Camino Real Motel is located at 623 E. Bonner Ave., a block away from the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.
Camino Real Motel is located at 623 E. Bonner Ave., a block away from Mission San José. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

As one of three community groups that has publicly opposed the City of San Antonio’s proposal to rezone the World Heritage Buffer Zone, we at the Hot Wells Mission Reach Neighborhood Association are aware that zoning can be a complex and contentious issue.

While we and our neighbors support most of the rezoning proposal, some aspects of it – specifically the downzoning of selected commercial properties – are highly controversial. As of Wednesday, the Villa Coronado Neighborhood Association, Alliance for San Antonio Missions, and other citizens have provided 450 letters of opposition to the proposal in its current form.

In our view, the City should have isolated and passed the non-controversial parts of the proposal long ago. That would have saved City resources and citizens’ time, and we could have focused on working toward solutions for the controversial parts of the proposal that all could endorse.

Perhaps it was a strategic choice to present the entire proposal as one huge package, covering hundreds of properties in almost all zoning categories across multiple neighborhoods. It is, therefore, no surprise that some of the complexities of the downzoning issue have been lost in this process. We believe that most of those who have supported the proposal in its entirety are unaware of those complexities or the depth and breadth of the community’s concern.

It is not a trivial thing that the Zoning Commission heard from the City’s Planning Commission and World Heritage Office about this proposal multiple times, including in long sessions that were closed to the public. And yet after hearing from citizens speak in three-minute allotments, zoning commissioners had enough concerns to decline recommendation of this proposal to City Council.

There was concern about the taking of property rights when there are no pressing health, safety, or public welfare reasons to do so. There were questions about why the City would downzone hotels in what we hope will grow in to a more robust tourist economy, where people visiting the missions may actually stay in our neighborhoods and spend their dollars here. Several zoning commissioners endorsed the suggestion to break up the proposal.

So what’s the rush?

World Heritage Director Colleen Swain said, “There’s a sense of urgency here [in the buffer zone] because of the designation and anticipated change.” This is simply not true.

First, World Heritage designation isn’t threatened; in fact these businesses help embody the intangible heritage that is the reason for the UNESCO designation in the first place. These are puro San Antonio, locally run, mostly small businesses, not big-box, chain, or franchise operations.

If anything, we should worry this rush to downzone may drive displacement and loss of businesses that, who knows, in a few years might well become legacy businesses themselves.

Most concerning is that the City is presenting downzoning as a solution to some real problems. Some area residents have lived near “bad neighbor” businesses for too long, and the community definitely wants those businesses cleaned up – it’s not pleasant to live near an auto shop that repeatedly abuses City regulations. It’s also hard to invest in your business when drug dealers and prostitutes conduct theirs near your premises.

But we have commercial and residential zoning in close proximity all over San Antonio, and downzoning “bad neighbor” businesses won’t solve code and crime problems. The Mission San José Neighborhood Association, however, does, according to a letter the most vocal neighborhood group in support of the downzoning sent to Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City Council by. Click here to download that letter.

The World Heritage Buffer Zone and the South Side need more code enforcement and policing, and we wish Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) would make a greater effort there.

Targeting entire categories of businesses is not rational, and it’s not fair.

Second, Swain said there’s urgency to the timing of the rezoning proposal because of “anticipated change” in the area. Change is happening, and we welcome it. There is a slow but growing increase in development, and it is already naturally diversifying. Increased City investment and improved infrastructure will support this organic change. We don’t need to artificially push it in a particular direction with downzoning.

It’s also not true that “anticipated change” means we should fear the South Side will fill up with even more auto-related businesses. We asked the City for data on increases in such businesses over the last several years. The Planning Commission took almost two months to answer and finally sent a list of current permits — no historical information, no analysis, no real effort to communicate. On Tuesday night at a neighborhood meeting, City staff admitted to one of our members that they did not even look at the data. Why not, when surely it’s relevant?

We did look, and the data gives no reason to fear a wild proliferation of auto or tire shops. It’s not happening. Why would it?

The South Side is ready for more and different kinds of development. According to the Rivard Report‘s article, Viagran said rezoning aims to diversify and strengthen this area’s inventory of businesses. But downzoning won’t make that happen. These are facts: by design, downzoning will reduce the variety of businesses that can operate, curtail the ability of existing businesses to expand, and impose other severe restrictions on existing businesses as well.

Finally, Swain’s claim that rezoning is necessary to bring non-conforming uses into alignment with the community plan is circular and has been broadly criticized. The community plan to which she refers, endorsed by Council in 2016, did not call for the downzoning the City is now pushing. Had that been the case, there would have been even more community objection to the planning process than there was at the time.

This proposal is going too fast and for no good reason.

The proposal has already been changed substantively at least eight times. Some may say the City is being responsive to pushback, while others would argue the proposal was not well thought out from the get-go. Let’s take the time to do this right.

For these reasons, we have asked City Council to reschedule the hearing currently set for 2 p.m. Thursday, until new City land-use categorizations are defined and can be understood and equitably applied to everyone.

Rather than take away our local businesses’ ability to grow and profit from the rising economic opportunities that are finally coming to the South Side, we hope the City will establish new and innovative incentive programs that will help us all benefit from more diverse and equitable development.

Brady Alexander

Brady Alexander is a resident of the Hot Wells neighborhood, immediately across the San Antonio River from Mission San Jose. He is the president of the Hot Wells Mission Reach Neighborhood Association.