A new residential development in Dignowity Hill.
All new construction in historically designated neighborhoods such as Dignowity Hill through the HDRC. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The City of San Antonio’s Planning Commission on Wednesday approved several changes to infill development, mixed use, and residential zoning regulations. Final approval of the new rules aimed at calming neighborhood disputes about new building projects requires a City Council vote, which is slated for early November.

In spring 2017, Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) and then-Councilman Cris Medina (D7) filed a request to review the City’s code as it relates to Infill Development Zoning (IDZ) which targets the urban core to allow for more flexible development rules. That triggered the Development Services Department to form a 15-member task force comprised of neighborhood advocates, developers, and other stakeholders. These groups routinely clash over modern, higher density housing developments – often historic neighborhoods.

City staff and the task force, after more than a dozen meetings, crafted new code language that would break up IDZ into three categories based on the intensity of use and size, create two more residential zoning categories, and enhance rules for mixed-use development (MXD). Click here to download the draft ordinances. For some categories, more detailed site plans and building heights are required so neighbors can have an idea of what’s coming to their block earlier in the process.

“At the heart of this is communication,” Treviño told the Rivard Report on Wednesday. “When someone applies for IDZ [today], they’re not required to give a whole lot of information.”

Not knowing what will be built next door can be stressful for neighbors, he said, and IDZ is currently a “wild card.”

No one group gets everything they want out of the proposed changes, several members of the development community and neighborhood groups told the Rivard Report this week, but there’s hope the new rules will balance increased development and density needs with neighborhood preservation efforts as the San Antonio area braces for the more than 1 million new residents by 2040 that have already started arriving.

IDZ, unlike other zoning rules, can only be applied to properties within Loop 410, where development is typically more complicated and expensive. Some neighborhood groups have said IDZ provides developers with too much flexibility. As more developers look to take advantage of the emerging downtown real estate market, IDZ was being used too often for simple, single-family lots that were smaller than the current rules allowed (less than 3,000 square feet) and large mixed-use projects.

A 15-member task force came up with changes to the city's Infill Development Zoning (IDZ) rules.
A 15-member task force came up with changes to the city’s Infill Development Zoning (IDZ) rules. Credit: Courtesy / City of San Antonio

Click here to download City staff’s presentation explaining the changes.

The proposal also includes establishing new “R-1” and “R-2” designations for smaller lots with required setbacks, and enhancing rules so developers can make slight adjustments to plans without having to resubmit zoning applications. For instance, if a developer wants to increase the number of dwelling units, increase commercial or industrial acreage use, or decrease open space by 10 percent after a property has already received its IDZ or MXD designation, developers can do so without having to reapply. Anything beyond that threshold and they’d have to come back to the Zoning Commission and Council for approval, the City’s Principal Planner Logan Sparrow told commissioners.

An early suggestion to require review of IDZ cases by the Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) when requested in historic or river improvement overlay districts was not recommended by the task force or supported by the Planning Commission.

Deputy Historic Preservation Officer Cory Edwards told the commission’s technical advisory group on Monday that requiring non-binding review by HDRC could add another opportunity for public input.

While generally supportive of the changes, Robert Fox, land manager for David Weekley Homes, told the advisory group that he was concerned that requesting IDZ-2 – which allows up to four-stories and 50 units per acre – would carry a “stigma” with it when presented to neighborhoods. But IDZ-1, which allows for up to 18 units per acre, would not fit the typical project, 22 units per acre, that his company works on.

“It reads very much like multifamily zoning,” Fox said, which typically faces neighborhood opposition.

But the conversation would start with the density level and project described (a new requirement) in their application, City staff explained, so there should be less confusion about how many units the applicant is asking for.

Cynthia Speilman, president of Beacon Hill Area Neighborhood Association and a founding member of the Tier One Neighborhood Coalition, told commissioners that the coalition, comprised of more than 50 inner-city neighborhood groups, supports the recommended changes that “allows for true conversation between developers and neighborhoods at the beginning of the process.”

Speilman later told the Rivard Report that codifying requirements like site plans and height disclosure early on in the process would save a lot of fighting later on and changing a project only becomes more expensive the further along it gets.

It’s better to “have the chaos in the beginning,” she quipped.

The Planning and Zoning commissions are comprised of 11 citizens appointed by Council members and the mayor. The task force was made up of seven development representatives, seven neighborhood association members, and a staff member from Treviño’s office. The Zoning Commission is slated to consider the code changes during its Oct. 2 meeting, then on to Council’s Comprehensive Planning Committee before a full Council vote.

Treviño said the proposed changes are “the kind of progress I hoped we would accomplish.”

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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 iris@sareport.org