Housing density and parking, two of the most talked-about urban planning issues in San Antonio these days, were in the spotlight Tuesday afternoon as the Zoning Commission discussed two different projects proposed in the Lone Star Arts District.
The two projects are about a half mile away from each other: one, a six-unit housing complex on a vacant lot on East Fest Street, and the other, a 320-unit apartment complex on Cevallos Street next to a section of the San Pedro Creek slated for development itself in the coming years. The latter would replace a half-dozen businesses, mostly industrial.
The Zoning Commission rejected the six houses but approved the large complex. Each zoning case is unique and carries its own baggage, including the physical surroundings of the property, reputation (if any) of the developer, and the opinion of the neighbors and neighborhood associations.
Ultimately, however, it will be City Council that makes the final decision.
Three property owners are partnering on the apartment project, which will reserve half of its 320 housing units for residents who make 80 percent or less of the area average median income, NRP Group Vice President of Development Alastair Jenkin told the commission. Property owners hired the development company, which has worked on several large-scale multifamily projects in the urban core.
The project will span nine acres, and have 516 parking spaces, some covered, for a parking ratio of 1.6 spaces per resident, Jenkin said. NRP will collaborate with public agencies on incorporating access to the San Pedro Creek Improvement Project once the planning process for that phase begins in earnest.
The infill development zoning that NRP requested does not require parking, but residents likely will need it in the Lone Star Arts District neighborhood that’s seen an influx of investment, including new housing, restaurants, and nightlife activities, in the past decade.
“We’re looking to be a good neighbor,” said Daniel Ortiz, a local land-use attorney representing the property owners. He acknowledged the neighborhood already has parking problems, but “we are not contributing to it.”
High-density mixed use is what the community said it wanted for this area in its 2013 community plan, Ortiz said, adding that NRP is willing to work with the neighborhood association to lobby the City to put “no parking” signs along the edges of the project to avoid over-crowded streets.
Susan Powers, president of the Lone Star Neighborhood Association, read an official statement from her group to the commission explaining they generally support the project, but not the parking plan.
“There hasn’t been a traffic study,” she said, noting several commercial businesses and the new KIPP Academy campus use area streets to commute and host clients.
Powers said they would prefer a parking garage rather than off-street surface parking. However, Jenkin said a parking structure of any sort is not financially feasible.
The Historic and Design Review Commission will review the apartment complex’s final design before construction can begin, Ortiz noted.
“I see this project as a good fit for this community,” said Commissioner Sofia Alejandra Lopez (D1).
Council will consider the Zoning Commission’s approval for the apartment complex when it votes
, — likely next month , — on the change. But when developer Michael Perez of MP2 Urban Development presents his plans for 117 and 121 East Fest St., the Council will see a recommendation from the Zoning Commission to deny his request and instead approve a four-unit plan.
Perez left the meeting frustrated but determined to sway Council to approve six units.
“I feel that I’m being reasonable,” Perez said, noting the 2013 Lone Star Community Plan specifically calls for low density mixed use, which would allow for six live/work units on his lot. The current zoning would not allow for the project’s unit amount or the commercial use or setbacks required to fit six units on the lot. He too applied for infill development zoning, which is more flexible when it comes to how far a structure has to sit back from the street. This allows the ability to incorporate parking for two cars per unit and provides some lawn space.
“I’m going by the neighborhood guide that shows how developers are supposed to develop in a neighborhood,” Perez told commissioners. “Word-for-word, to the letter from the very beginning.”
Perez removed the commercial-use element from his plan Tuesday to compromise with neighborhood concerns. He estimated the homes would be three stories tall and cost between $350,000 and $375,000.
After a lengthy voting process that at first rejected the change outright then resulted in a re-vote, he offered to consider five units.
“I sort of feel like we’re bargaining here,” Commission Chair Francine Romero (D8) quipped.
After City staff informed him it was Council that would make the final decision, Perez decided to take his change there.
Several neighbors came to the meeting to speak against Perez’s project, which would largely be surrounded by single-family homes and other vacant lots on a street that stretches for two blocks off of South Flores Street until it dead-ends into Habitat for Humanity’s local warehouse.
This project could set a precedent for the other vacant lots, said Anne McCarthy, who lives about one block away, noting that expensive projects like these threaten to increase surrounding property values and tax bills.
“I get that we need some urban density,” McCarthy said. “But to me … it’s a problem when you’re building separate artist communities outside of this neighborhood that’s a generational neighborhood.”
McCarthy referred to the site plan of the project that she said seemingly creates its own mini-neighborhood within the lot.
Perez explained the main entrances would be oriented toward the street, but Commissioner Lopez said she would like to see more specific designs before approval.
Lopez and other commissioners also took issue with introducing six units where there would traditionally be two. Some also were concerned with the allowable height of the project.
But Commissioner Patricia Gibbons (D9) said she thought the site plan was “gutsy.”
“I think you’re on to something here,” Gibbons said, and then turned to address the concerned neighbors. “[There has been] a lot of other development about to burst [in this area] and I don’t think it’s going to hurt you.”
While neighborhood plans across the city, some in need of an update, encourage infill development and in many cases density, neighborhoods continue to grapple with welcoming it into their backyards. SA Tomorrow, the City’s comprehensive plan, attempts to address this tension with some of its initiatives, including one to update those outdated plans.
After the meeting, Perez told reporters he felt “thoughtful urban design” was being “squeezed out” of these neighborhoods.