The construction site at 311 W. Norwood Ct. in Monte Vista Terrace. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Residents of Monte Vista Terrace and surrounding near-Northside neighborhoods lost an appeal Tuesday that challenged City staff’s decision to allow construction of four four-story condos on a vacant lot. Some neighbors said that at more than 40 feet tall, the structures violate development rules and will stick out “like a sore thumb” on the largely two- and one-story residential block.

But the Board of Adjustment voted 6-4 in favor of City staff’s interpretation of the Unified Development Code that allows multifamily buildings up to 45 feet high to be built adjacent to single-family homes. Once the City’s Development Services Department gives them the final “all clear,” work can continue on the project after a three-month delay during the appeal process, developers Lisa and Stephanie Goldin told the Rivard Report.

“We’re excited to get back to work,” said Lisa Goldin, president of GCM Holdings. Stephanie Goldin is vice president of the company, and the mother and daughter split their time between Austin and San Antonio, they said. “Our goal is to bring [housing] choices to the community.”

The debate on Tuesday exemplified the balancing act between neighborhood preservation and development as areas of the city attract a growing population. Possible solutions that would affect the Unified Development Code may be coming, thanks to a request by Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), but any changes would have to wait for the formation of a policy task force in August that would then recommend changes for City Council to consider.

A banner encourages Monte Vista Terrace residents to call Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) about a condo project. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The Board of Adjustment’s vote followed more than three hours of discussion about how City staff interprets zoning and development rules regarding building height and number of structures per lot. However, the conversation often strayed into the concerns neighbors had with the project that are outside the board’s purview, including parking, drainage, public safety access, and quality of design.

The 11-member, quasi-judicial board’s chair, John Kuderer of District 9, repeatedly reminded residents that its judgment would be based on finding of fact regarding Mary Johnson’s appeal concerning the complex Unified Development Code that governs where and how buildings can be developed in the city.

Johnson is president of the relatively new and small Monte Vista Terrace Neighborhood Association, which includes about four streets just north of West Hildebrand Avenue and the larger Monte Vista neighborhood. The property is not designated historic nor is it located in a historic or conservation district, so as long as plans meet the height and density rules, they aren’t reviewed by the Historic and Design Review Commission and don’t need City Council approval.

“We’re not against development,” Johnson told the board. But the code “never intended” to allow “massive, behemoth structures” next to single-story homes. She and others called for a “common-sense approach” to interpreting the code.

Two-story duplexes are located next door to 311 W. Norwood Ct. in Monte Vista Terrace. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Jim Smith, a resident who has experience with City code and assisted Johnson with the appeal, pointed to parts of the City’s code that calls for projects to sacrifice setbacks, or push buildings away from the edge of a property line, if they want to exceed height. Smith said the code calls for a 35-foot maximum on this property, citing yet another section of the code. Click here to view a summary of the neighborhood’s argument.

But that applies to single family lot developments, City staff pointed out. Because the Goldins’ property is not a single-family development and they aren’t subdividing, it only needs to meet multifamily zoning requirements, specifically called “MF-33.”

MF-33 properties have a maximum density of 33 units per acre. Four units are allowed on the property at 311 W. Norwood Ct.

A majority of board members found that plans for the project fit into the City’s zoning and development guidelines, but four board members and neighbors said City staff misinterpreted the code.

“…How this applies, it has nothing to do with us … If it’s under 45 feet, they’re meeting the UDC,” board member Donald Oroian (D8) said.

Representatives from the nearby Monte Vista, Alta Vista, and Beacon Hill neighborhood associations attended the meeting Tuesday to show solidarity against what they consider aggressive infill development that they say doesn’t respect the design fabric or density of the neighborhood. Most of the residential properties on West Norwood Court in the Monte Vista Terrace neighborhood are zoned R-4, or residential single-family district. The H-E-B on San Pedro Avenue and surrounding lots are zoned industrial, but there are only a few zoned MF-33.

A zoning map, which shows the rare use of MF-33 in Monte Vista Terrace, was used as part of the appeal to the Board of Adjustment.
A zoning map, which shows the rare use of MF-33 in Monte Vista Terrace, was used as part of the appeal to the Board of Adjustment. Credit: Courtesy / Monte Vista Terrace Neighborhood Association

This may be the first time this particular section of the code has been formally appealed to the Board of Adjustment, which requires a $600 filing fee paid by the applicant. However, it is not the first time the issue of blending new, higher-density housing into single-family neighborhoods has arisen. It is also not the Goldins’ first condo project in San Antonio.

The condos at 930 W. Craig Pl. in Beacon Hill sold out quickly, Stephanie Goldin told the Rivard Report on Tuesday. And they’ve received several calls about their other project at 615 W. Fulton Ave., just west of Monte Vista. “There is incredible demand for this kind of product,” she said.

Some people want to live downtown without having to maintain a house and yard, she added.

A residential house and newly constructed high density infill development project on West Craig Place in the Beacon Hill Neighborhood.
A residential house and newly constructed high-density infill development project stand side by side on West Craig Place in the Beacon Hill Neighborhood. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Area residents, including Beacon Hill Neighborhood Association board member James Baumann, decried the modern design of these projects. The condos on West Craig Place are an “eyesore,” he said, and “we’re living with the aftermath of that project.”

In August 2017, Treviño filed a council consideration request to set in motion a review of MF-33 and RM-4 zoning rules that could provide more clarity to developers, residents, and the City on how these parcels can be developed. That may result in code changes, but a task force aimed at formulating recommendations has yet to start work. That is slated for August. Then, it would likely be several months until recommendations are produced and presented to City Council for approval, Treviño said.

“We see that this particular zoning designation [MF-33] has become very problematic in the way it’s distributed in different parts of the city,” he said.

On the other hand, one of several key elements of the City’s comprehensive plan, SA Tomorrow, is to strategically increase and encourage density in urban core neighborhoods.

That mixed message being sent to developers – do infill development, but beware of strong neighborhood opposition – is something Treviño hopes the task force can address.

“What’s concerning, and what I think is creating the problem, is that there’s not much clarity – not just for developers but for neighborhoods, too,” he said. “We hope that we can make things more accessible and more relatable and understandable to everybody, but I think we all need to kind of start working together to establish a cohesive vision that brings all this together.”

Area residents are backing an application from an Alta Vista Neighborhood Association board member, Teresa Nino, to designate two properties in that neighborhood historic in order to block the Goldins from demolishing two buildings they purchased more than one year ago.

The Historic and Design Review Commission will hear the application to designate the buildings historic on Wednesday. The Office of Historic Preservation staff’s review did not find the structure at 2511 N. Flores St. worthy of designation, but the property behind it at 800 W. Russel Pl. was recommended for historic designation.

The Goldins said the process has been arduous, but they will continue to work in San Antonio.

The opposition and sometimes slow-moving wheels of City processes has “not deterred us, but it’s almost prohibitive,” Stephanie Goldin said. Doing infill developments is “not as lucrative as it’s made out to be.”

Overturning a City staff decisions requires a supermajority vote by the Board of Adjustments. Board member Denise Ojeda (D3) recused herself from this case because she arrived at the meeting after City staff presented its side.

Johnson and other neighbors said it was unlikely they could afford to challenge the board’s ruling in municipal court.

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at