The recent World Heritage site designation has brought national attention to the Alamo and the four other Spanish colonial Missions in San Antonio. But some Southside residents say it has also brought unwanted attention from apartment complex developers looking to “cash in” on the area’s real estate opportunities.
About 50 neighbors and stakeholders in the area surrounding Mission San José met Tuesday night for a briefing and discussion at Mission Branch Library about plans for a 144-unit apartment complex adjacent to what is known as the “Queen of the Missions.” Most of the audience – including state Rep. Roland Gutierrez (D119) and Councilmember Rebecca Viagran (D3) – expressed concern with the proposal, all with different intensity and reasons.
The general consensus of the group seemed to be that, at the very least, more thought needs to be put into how we maintain and enhance our new World Heritage sites and surrounding areas.
“I understand the need for progress … but we need market value homes (instead of apartments),” said longtime Southside resident Brenda Pacheco, adding that preference should be given to descendants of the native people whose land was taken away in the first place.
Brady Alexander, a member of the East Pyron/Symphony Lane Neighborhood Association, said the developers are “kicking a hornet’s nest” with this plan. “We are 100% opposed to it. … The Missions don’t mean anything to me personally, but they’re still worth preserving.”
On June 17, 210 Development Group received conceptual approval from the Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) for six, three-story multi-family buildings on a lot between Napier Avenue to the north/northeast and Roosevelt Avenue to the west. The seven-acre development would close off much of Huizar Road.
The designs call the project simply “Roosevelt Apartments,” and place them squarely within the historic zoning overlay established by City Council and adopted by the World Heritage as buffer zones – within 1,500 feet of Mission San José’s front entrance.
“We’re trying to introduce a fair share of market-rate housing to the Southside,” said 210 Development Partner Mark Tolley during the presentation, noting that there isn’t a well-balanced mix of housing options in the area.
This will be a “garden style” apartment complex with “craftsman architecture,” Tolley said. The HDRC and City staff made a list of several design adjustments and stipulations that 210 Development will have to accommodate in order to gain City approval.
The plans are extremely preliminary, said 210 Development President Michael Wibracht after listening to neighborhood concerns. “We’re open to looking into the exterior elevations. There is a magic formula, though, for number of units versus cost of construction (we) have to hit.”
The property is currently owned by the Leonard Holding Co. of L&H Packing Company, which hired 210 Development to explore options for how to redevelop the land that has sat vacant, its industrial meat packing facilities rusting, for almost 30 years. The site is almost completely covered in impervious, concrete surfaces.
Today, the property is zoned for industrial/commercial use, so even if this conceptual plan doesn’t gain approval from the City it will likely need to get a zoning change to residential, light commercial, or mixed use.
“(Commercial/industrial) zoning is not what they want for that area,” Wibracht said. “Interest rates aren’t going to stay this low. As interest rates climb, deals like this are not going to be this (feasible) … and that’s going to be bad for areas like this that need housing and don’t have it.”
Much of the conversation Tuesday night centered around if the project would help or hurt a re-designation of the Missions as a World Heritage site, which comes with a set of operational guidelines from the United Nations Education, Science, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). This document provides an outline for what kind of standards need to be upheld at the site and within the designated buffer zones.
“It’s not a one-and-done deal,“ Gutierrez said after the meeting. “We have a responsibility that says we have to continue to preserve (the Missions).”
While he agrees that there should be more market-rate housing in the Southside, he thinks allowing a large apartment complex so close to San José would be detrimental to the World Heritage designation and be a disservice to the neighborhood.
“We are getting in the way of property rights and what people can do with their money,” he said. As is common when dealing with planning, zoning, and conservation. “So shouldn’t we (the public) ensure it and buy it? We don’t have to build anything yet … let’s just hold it and preserve it for now and figure out (what) it’s going to be?”
He suggested greenspace or a museum that honors the “Native Americans of this community … something that we’ve never, ever done.”
Mission Protection Overlay Zoning Districts, established in October 2014 by city ordinance, provide initial buffer zones protecting the five sites’ “viewsheds” similar to protections found of the State Capitol in Austin. A 1,500-foot radius of new zoning restrictions extends out from the main front entrance to each mission. Within that circumference, any new buildings will be limited to heights lower than the missions to avoid obstruction of sight lines.
210 Development estimates that the Roosevelt Apartments would be about 43 feet high, compared to the 46 and 69 feet as allowed by the overlay at the development’s closest and furthest point in relation to Mission San José.
Sixth generation Southside resident Pedro Huízar spoke out in favor of the development as it conforms to the overlay and provides housing for new residents in the area. “If anybody should be crying it’s me,” he said, referencing the street named for his family. His great great great grandfather, after whom he was named, was a San Antonio artist and surveyor believed to be behind the mission’s famed Rose Window and work at other Missions.
But he said he would rather see something productive become of the property. “How would you like it if they had the land and they tell you (that) you can’t build on it?” As a product of Section 8 housing himself, he said he would welcome another public housing project.
“(Three stories is) too high in my opinion,” Viagran said of the preliminary design, adding that she will continue talks with developers and stakeholders about next steps and alternative options. “This is just one of our Missions, we have three more in District 3 at least that we have to continue to look at very, very diligently.”
The UNESCO guidelines take that buffer zone far beyond viewsheds to take into account the “Outstanding Universal Value” inherent in each World Heritage site. It’s a heavy term, and exactly why so many residents say they oppose multi-family developments within the radius.
San Jose Neighborhood Association President Armando Cortez read from the guidelines to emphasize the gravity of what is expected:
“The cultural and natural heritage is among the priceless and irreplaceable assets, not only of each nation, but of humanity as a whole. The loss, through deterioration or disappearance, of any of these most prized assets constitutes an impoverishment of the heritage of all the peoples of the world. Parts of that heritage, because of their exceptional qualities, can be considered to be of ‘Outstanding Universal Value’ and as such worthy of special protection against the dangers which increasingly threaten them.”
Guitierrez suggested that the radius be revisited by council to be expanded further, to take into account viewsheds from the furthest corners of the Missions’ grounds. The Roosevelt Apartments would be just across Napier Avenue from the San José visitor center, he pointed out. While the that’s slightly more than 1,000 feet away from the Mission’s front door, it’s less than 150 feet away from the mission grounds.
It’s also quite close to his house, he admits. “But this is not a NIMBY (“Not In My Backyard”) issue. … At the end of the day they won’t be able to really dream about the grand potential for this community. We have an opportunity to do something spectacular.”
The last thing San Antonio wants is to end up on the “endangered” World Heritage site list, Viagran said. She was part of the local delegation that traveled to Bonn, Germany to witness the World Heritage Commission’s vote.
“They hit us on (not having a strong) management plan,” she said of one of the main concerns the commission had. “They said that their main issue is maintaining the buffer, preservation and protection in and around world heritage sites.”
But beyond what the U.N. thinks, it’s also about how the people of San Antonio want to treat Texas state’s first and only World Heritage site in that international context.
“I’m going to err on the side of caution when it’s something in and around the missions,” she said.
*Featured/top image: Mission San José. Photo by Scott Ball.