A new push by a group of individuals in Mahncke Park to have the Midtown neighborhood designated a historic district by the City of San Antonio has resulted in a deeper divide among residents and property owners there.
Supporters of a historic district maintain the designation could help to preserve Mahncke Park amid a wave of redevelopment in the area. Opponents still say the designation is unnecessary, and that the process is unfair.
The city’s Office of Historic Preservation (OHP) is verifying signatures of residents and property owners to confirm support for a formal process to determine if a historic district should be established.
The initial push for a historic designation last summer was met with formidable opposition within the neighborhood. A major point in the debate is a 2012 change in city policy that allows the historic district designation process to continue if at least 30% of property owners support the designation. Previously, the process couldn’t move forward unless a minimum 51% of property owners supported the process.
After an initial public hearing with the city’s Historic Design and Review Commission (HDRC) and a public education meeting facilitated by the OHP, the review process for Mahncke Park was put on hiatus. The number of supporters for the process had dropped below 30%.
On Feb. 26, the district supporters withdrew their original application. Last month, the district backers submitted to the OHP a new application with revised district boundaries for Mahncke Park. An application is valid for two years. In mid-March the OHP received the most up-to-date ownership information from the Bexar County Appraisal District, and mailed a notification letter to all property owners within the new proposed boundary.
Scott Day, a Mahncke Park resident and designation backer, said the new push for a process involves ensuring support from confirmed current residents/property owners within the revised proposed boundary.
“Since it’s been a year or so since the first petition, there are naturally changes: deaths, divorce, relocation,” he said. “We’re going back with the city and validating everything.”
Day believes an increasing number of Mahncke Park residents have come to understand what the OHP signifies, and the pros and cons of living within a historic district. A higher percentage of affected property owners are indicating support for the process.
The city of San Antonio presently has 27 historic districts, the eligibility of which is determined by 16 criteria specified in the UDC. These criteria are based on four National Register of Historic Places criteria for eligibility.
The new district boundary leaves out several properties east of North New Braunfels Avenue that were included in last year’s original proposal. The new boundary also leaves out dozens of properties from south of Queen Anne Court to Funston Place, including the neighborhood park itself, that also were in the original application. The new boundary, like the old one, goes as far north as Groveland, a block south of East Hildebrand Avenue.
An organized group of opponents, Coalition to Protect Property Rights (CPPR), cropped up last summer, criticizing various parts of the first application. Group member Dr. Gary Cox and other opponents bristled at the new designation effort.
In a press release issued in late March, Cox said the new application had been submitted with “gerrymandered boundaries, removing the areas of Mahncke Park strongly opposed to historic designation. Even so, the majority within the new boundaries does not support historic designation of their properties.”
Critics reiterated their belief that the 30% minimum threshold for petitioning for a review process is at best an imbalanced approach – that a supposed minority should not speak for a majority of neighborhood residents. But facing this new designation push, detractors also are hurling criticism at the OHP and its director, Shanon Miller. They say, essentially, the city department is colluding with the Mahncke Park Neighborhood Association to secure the designation despite what they feel is overwhelming opposition.
“This is a coordinated effort by the Office of Historic Preservation and a small group of neighbors to railroad a redrawn historic area through before democracy and fairness can be restored to the process by City Council,” Cox said.
Day acknowledged the aim for the revised proposed boundaries was two-fold: To include more properties closer to Broadway, and to attract property owners more supportive of a designation process. Day denied assertions that the neighborhood association is officially behind the new designation push.
“We believe we are over 50%,” Day said. He added that newer developments, mainly high-end apartment complexes and The Do-Seum, could benefit neighborhoods surrounding Mahncke Park. But as for his neighborhood, there’s a need to help property owners protect what is already there. Many homes in Mahncke Park were built after World War I development, and served to connect Brackenridge Park with the San Antonio Botanical Garden north of downtown.
“We wanted to have more definitive edges, get as close to Broadway as possible. There’s continued encroachment from development from all sides, particularly Broadway,” Day said about the new boundary line. “We’ve already lost Hildebrand and are starting to lose other parts of the northern edge. You have to start somewhere.
“This is important if you value how a neighborhood appears to you. It’s about keeping the basic integrity,” he said.
If enough support is verified, the OHP will schedule an informational meeting. Following that, the public hearing process would begin. OHP would notify all property owners in the proposed district at least 30 days before the public hearing at the HDRC. If the HDRC recommends approval of the proposed district, public hearings are scheduled before the city’s Zoning Commission and then with the City Council.
Ximena Copa-Wiggins, OHP’s public relations manager, said her department did not play a role in determining the proposed boundaries in the current application.
“However, it is not uncommon for districts to begin with a smaller boundary area than the whole neighborhood association boundary,” she said.
“There are several examples in San Antonio where this has been the case. Additionally, if the proposed district goes through the public hearing process, it is possible for City Council to approve an even smaller boundary than the one proposed if so desired.”
Nevertheless, opponents are critical of OHP leadership and staff. They object to what they feel is a desire on the city’s part to make Mahncke Park a historic district, and “fines” the OHP schedules for proposed house repair and construction projects in a historic district.
In the CPPR press release, Cox accused the OHP of using “official OHP letterhead mailings to select neighbors to drum up support for this latest rezoning application. Director Miller and the OHP are supposedly neutral, but this proves they are favoring one faction within the neighborhood in their dogged pursuit to take control of Mahncke Park.”
Copa-Wiggins said her department have not engaged in any inappropriate conduct. Cox and his fellow detractors, she said, don’t understand OHP’s obligation to verify signatures of supporters of the previous application. The effort aims to determine of signatories from both applications be combined.
Other critics pointed to Miller being part of a local nonprofit, Power of Preservation Foundation, as a conflict of interest given her position with the city. Copa-Wiggins replied Miller is a volunteer member and receives no compensation from the foundation.
“The mission of (the foundation) is to raise awareness and funds to support the hands-on preservation programs of the Office of Historic Preservation,” she said. “The foundation directly supports and advances the work of the city. The city partners with many supporting nonprofit organizations in much the same way in a variety of disciplines.”
Copa-Wiggins said the OHP has long used public information meetings and workshops to explain that the department is a resource for people invested in historic/older homes and buildings.
She said some individuals confuse a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) – required for an exterior improvement project in a historic district – with something that actually prevents such a repair from happening. She said in most cases the city approves COA application quickly with little or no changes.
A COA is merely a go-ahead signal in the permitting process. Work done without a COA is subject to a $500 application fee, and the city may issue a stop-work order. But some opponents in Mahncke Park see this and other guidelines as penalties and deterrents for a property owner.
“It’s very subjective. What if I want to power-wash my house or driveway and, say, a (HDRC) member sees what I’ve done and doesn’t like the look of it,” Cox said during a Sept. 17 awareness meeting about living in a historic district.
In fact, there is no evidence of that kind of OHP behavior.
“For residential property owners, there is no cost for a normal Certificate of Appropriateness application, whether it is administrative or requires HDRC review,” Copa-Wiggins said. She added the only fee associated with the design review process for residential property owners is the possibility of the post-work application fee.
“If the property owners begin without proper approvals and permits, then he or she will be subject to the $500 post-work application fee,” she said, adding the fee encourages property owners to follow the design review process from the start.
*Featured/top image: Most houses in Mahncke Park are bungalows built in styles of Mission, Four Square, California and Cottage Tudor. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.