comply with zoning rules.
“What’s the point of conservation if someone goes to the city and says, ‘Hey, I need a variance,’” Catlett said.
Jerry Lockey, a Beacon Hill resident who chaired his neighborhood’s NCD program years ago, attended Tuesday’s meeting. He urged the Tobin Hill residents to back some kind of strong preservation program to protect their community from encroaching development.
“If we don’t protect this downtown area, it’ll become Anytown, USA,” he said.
However, with just an NCD, Lockey said Tobin Hill residents have “got to police themselves.”
The development of modern-style condominiums on a multifamily-zoned lot on West Craig Place in nearby Beacon Hill was a point of contention at the meeting. Some in the crowd blamed the City for letting the development happen.
Catherine Hernandez, a planning manager in the City’s Development Services department, agreed with some attendees that a stronger NCD could have stopped the West Craig Place project, or at least have required developers to design something more architecturally compatible with the neighborhood.
Some residents criticized Treviño for not being proactive on the West Craig issue. Treviño said with so many building permits filed with the City, it would be next to impossible for a Council member’s office to vet them all.
Attendee Kenneth Carillo asked Treviño if he supported making Tobin Hill North an historic district.
“I support having a discussion,” Treviño answered.
Treviño has called for a reexamination of NCDs and historic districts. Last year, he filed two Council Consideration Requests (CCR). One seeks to modify NDC guidelines in the Alta Vista neighborhood, while the other aims to establish penalties for unapproved demolitions of a historic district structure, individual historic landmark, or a non-accessory structure in an NCD.
A few participants in the meeting lamented an NCD’s inability to prevent demolitions. One man in the audience pointed to San Antonio College having razed nearby structures to expand its campus footprint and add parking spaces.
“We’re getting boxed in,” he said.
As the meeting drew to a close, Miller and Treviño said the City would be glad to host another community meeting on the historic district proposal. Treviño urged residents and property owners to contact his office and the OHP with further questions.