The Zoning Commission on Tuesday approved a rezoning request by the YWCA San Antonio that paves the way for the nonprofit to open a residential learning center for impoverished women. 

The group’s proposed project has been at the center of a months-long debate between some residents of nearby Westside neighborhoods and the YWCA, which purchased the property at 2318 Castroville Rd. on the site of the former St. Andrew’s Convent last year. 

Following the decision by the commission, which voted 7-2 to support rezoning, the matter will go before City Council to rezone the 9-acre property from multifamily to commercial with conditional use for a human services campus. The campus will serve women ages 17 to 25 who are considered “disconnected youth” or who are aging out of foster care, according to the YWCA. 

The YWCA first submitted its rezoning request in December, part of a plan to turn the former convent into a “living and learning center” for impoverished young women. 

After review, City of San Antonio staff recommended denying the request due to its proximity to areas zoned residential. Meetings with area residents to review the YWCA’s plans broke down, and the neighborhood associations filed their opposition to the rezoning with the city. A zoning hearing originally set for Feb. 1 was postponed at the request of representatives for the YWCA.

Since then, the YWCA mobilized to gather community support — block-walking, hosting an open house at the property and making a presentation at a local church. 

Blanche Ovalle listens to Dora Gomez as she details the YWCA’s plan to support impoverished women by housing them in a neighboring lot.
Blanche Ovalle listens to Dora Gomez as she details the YWCA’s plan to support impoverished women by housing them in a neighboring lot. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

Those efforts gave organization officials confidence they had enough support to move forward with the request at the commission’s Tuesday meeting. 

During the hearing, several YWCA employees spoke for the program and its location, as did advocates for economic development on the West Side. 

“Unlike other housing projects that invite long-term poverty, this proposed project will provide paths towards economic sustainability and success for the women who find refuge there,” said Ramiro Gonzalez, CEO of Prosper West

The previous property owner, the Missionary Catechists of Divine Providence, also spoke in support of YWCA. “We had other potential buyers but we discerned and felt that this was the group that aligned very much with our mission,” said Sister Esther Guerrero, a member of the order. 

That mission and how the property would be used was discussed at length during the hearing, with opponents questioning whether the human services campus definition would lead to the property becoming a homeless shelter. 

Leading the charge against the rezoning request was the president of the Westwood Square Neighborhood Association who, with the Los Jardines Neighborhood Association, submitted a notice opposing the project and wrote letters to the 11 zoning commissioners. 

“This is not compatible for this area,” said Velma Peña, president of the Westwood neighborhood group, speaking before the commission. “We already have a shelter, which is great as far as … the mission and the purpose for Haven For Hope, but we know what happens afterwards, too.” 

She said that residents are not against helping women in need, but they want “good stuff coming into our neighborhood.” They had lost trust in the YWCA, she said, during meetings in which the organization could not answer all of their questions she asked about what would be built on the property.  

“There is not a neighborhood in this city that would support such a drastic zoning change that requires trust when that trust has been broken,” Peña said.

In a letter dated Feb. 14 to the Zoning Commission, Peña said members of the Westwood Square Neighborhood Association talked to residents in an area within 200 feet of the YWCA-owned property and determined that most neighbors are opposed to the rezoning. 

She said in the letter that the YWCA was reluctant to meet with Westwood and other area neighborhood groups so residents could have some say in the project until after the zoning change was requested. 

“West siders have endured a history of promises by those who do not live in the community made and when it does not turn out well, no one is around to help,” Peña wrote. 

She acknowledges that plans for the YWCA campus have become more detailed with each community meeting she has attended, but there’s still much to be decided. Peña also insists that the neighborhood associations were not invited to an open house held at the property on Feb. 12.

“All we asked for was an inclusive and transparent process,” Pena said in the letter.  

Francesca Rattray, CEO of YWCA San Antonio, said the group has held several meetings with the neighborhood and the District 5 City Council office about the proposed program. The neighborhoods and the former convent are located within District 5.

Transforming the property into a residential learning campus will be done in three phases, Rattray said, with the first being the acquisition and zoning process and the second to rehabilitate the existing structures on the property. 

“Phase three is a master plan that we would like to do in partnership with the community with representatives from neighborhood associations, elected officials, local business owners, plus the women who would actually be working in our living and learn center,” she said. 

The plan for community input will be much like what the YWCA has implemented for its other projects, she said, including its Olga Madrid Center at 503 Castroville Rd. “The neighborhood was there, too,” Rattray said. “They participated in that process.”

Zoning with the human services campus designation is needed to accomplish the YWCA’s objective to house women semi-permanently until they can become independent. There’s no plan to make it a homeless shelter, said attorney Caroline McDonald, representing the YWCA.

San Antonio’s Unified Development Code allows the owner of a human services campus to provide what many consider to be a range of services that is too broadly defined. It currently includes everything from emergency shelter, animal care and vocational programs to alcohol and drug abuse services and daycare services for children and adults.

“We do believe the code needs revision — this has been in here for quite some time and the world has adapted … but this is what we have right now,” McDonald said.

Documents submitted for the rezoning request included a required site plan that shows two additional structures being built on the east side of the property for use as classrooms or child care and a collection of smaller buildings on the south side that could provide housing. Development and building standards would limit the ultimate size and placement of those structures and the setbacks. 

But any future changes to the site plan would require a major amendment to the property’s zoning, said a city planner. 

Zoning Commission Chairman John Bustamante said that despite the challenges with how the code defines a human services campus, which “has enough room to drive a semi truck through,” the center is needed in San Antonio.

Bustamante, who is the District 5 representative on the panel, said he understands the neighbors’ concerns about rezoning and also the reasons that City staff said it should be denied. But he disagreed with that recommendation.

“If we look at the use that is going on here, I would say it predominates as residential,” Bustamante said. “It is, even with the commercial aspects of it for job training, for education, for child care, less intensive than the [multifamily zoning] that is currently in place.

“That in combination with the restrictions to the site plan, to limit that usage, to have these buffers here, leads me to the conclusion that this is a project that deserves support, that deserves this zoning request to be approved.”

Of the nine commissioners, two voted against the rezoning, Kin Hui of District 6 and Glenda McDaniel, the mayoral representative.

Bustamante asked for the neighborhood residents and the YWCA to work together and “to find a solution that will benefit the neighborhood, will benefit the city and will benefit these young women who need a place to stay.”

Disclosure: Zoning Commissioner John Bustamante is the husband of San Antonio Report Story Editor Tracy Idell Hamilton.

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.