Robert Guerra's Auto Repair is located at 3406 Roosevelt Ave.
Robert Guerra's Auto Repair is located at 3406 Roosevelt Ave., yards away from the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

The San Antonio City Council on Thursday is scheduled to consider zoning changes for dozens of properties surrounding the four Spanish colonial missions on the South Side that were designated as World Heritage sites in 2015.

Changing the land-use rules for much of the so-called World Heritage Buffer Zone, established to protect the area from inappropriate development, has support from most area neighborhood associations and agencies, but the potential changes also face some opposition from two neighborhood groups and some area business and property owners.

“It’s not just about the missions but our opportunities in the South Side,” Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3), whose district includes the four missions, told the Rivard Report on Monday. 

She said the re-zoning efforts, which she and City staff call “right-zoning,” also aim to diversify and strengthen the blighted area’s inventory of businesses. 

In late 2016, City Council approved 11 land-use amendments and updates to four area community plans as the result of symposia and public meetings about how to best support the missions and surrounding communities. That initiated plans to align the zoning designation of properties with those approved land uses and community plans.

Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran
Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

How a property is zoned determines what kind and intensity of activity – residential, commercial, industrial – can occur on the site. Many of the changes proposed involve “downzoning,” meaning that less intense uses or smaller structures uses will be allowed.

For example, several properties zoned MF-33, which allows up to 33 housing units per acre, near the missions would be zoned R-6, for single-family homes, if approved by Council. Single-family homes exist on most of those properties today, so the zoning change would prevent higher-density housing from being built in the future. Not all the proposed zoning changes for the area are downzoning; some areas would become infill development zones, considered more flexible for mixed-use projects.

Land adjacent to the historic Hot Wells resort ruins, slated to become a Bexar County park, would be changed from commercial to infill development to allow for a large mixed-use project.

The buffer zone re-zoning has been supported by the San Antonio Conservation Society, National Park Service, San Antonio River Authority, Lone Star Neighborhood Association, Mission San José Neighborhood Association, San Antonio Area Tourism Council, Blessed Sacrament Academy, and others.

The Hot Wells Mission Reach Neighborhood Association, Villa Coronado Neighborhood Association, and Alliance for San Antonio Missions have all submitted letters in opposition.

The Planning Commission approved the changes. While the Zoning Commission voted 5-3 in favor of the changes, such changes require six votes in favor, so the recommendation moves to City Council as a denial. City Council gets the final say in all zoning cases.

Some say that the new zoning could push out small businesses.

“There is nothing that is threatening the World Heritage Buffer Zone with the zoning,” said Carrol Brown, spokesperson for the Alliance for the San Antonio Missions. “It’s a solution looking for a problem.”

He said that the re-zoning is targeting vehicle-related businesses such as auto repair and tire shops and motels that some consider undesirable for the area while promoting large, developer-friendly projects such as the one at Hot Wells. Others are concerned that downzoning will reduce property values for owners looking to sell.

If a business closes for a year, it cannot reopen again as a so-called “non-conforming” use, according to zoning regulations. The tire shops and mechanics in the area are slated for downzoning, so if they close for a year, they cannot re-open and if they want to expand, they are limited by the lower zoning designation by size of structure, said Brady Alexander, president of the Hot Wells Mission Reach Neighborhood Association and member of the Alliance.

“[Downzoning] doesn’t increase diversity,” Alexander said.

Compounding these concerns, both Alexander and Brown said, is that the properties included in this re-zoning have changed as the process moves forward. Properties in the Brooks City Base area have been removed, as have some properties along Roosevelt Avenue south of South East Military Drive with owners that have strongly opposed the zoning changes.

Many area businesses and residences are “non-conforming,” or incompatible with the land use that is called for in the community plan, said Colleen Swain, director of the City’s World Heritage Office. All of the 14 hotels within the World Heritage Buffer Zone, Swain said, already are non-conforming.

“The zoning change doesn’t change anything for them,” she said. Those property owners can continue to operate, sell or pass their businesses on to family members, and improve their properties.

“We don’t want the current businesses to close down,” said Terry Ybanez, president of the San José Neighborhood Association. She added that she believes the increased interest and investment in the area stemming from the World Heritage designation will increase property values and erase any potential disadvantages from more restrictive zoning.

Previous and unsuccessful efforts to build a multistory apartment complex across from Mission San José illustrate why the neighborhood needs protection, she said.

Mission San José
Mission San José Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

For lots that are zoned MF-33 but are surrounded by single-family homes, Swain said, “we can’t stop big projects from popping up” because current zoning permits such development.

The City’s Planning Department is working on several community plans throughout the city as part of the SA Tomorrow comprehensive plan. Similar community plan-zoning alignment efforts will soon take place across the city, but they could take years to implement, Swain said.

“There’s a sense of urgency here [in the buffer zone] because of the designation and anticipated change,” she said.

That change includes millions of dollars in 2017 bond projects, including $13 million for Roosevelt Avenue, $5 million for South Presa Street, and another $5 million for Southcross Boulevard.

The new zoning is aimed at guiding growth patterns in the area toward more neighborhood- and visitor-friendly activities, Swain said, adding that those patterns were developed by the community during nearly 40 public meetings with City Council, neighborhood associations, and stakeholders – not including one-on-one meetings City staff and Viagran’s office had with concerned property owners.

“This has been a long time in the making, and it really has been because of community input and concern,” said Viagran. 

Alexander sent a letter to Viagran and other City officials requesting a delay of Thursday’s vote on behalf of the Alliance and other neighborhood groups.

“We request for us do it right, not quickly,” he said. “Basically, they’ve ignored us.”

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

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