For years, someone turned off Broadway at the end of a busy workday and pulled into the driveway at 152 Burr Road. And another family received mail at 153 Perry Court – the mailbox is still there, right behind a zoning change request notice. The addresses that once served homes are now part of four vacant lots that will be discussed, perhaps heatedly, at Thursday’s San Antonio City Council meeting.
Thriving and growing, the University of the Incarnate Word needs parking space, and school officials have petitioned to change the zoning of the four residential lots to allow construction of a 33-space parking lot for faculty and staff. The change is opposed by City staff, the zoning commission and the Mahncke Park Neighborhood Association (MPNA).
The MPNA held an email vote on July 31 gauging board opinion on the UIW zoning request. Four of the six members voted against the zoning change, but left a “final” decision open until they could hear from UIW and gather opinions from residents. A vocal group of neighbors found the openness extremely disconcerting, and launched its own campaign against the rezoning initiative with a logo, yard signs and an independent Facebook page. The virtual exchanges among neighbors got very heated.
UIW has grown exponentially in the past decade, and they are in critical need of additional parking. Lou Fox, San Antonio’s former city manager and assistant to the president for community relations and campus security, said the university is sensitive to Mahncke Park neighbors’ concerns.
“We are planning a limited number of parking spaces – 33 to be exact – for faculty and staff. Ingress and egress to the parking lot is on Burr Road, with no additional traffic on Perry Court. We are designing appropriate screening between the lot and the neighborhood, and the lot will have lighting and regular patrols by our police for security,” Fox said. He noted that the San Antonio Country Club has a parking lot in the immediate vicinity, albeit in the city of Alamo Heights.
On Sept. 11, UIW officials met with the MPNA board and presented their plan, expressing their commitment to work with the neighborhood to make their presence as palatable as possible. It is true that Perry Court and the surrounding streets already carry a parking burden as students, faculty and staff park and walk to the nearby campus. From a certain perspective, a 33-space faculty lot might ease some of that congestion.
University officials also promised not to build any more parking lots in the neighborhood for five years and to offer assistance to the MPNA in converting the Mahncke Park fountain to non-potable water in response to San Antonio Water System restrictions on public fountains.
The MPNA board did not take a vote that night, but by Sept. 24, they had voted against approving the zone variance. By the time Julie Miller, the MPNA secretary released the board’s determination and clarification of their position, the controversy had become very personal, as reflected on a Facebook page that neighbors in Mahncke Park created (not affiliated with the MPNA).
On Sept. 31, Mike Bartels, board president, sent a letter to members calling a special meeting prior to Thursday’s City Council session to “re-vote” the matter. In his letter, he defended the university’s efforts. He said that the parking problem was shared by the neighborhood and the university and that the lot is “a start” toward relieving the problem.
The neighborhood has been urging the university to encourage alternate means of transportation on campus and by helping support “a Mahncke Park for Alternative Transportation” fund to improve sidewalks, crosswalks, bike lanes and pedestrian paths along Broadway between Mulberry and Hildebrand. If more students and employees came to campus via public transportation or by bicycle, the parking problem would diminish. Bartels, however, seemed to feel that UIW has been doing its best.
“The bar set by MPNA was very high and we felt that should UIW meet this goal, we as a neighborhood could move forward. We could start working on other areas presented in the MPNA plan, knowing we created a new partner in the process,” Bartels wrote.
The Mahncke Park Neighborhood Association is one of the city’s oldest such organizations, filing the first defined Neighborhood Plan to the city in 1983. Built around George Brackenridge’s donated strip of land connecting the old San Antonio Waterworks (now the San Antonio Botanical Garden and Brackenridge Park), Mahncke Park neighborhood has a wildly diverse mixture of residential properties ranging from elegant 1920’s era homes to poorly maintained, low-rent apartments. Part of the neighborhood served as a “tenderloin” district to Fort Sam Houston with bars and seedy night denizens for many years. When neighbors organized their association in the late 1970s, they took on a daunting cause. Those years produced experienced and strong-minded veterans in the fight to preserve the neighborhood. No one, it seems, wants any of Perry Court’s residents to have to live across the street, or next door, to a parking lot.
On the other side of the argument, the tree-lined UIW campus is one of the area’s true amenities. Among San Antonio’s three Catholic institutions of higher learning, UIW under long-serving President Lou Agnese, Jr. is has grown steadily in both size, quality of education and ambition. In other words, the very proximity of UIW arguably adds value to the neighborhood just as Trinity University adds value to the Monte Vista neighborhood and happens to have the same vehicle parking challenges.
The MPNA neighborhood plan submitted nearly 30 years ago specifies that institutional parking lots are not contiguous with the neighborhood’s character. The City of San Antonio’s Development Services department concurs that the parking lot would have an adverse impact on the neighborhood. The zoning commission also opposes the zoning change. John Jacks, assistant director of development services, summed up their disapproval:
“The basis for our denial is that the proposed parking lot is an encroachment that is not consistent or compatible with the neighborhood plan, which specifically recommends against parking lots for institutional use,” Jacks said.
Now the issue comes before City Council, and both side are expected to show up in force to make their case.
“If the Council is inclined to grant the conditional use of the property for the parking lot, we have recommended that the ordinance mandate specific improvements to screen the lot from the residential areas,” Jacks said.
Amy Estes, who lives at 158 Perry Court, located about 200 feet from the proposed parking lot, does not want to live next door to a parking lot. She has corresponded with university officials, offering five suggestions for other uses of the land (including an edible schoolyard, Habit for Humanity houses, green student housing and a pocket park). She also sent a letter to Mayor Julián Castro, and she has collected zoning cards and petition signatures opposing the parking lot. Estes developed a plat graphic that shows 15 neighboring households either signing the petition, returning zoning cards or both.
Two of the residents I talked with last week expressed concerns that UIW was “land banking” in the neighborhood for future development. I emailed Fox with a followup to our interview, asking the question, “Does UIW plan future acquisitions in the Mahncke Park neighborhood?” He replied, “We have no plans for more property that I am aware of.” This round of conversations with the Mahncke Park neighbors may have convinced the university such expansion is simply not a viable option — at least for now.
gary s. whitford is half of Extraordinary Words, a writing company. He lives and works in the Monticello Park neighborhood, and prefers to see his name in lower case letters.