This article has been updated.

Developers seeking approval to build 23 new townhomes in the historic River Road neighborhood were again denied a waiver Wednesday that would have allowed them to resubmit their proposal.

The Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) voted 5-4 to approve the waiver, but six affirmative votes were required. Dissenting commissioners said the developers had made compromises on the design, but not enough to satisfy concerns about the height and size of the structures.

This is MNO Partners’ second attempt to obtain a waiver – the first was on June 19. There is no limit to the number of times an applicant can apply for a waiver, but some commissioners on Wednesday said they were annoyed by the repeated attempt.

Though he voted in favor of the waiver in June, Commissioner Scott Carpenter said he felt “annoyance with the fact that this applicant is coming back.”

Still, Carpenter voted to approve the waiver. Commissioners Curtis Fish, J. Maurice Gibbs, Gabriel Valasquez, and Chair Jeffrey Fetzer voted against it.

MNO has been trying to get The Oaks at River Road at 335 Trail St. approved since late 2018, when HDRC delayed its preliminary vote for months, citing design concerns. After those changes were made, the commission granted approval of the project in late 2019 – but that was overturned by a neighbor’s appeal through the Board of Adjustment in February. Without a waiver, MNO will have to wait a year from February to submit new plans, according to the City’s Unified Development Code.

Developers shouldn’t be able to endlessly reapply for waivers, said Raleigh Wood, a resident who left a voicemail comment played during the meeting. “This constitutes an abuse of the historic review process that is in need of correction.”

Reapplying for a waiver is the only recourse MNO has to move the project forward before next year, said James McKnight, managing partner for local law firm Brown & Ortiz, which represents MNO.

“We have no other option,” McKnight said.

The “abuse” of the process occurred at the Board of Adjustment level when it overturned HDRC’s approval, and then the commission ignored the recommendations from staff from the Office of Historic Preservation, McKnight said. Staff had recommended that HDRC approve the waiver and project as submitted. Those recommendations can be downloaded here.

Part of the problem, McKnight said, is the appeals process is “written for someone who got denied” by HDRC – not for the unprecedented circumstances that MNO finds itself in.

Several commissioners suggested that the project designers meet again with the River Road Neighborhood Association as well as City staff to further address their concerns.

“The calls to work with the neighborhood are easy enough for commissioners to say, but that’s not going to be a reality,” McKnight said. “It’s never going to result in a compromise with the kind of development we want to do.”

The property, about an acre located in the northern section of the River Road Historic District, is zoned “MF-33,” meaning multifamily structures can be built on it and can include up to 33 units per acre. It’s generally bordered by single-family lots to the south and commercial uses directly north across East Huisache Avenue.

A rendering of the most recent design at 335 Trail St. Credit: Courtesy / MNO Partners

To maximize the property owner’s investment, McKnight said, it has to be a multifamily development – but some in the neighborhood don’t want to see anything taller than two stories.

By restricting the design, he said, “HDRC is effectively turning it into single family zoning.”

The neighborhood is not opposed to multifamily, said resident Patricia Pratchett. “We want a smart multifamily project.”

Much of the debate on Wednesday centered around whether MNO had “significantly changed” its design since the Board of Adjustment’s rejection, which is a requirement to obtain a waiver.

David Morin of MNO said he has gone “above and beyond” to address the neighborhood’s demands since the design was rejected in February. Changes included reconfiguring some of the three-story buildings to two stories, removing a unit to save an old live oak tree and reduce lot coverage, highlighting and preserving the historic acequia, and providing a walking trail through the property.

“We added porches and completely overhauled the design,” Morin said. The proposal approved by HDRC last year was for simple, modern townhomes. “We made it much more traditional.”

MNO Partners utilized existing home design cues to adapt its most recent proposal.

Regardless of some personal feelings of annoyance, Commissioner Anne-Marie Grube said, “I do feel there is a substantial change.”

But those changes aren’t big enough, Pratchett said. “We would not be at this point nearly two years later if in fact they [were].”

Several commissioners acknowledged the attempts to change the design and incorporate neighborhood input – but changes regarding density and height didn’t go far enough, said Commissioner Gabriel Velasquez.

The River Road neighborhood is a unique enclave surrounded by the San Antonio River, U.S. Highway 281, and bustling commercial activity on St. Mary’s Street.

“It has its own character,” Velasquez said. “It is substantially more demanding.”

These are all valid discussions, McKnight said after the meeting, but Wednesday’s vote was not related to the final design of the project – it was a vote on whether to continue those discussions by submitting new designs.

Asked whether MNO will continue to pursue the project, he said, “We don’t know … they may give up.”

Giving up is not an option, Morin told the Rivard Report on Thursday.

“We are going to keep trying,” he said. “We want to bring new families to Brackenridge Park.”

The plan is to vary the size and pricing of the units to attract homeowners from different income levels, but “if you reduce the number of units you increase the price,” he said.

Morin will soon be sitting down with commissioners at an upcoming Design Review Committee meeting.

“We do definitely want to turn a new leaf with [HDRC], but we’re looking for clear guidance that will result in a viable project.”

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@sareport.org