A developer looking to supply housing in a downtown neighborhood that’s much sought after for its proximity to the Pearl and the St. Mary’s Strip postponed its rezoning case this month after neighbors opposed the plan.
An attorney for the Houston-based real estate firm, Urban Genesis, pressed pause on a May 4 hearing for its case to rezone a 1-acre Tobin Hill property between West Grayson and Locust streets just east of North St. Mary’s Street after zoning commissioners first heard the case in April.
The request to rezone the property from IDZ-2, a medium-intensity infill development zone allowing up to 50 units per acre, to IDZ-3 high-intensity would allow Urban Genesis to construct a multifamily housing development with up to 113 units.
Residents of Tobin Hill, concerned the neighborhood can’t support a development with what it considers a high number of units, say the current zoning for the property should not change.
The Grayson Highline development is proposed as a three- and four-story apartment building consisting of one-bedroom units of about 650 square feet. An on-site parking garage would have space for 122 cars and 26 bicycles with one entrance on West Grayson at Polk Street. No pool or other community amenities are planned.
“This is really we feel an ideal site for infill development and for density,” said Urban Genesis attorney Ashley Farrimond. “The density is what will help transform this area and encourage further redevelopment.”
At an April 20 Zoning Commission meeting, City staff said that of the 45 notices mailed to residents within the area, 17 responded in opposition to the project and eight in favor, and there was no response from the Tobin Hill Community Association. Residents who spoke during the meeting said they opposed the number of proposed units, not the development itself.
District 1 Zoning Commissioner Summer Greathouse moved for a two-week continuance so the developer and neighborhood could further discuss the project, and commissioners supported the motion. The case was set to be heard again May 4, but the applicant postponed. Following the postponement, a spokesman for Urban Genesis said it is evaluating various options with the city and the neighborhood.
“Our goal at Urban Genesis is to first educate the neighborhood and city regarding our product,” said Matt Shafiezadeh in an email. “We believe it fits very well within the context of this mixed-use neighborhood. … Hopefully we [will] work through the proper channels to see this project come alive the way it was originally intended.”
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It’s not the first time neighbors have had to hold the line in the fast-growing area, nor is it the first time the property in question has been rezoned.
In recent years, the neighborhood north of San Antonio’s urban core has seen exponential growth tied to the revitalization of the Pearl Brewery complex, extension of the San Antonio River Walk, and the trend in urban living. The neighborhood association often meets with developers eyeing property in Tobin Hill, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city where for years bungalows and other single-family homes have shared real estate with light industrial and small business.
The City designated Tobin Hill a historic district in two phases in 2007 and 2008. These days, some of that historic fabric is being repurposed and redeveloped. Embrey Partners is currently building a $100 million mixed-use project at the former Borden Dairy plant at 815 E. Ashby Place.
Austin-based commercial real estate firm Sabot Development requested approval to demolish structures on 1.5 acres bounded by Euclid, Myrtle, Elmira, and Locust streets to make room for a 10-story, mixed-use tower with 325 residential units.
Along the Museum Reach of the River Walk, an investor group related to Pearl developer Silver Ventures is planning a seven-story multifamily project. The Elmira Apartments project at Elmira and Schiller streets will feature 265 units and construction is slated to start in early 2022.
“As each individual project happens … it generates a lot of strong feelings from people that are close to it,” said Larkin O’Hern, president of the Tobin Hill Community Association. “The approach that we try to take is to look at [the] neighborhood plan [and ask] how does this fit in with that … how does this impact the community … how does this fit … with the other projects that are coming online.”
For that reason, the association has a zoning committee that helps residents understand and evaluate the potential impact of developments like the one Urban Genesis proposed.
“There are different density requirements and different things based on the Midtown Regional Center Plan,” said Rick Schell, zoning chairman for the Tobin Hill Community Association. “What they were requesting just was way out of whack with that.”
Schell said the number of units in the project exceeds the land use prescribed in the neighborhood plan, which calls for a buffer between the high-density developments at the Pearl and the lower-density residential parts of Tobin Hill.
“There are three or four projects in that area alone. That was going to bring somewhere between 700 and 900 additional units to that area, which, of course, if you take a look in the aggregate, that’s a lot of change in a very short amount of time,” Schell said. “That’s a lot more people, that’s a lot more traffic and things of that nature.”
A Tobin Hill resident since 2014, Schell said the current zoning ensures the neighborhood’s infrastructure can support the kind of amenities it offers now: walkability, cycling, and parking availability, especially, because he says San Antonio lacks efficient public transportation.
“And for that many people to come into that area, there definitely needs to be some analysis done and making sure that things are being thought of ahead of time, because I think that area’s just going to continue to grow,” he said.
District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño submitted a request to the City’s Development Services on April 27 asking for a traffic and parking study for the area.
“We seek to understand the parking and traffic conditions in the area to ensure compatible zoning occurs with the appropriate densities and to better plan for needed infrastructure investments (FY22 and the upcoming Municipal Bond), such as repairs the area streets and sidewalks after decades of heavy commercial traffic, and to handle the volume of people who now, or soon will, call this neighborhood home,” Trevino wrote.
In 1995, the property was rezoned from commercial to a “light industry” district and, with the adoption of the 2001 Unified Development Code, was converted from a light industry district to general industrial. In 2018, the property was rezoned again to an IDZ district with multifamily uses not to exceed 36 units per acre, and two years later, it was rezoned to permit up to 50 dwelling units per acre.
“At least from my perspective, it’s a property that had already been up-zoned about a year ago, and we’re coming back to do it again,” O’Hern said. “I think there’s also some concerns about that kind of escalation that was happening pretty quickly.”
But the need for housing in the area is also escalating. “It seems like it’s just impossible to catch up with the demand and the people that are moving to town,” said Stephen Yndo, who developed the adjacent SOJO Commons with other investors and is a member of the ownership group offering to sell the property to Urban Genesis.
Even after a three-month “stutter-step” during last year’s COVID-19 outbreak, demand is as strong as it’s ever been, Yndo said.
Yndo has developed several for-sale projects in Tobin Hill – the East Quincy Townhomes at 1106 E. Quincy St. and SOJO Crossing at 818 E. Myrtle St. – and said the first phase of his latest development, SOJO Commons, is already sold out.
Such development sites are hard to come by for both rental and for-sale residential property and the land is costly, he said. Combined with rising construction costs and labor shortages, the challenges are pushing developers to squeeze more out of one property – or into it.
“When costs get high enough, that’s the only way that you can make things pencil out,” Yndo said. “They’re tough deals to do to begin with but you throw in rising construction costs and everything else and it just makes it difficult.”
Yndo’s Sojo Urban Development group had planned a second phase of SOJO Commons townhomes for the property before the owner, investor partnership Sojo Commons II, of which Sojo Urban is a part, offered it for sale when the pandemic began. Just prior to that, the investors considered smaller, affordable units in order to create a slightly more dense development “and to meet City incentive hurdles,” Yndo said.
Tobin Hill residents supported the compromise and welcomed more affordable housing. “When we talk about having this be a great place to live, working to preserve quality of life for residents, I think having places that people can afford to live is probably part of that,” O’Hern said.
Those units would have been larger than those in the latest plan for Grayson Highline, potentially housing even more people with more cars, Farrimond said.
Yndo said residents’ concerns about potential traffic created by the Urban Genesis project might be unfounded. As a longtime developer in the urban core, Yndo said residential development is the least traffic-intensive of all land uses, less than retail and other commercial properties.
In any case, “if you’re in the urban core, you know there’s a reason you want to go there, and that’s because there’s energy and there’s stuff going on and there’s stuff to walk to. And that was the whole idea of our project,” he said. “It’s one of the few places that a couple that has two cars can buy a place or rent a place and get rid of one car.”
The proposed Grayson Highline property is vacant except for a former automotive garage on one of the three parcels. But new and old housing is situated on all sides and continues to spring up throughout Tobin Hill.
“Realistically, that area is developing and redeveloping, and so if it’s an empty lot today, tomorrow, I don’t anticipate that it will probably stay an empty lot for very long,” Schell said.