The Tower Life building is visible from the Johnson Street Pedestrian Bridge.
The Tower Life building is visible from the Johnson Street Pedestrian Bridge. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

This summer, City Council will consider protecting iconic views of cultural landmarks in San Antonio, including the historic San Fernando Cathedral in Main Plaza, and the Tower Life building downtown.

Musicians of all varieties convene at Main Plaza to celebrate the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach.
San Fernando Cathedral. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Council’s Arts, Culture, and Heritage Committee voted 3-1 Tuesday to bring these and two other possible viewshed protections up to a full Council vote in June. The other two would be to protect views of the Eastside’s historic Hays Street Bridge – a controversy which spurred the broader viewshed discussion – and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower as seen from across Woodlawn Lake.

Council approval in June would launch a public engagement process as well as City staff research on how to zone properties to protect specific views.

Shanon Shea Miller, director of the City’s Office of Historic Preservation, told the committee there is no “guarantee” that the City Council will establish the viewsheds.

Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) cast the lone vote against forwarding the four views on to a full Council, saying that the complex zoning process could impede growth and density.

“It’s too much, it’s too complicated, there’s too many steps,” Gonzales said. She noted that developers, especially smaller companies, already have a hard time navigating City rules. These rules may halt development in the urban core, she said, and contribute to more suburban sprawl.

SA Tomorrow, the City’s comprehensive growth plan, calls for more density, she said. “We have got to get more comfortable adding more buildings … we’re just not used to it in San Antonio.”

Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5)
Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Austin established its Capitol View Corridors in the 1980s to protect 30 different views of the Statehouse downtown, Miller said in response to Gonzales. “It’s not stopping development, it’s shaping it.”

Council members Greg Brockhouse (D6), Rebecca Viagran (D3), and Roberto Treviño, who chairs the committee, voted to send the issue to a full Council vote.

The Hays Street Bridge on the near-Eastside and the controversial five-story apartment complex that property owners want to build next to it have sparked the latest viewshed discussion. City Manager Sheryl Sculley approved the project despite its rejection by the advisory Historic and Design Review Commission, but with strict requirements regarding heights and building placement. Her stipulations do not require a view of the bridge, and since the project was proposed before viewshed protections were even considered, they cannot be applied to the current application – even if the project design is modified.

A boy rides his toy tractor near the Hays Street Bridge.
A boy rides his toy tractor near the Hays Street Bridge. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Miller said she, her staff, and a technical advisory committee have been speaking with developers and community members to clarify what the viewshed ordinance can and cannot do.

“Only City Council can initiate a viewshed protection district,” Miller said, and a “viewshed” does not include a 360-view of a landmark, it’s “a single direction view from a point that is publicly accessible.”

Yaneth Flores spoke in support of adding viewshed protections to the Hays Street bridge, especially for the corner of Lamar and North Cherry streets, but argued that it should be a 360-degree protection.

“This view does belong to all of us,” Flores said. “[The bridge is] a staple to District 2 and it would be really, really heartbreaking to see it disappear.”

If City Council votes in June to study the four viewsheds, City staff will conduct an economic impact analysis.

To balance the property rights of owners and the need to preserve San Antonio’s unique cultural offerings, Miller said, the viewsheds will be “very strategic and as narrowly defined as possible.”

The Basilica’s inclusion on the list is what sold Brockhouse on the importance of viewsheds, he said, adding that it was there that he became a Catholic.

“I’m a pro-development guy,” Brockhouse said, as it generally brings jobs and economic growth, but “there are points when development impedes who we are.”

Less than 2 percent of property downtown would be effected by these potential viewshed protections, Miller said.

If approved, each of the four proposed viewshed zoning overlays will be vetted by the public, she said, and then come back to City Council for separate approval.

Councilman Cruz Shaw (D2), who also sits on the five-member committee, was out of town so did not attend the meeting. He told the Rivard Report afterward that he supports the decision to move forward.

Shaw and Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7), who did attend the meeting but is not a voting member, filed a request in November 2017 for City staff to examine changes to the existing viewshed ordinance – which already allows for rules surrounding the World Heritage-designated, Spanish-colonial Missions – that would allow for more landmark views to be protected.

“This is a great way to celebrate the landmarks,” Sandoval said, noting that the protections in Austin haven’t stunted growth in that city.

“These views and landmarks are what makes San Antonio unique,” Shaw said in a phone interview. “We can showcase the beauty and history of our great city.”

As each viewshed comes before Council, he said, they’ll have to look at the specifics – but “theoretically I don’t think it’ll put a damper on [development]. I think developers will be more creative and understand the rules.”

Historic preservation and growth are not mutually exclusive, Miller told the committee, rather those goals compliment each other.

“Historic preservation is a form of economic development,” Miller said.

Part of the conversation, as policy makes its way through HDRC, Zoning Commission, and then again to City Council, Treviño said, has to be about educating the public and developers about “what viewsheds are and what they are not.”

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...