AIA San Antonio's Mario Peña presents to attendees.
Mario Peña, principal and partner of the local architecture/planning firm, presents to attendees. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

A handful of residents from several San Antonio neighborhoods got a crash course Monday night in land use, zoning, and how equity and revitalization factor into a community’s growth.

One dozen residents, architects, and City staffers attended the third of four workshops organized by City Councilman Roberto Treviño’s (D1) office and the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

The District 1 office recently began the series of meetings in response to discussions Treviño has had with residents and community stakeholders about development processes and policies. The councilman did not attend Monday’s meeting.

City Council will vote early next month on revised land use categories as part of the implementation of the City’s long-range comprehensive plan, SA Tomorrow.

Monday’s session was held at the AIA Center for Architecture on South Flores Street. The workshops aim to help architects and residents active in their neighborhoods understand how the City’s evolving development policies and procedures can impact their community.

Mario Peña, principal and partner of the local architecture and planning firm, said equity remains a goal in growing neighborhoods. Equity, he said, is the journey toward knocking down barriers to quality jobs, mobility, more education, health care and healthy food options, open space, arts and culture, and political engagement, among others.

Peña also said SA Tomorrow is designed to address aging and socio-economically disadvantaged neighborhoods in the urban core.

“A lot of goals in SA Tomorrow are to encourage revitalization to relieve pressures and unlock potential in the inner city,” Peña added.

As one of the nation’s most economically segregated cities, Peña said, it will not be easy to undo San Antonio’s decades of private and public sector practices that have helped produce generations of impoverished and underserved communities, such as redlining and developing freeways through poorer neighborhoods.

Peña cited statistics from various sources to demonstrate the lack of equity around San Antonio. One of them posited that the average area resident spends nearly half of his or her annual income on basic housing and transportation costs.

“The bigger this number is, the less economic resilience you have,” he said.

Fifteen percent or less would be a healthier percentage of a San Antonian’s income going toward transportation costs, Peña said, which include owning and maintaining a car.

Peña said developing better connected neighborhoods with more amenities can reduce people’s need to drive longer distance. This, in turn, encourages more sustainable communities.

But suburban sprawl increases costs for taxpayers and the City, Peña said, as roads, infrastructure, and public safety services experience heightened demand.

Shearer Hills residents Art Veliz and Jim Smith were among the attendees who said more mass transit, with hubs and transfer stations citywide, could help increase people’s mobility.

Having previously lived in the Washington, D.C. area, Smith recalled when Washington Metro, the local heavy rail rapid transit system, launched amid derision in the 1970s. Critics predicted it would become a boondoggle.

“Now, it’s a godsend,” Smith said.

“San Antonio is in a lucky position where traffic isn’t terrible for the most part,” Peña replied. “But with 1 million more people coming to San Antonio over the next 20 years, now is the time to fix [our transit problems].”

Another key to equity lies in providing a wider variety of housing options, Peña said. The new wave of residential construction locally has focused largely on single-family detached houses and mid-to-high-rise condos, lofts, and apartments, he said, when there’s a greater need for more live/work spaces, townhomes, courtyard apartments, bungalow courts, and multiplexes.

Peña acknowledged infill redevelopment is a challenge for older neighborhoods, where long-time residents fear displacement and loss of their community’s heritage.

Torrey Carleton, executive director of AIA San Antonio, said residents of especially older neighborhoods can learn to embrace and help shape future redevelopment in a way that preserves the community’s past.

“With growth and change comes change that is scary sometimes,” Carleton said.

Tobin Hill resident Buddy Parsons said he feels some neighbors are too quick to want to use historic designations or parts of their community plan to stave off encroaching development, adding that some careful redevelopment could benefit Tobin Hill.

“This is how different policies [are] preventing future growth that’s needed,” he added.

Chrissy McCain, land use and neighborhood planning director in the District 1 office, agreed with Parsons that City tools such as historic district designations are meant more as design guidelines.

McCain led attendees through an exercise in which they designed maps and applied land use and zoning categories using different colored strips of construction paper, so as to show how important land use and zoning can be in guiding future development.

Westside resident Natalie Guerrero (left) and Southeast Side resident Liz Trainer make a land use planning map during the workshop. Credit: Edmond Ortiz for the San Antonio Report

“It’s important to plan,” McCain said. “Without it, you get random development patterns.”

This is especially crucial, McCain said, when someone approaches an established neighborhood with a request for a neighborhood plan amendment and a zoning variance.

“You want your land use plan to be … flexible so you don’t have to keep amending it,” she added.

The final workshop will take place 6-8 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 26, at Our Lady of the Lake University main building. On Oct. 6, Treviño will host a town hall at the District 1 field office to address any lingering questions or concerns before Council votes on the land use categories.

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