The Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) signed off on a proposal Wednesday that would establish a new board of advisors to assist the city with the work of making sure historic guidelines are being met. 

But discussion about how to word this single amendment to the Unified Development Code took up several hours of the five-hour-long meeting and ended with one commissioner refusing to cast a final vote.

Driven by Commissioner Gabriel Velasquez, the discussion forced the commission to dig more deeply into language addressing racial equity and the makeup of city boards.

At their July 20 meeting, commissioners summarily signed off on 20 of the 21 amendments to the development code they were asked to review before the Planning Commission takes them up on July 27, and City Council in October. 

But when it came to the proposed amendment that would establish a new Compliance and Technical Advisory Board, the panel hit a roadblock. 

The idea first came up in 2019, said Shanon Miller, director of the Office of Historic Preservation, as the city prepared to kick off its UDC amendment process, which occurs every five years. A series of public meetings to gather input on the proposed amendments has been ongoing since December. 

“One of the main goals [of this amendment] … was to deal with caseload issues,” Miller said. “The HDRC meetings are very long, often four or five hours. Commissioners are all volunteers, and it’s a lot of work and it’s a lot of inconvenience for community members that have to wait if their case happens to be down low on the agenda. It’s just not very efficient for anyone.”

In addition to taking on some of the technical work of the HDRC, the proposed Compliance and Technical Advisory Board members could serve as alternates in order to establish a quorum at HDRC hearings whenever a commissioner is absent. 

Though one commissioner, James Cervantes, argued against the proposal, saying “we don’t want bigger government,” another commissioner questioned language in the amendment describing how new board members should be selected. 

“The issue … has to do with the prevailing discussion nationwide with respect to equity,” said Velasquez, who holds a bachelor’s degree in architecture. “It’s surprising to me that equity does not enter into the language in any way, shape or form inside of UDC amendments.” 

The proposed amendment stated that when choosing people to serve on the proposed new 11-member board, the mayor and council members should give preference to people with a background in preservation-related professions, such as architecture, archaeology, engineering and real estate. It also includes the option of appointing a “neighborhood representative serving as a citizen at large.”

Deputy Historic Preservation Officer Cory Edwards told the panel that the description within the amendment is intended to give council members “direction and guidance” when making appointments.

“But it’s not binding them to any sort of experience requirement,” he said.

Velasquez argued at length that a “preference” for certain occupations would limit Latino participation, and thus racial equity and inclusion, on a board that ensures compliance with historic guidelines. 

“The majority of the historic stock falls in a bracket of time when minority people weren’t even allowed to live in those neighborhoods,” he said. “That attitude of believing that somehow the person sitting in the chair doesn’t matter, because we’re all governed by guidelines, it’s just not true … and we shouldn’t be codifying it to be true.”

Commissioner Scott Carpenter, vice chairman of the panel, said it’s the duty of elected officials to appoint commissioners that reflect the communities they represent and for the commission to work toward preserving “what’s unique about our communities, which includes culture.”

He reminded the panel that the goal of the amendment was to help deal with a logjam of cases before the HDRC. 

“I actually did see this as being more flexible and perhaps opening up the ability to fill the commission more readily,” Carpenter said. “I think it would be appropriate to have people who are maybe more technically minded on this newly formed commission that’s going to be dealing with compliance cases and things like that.”

Carpenter and HDRC Chairman Jeff Fetzer both declined to comment the following day after the meeting. 

Commissioner Ann-Marie Grube said during the hearing that she recalled being briefed more than a year ago about installing a secondary board as a solution to the time-consuming nature of HDRC hearings. “I think this is the future of what this commission should be,” she said. 

Edwards also pointed out a paragraph in the amendment that states, “Members of the commission shall represent the general ethnic and gender makeup of the community.”

The City Council passed a non-discrimination ordinance in 2013 and a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis in San Antonio in 2020.

When OHP staff suggested adding, “In accordance with the city’s policy and commitment to advance equity …” Velasquez insisted the paragraph state, “racial equity,” then bristled at one commissioner’s suggestion to include “gender, religious and socioeconomic” equity.

Following an executive session called for by a city attorney and a series of motions to approve various language changes — and further discussion during which commissioners became visibly frustrated — the panel was polled on a motion to approve the language using only “equity.”

During the roll call, Velasquez refused to vote for or against recommending the amendment — or to abstain, saying, “I protest.” The motion passed with the remaining commissioners voting 6-1 in favor of the amendment.

Reached for comment on Friday, Velasquez said, “To be quite honest, I think I approached it a little bit more dramatically to ensure that the ‘equity’ got in there, period.”

He wanted to “push” the issue, he said, and walk away from the meeting without endorsing the final recommendation that the commission would put forward. It was also important to him that the discussion and his opinions were recorded in the minutes, he said. 

“It isn’t a conversation about racism — it’s a conversation about the homes of historically underserved communities that were the victims of historical racism which also happens to be those communities that are supported by the jurisdiction of the OHP,” he said. 

Velasquez is president and CEO of the Avenida Guadalupe Association, a nonprofit formed in 1979 that works on neighborhood revitalization and economic development projects in the near West Side of San Antonio. 

He was appointed by District 3 Councilwoman Phyllis Viagran in August 2019 for a period ending in May 2023. Velasquez also served as a District 3 appointee to the city’s Cultural Arts Board in 2012 before being asked to step down following controversy involving a mural on the historic Mission Drive-In marquee.

This story has been updated to clarify Gabriel Velasquez’s architectural background.

Shari Biediger has been covering business and development for the San Antonio Report since 2017. A graduate of St. Mary’s University, she has worked in the corporate and nonprofit worlds in San Antonio...