With a 6-1 vote on Tuesday, the City’s Zoning Commission rejected a request that would designate a sliver of Tobin Hill as a historic district.

But while backing the idea of a historic district in the neighborhood north of downtown, commission members were critical of the Office of Historic Preservation (OHP) and the process by which the City investigates a historic district application.

It is not yet known when City Council will consider the proposed Tobin Hill North Historic District, which has prompted oft-heated debates among neighbors. Whenever it does, Council will consider conflicting recommendations from OHP, which recommended approval of the new historic district, and the Zoning Commission’s recommendation of rejection. Tobin Hill Community Association has endorsed the designation.

Boundaries for the proposed Tobin Hill North Historic District.
Boundaries for the proposed Tobin Hill North Historic District. Credit: Courtesy / City of San Antonio

“It’s not over,” said Anisa Schell after the Zoning Commission’s vote, following nearly two hours of discussion. She and husband Rick led the application effort last fall, collecting signatures from owners of properties within an area measuring less than 14 acres. The proposed district is mostly along a stretch of East Mistletoe Avenue between McCullough Avenue and Kings Court.

Supporters said a historic district designation would best protect their part of Tobin Hill from encroaching development and speculation. The neighborhood contains a variety of structures, including bungalow-style homes built nearly 100 years ago.

Terramark Urban Homes’ proposal to build eight single single-family homes in the 400 block of East Mistletoe, in the proposed historic district, sparked the proponents into action.

421 / 425 E. Mistletoe proposed site plan.
One of several designs proposed by Terramark Urban Homes for lots on the 400 block of East Mistletoe Avenue. Credit: Courtesy / Terramark Urban Homes

Modern-style condominiums proposed for a lot zoned for multifamily on West Craig Place in nearby Beacon Hill also has become a point of contention for historic district backers.

“We’d like to really protect the character of the neighborhood,” said Vivian Rule.

Yvonne Gonzalez said her neighborhood features homes that help to make San Antonio one of the most unique cities in the country.

She expressed concern that an increasing number of property owners are only interested in flipping their property in favor of development potentially incompatible with the community.

“San Antonio is unique and, if you allow these things to happen … we’re going to lose that uniqueness,” Gonzalez added.

Paula Starnes echoed a growing issue for many older, inner-city neighborhoods, saying communities like Tobin Hill must be maintained “before someone destroys them.”

But opponents said a historic district would prove burdensome, and impose expensive rules on property owners who could otherwise revitalize the neighborhood. Others accused historic district petitioners of misleading their neighbors, adding that most affected property owners oppose the application.

The petitioners initially said 99 properties would be covered by the historic district.

Tobin Hill, San Antonio. Google Maps image.
Tobin Hill, San Antonio. Credit: Google Maps

But a handful of property owners objected, leading the petitioners to drop those homes from the proposed district boundaries, resulting in a current 88 affected properties.

That has drawn the ire of several stakeholders, who claim the petitioners effectively gerrymandered the boundaries in order to keep a 51% approval rate among property owners.

A historic district petition requires a minimum of 51% approval to initiate the historic designation process with the City.

Speakers such as Lynn Swanson, a property owner from Houston, questioned the current rate of district support within the boundaries.

Bill Oakley said the applicants, the Schells, have lived in Tobin Hill only a few years and are not as invested in the neighborhood as many other property owners.

He added there exists “a silent majority” of opposition that has not been acknowledged by the City.

Sandra Levy said the notion of having to obtain the City’s approval for even minor repairs and upgrades in a historic district rubs people the wrong way.

“You have to do what what (the City) says, not what you want to do,” Levy said, adding that many homeowners are older and on fixed incomes with no desire other than to maintain what they have.

Property owner David Honkala said many homes in the proposed Tobin Hill North area have been improved by their owners who otherwise may not have had the ability or funds to abide by historic district requirements.

“We just want to be left alone and want no part of a historic district,” he added.

Some critics of a historic district say they would not mind if Tobin Hill were to become a Neighborhood Conservation District. But historic district supporters fear an NCD may not be strong enough to handle the appropriateness of new and infill construction.

Anisa Schell said she and fellow proponents have done their best to follow City rules and help alert all affected property owners, providing them with factual information. She added several public, neighborhood meetings have taken place on the issue.

“We are excited to be empowered, to have a say as a neighborhood as it continues to grow and develop,” she added.

Kathy Rodriguez, deputy historic preservation officer, asserted that some property owners on both sides of the issue have been misinformed about a few things, including how the designation process works and how the City reviews project proposals in a historic district.

Rodriguez said there is no current effort to re-evaluate the rate of support among the property owners. She tried to allay critics’ fears, saying that most repair and construction proposals in a historic district are approved either by OHP staff or by the Historic Design and Review Commission.

The City sought proposed delaying a vote of the case to the chagrin of many residents who wanted a firm decision after weeks of delays and debates. Zoning department staffers recommended rezoning approval.

Commission members cast doubt on the City’s argument for rezoning. They lamented a lack of hard, updated data on the percentage of opposition, and the number of property owners who had been notified of the designation process.

“It has been challenging to make a determination on this issue if we don’t know the percent of people opposed,” said Commissioner Siboney Diaz-Sanchez (D1). “I’m disappointed in the process.”

Commissioner Cecilia Garcia, appointed by the mayor, expressed shock that nobody seems to know exactly how many people are opposed to the proposal, and that other residents did not know about the proposal until recently. But Garcia said there is nothing wrong with a historic district itself.

“To have that (unknown information) kind of hanging out there, it doesn’t feel right,” she added. “I think we could’ve done this a lot better. There’s some vagueness here.”

Commissioner Joy McGhee (D3) agreed: “I’m also disheartened in the process. It’s hard to process this with the information we do have. It seems to me the community is saying ‘we don’t want it.’”

Commission Chair Dr. Francine Romero (D8) voiced support for historic districts, but shared her dissatisfaction with the City’s case on Tobin Hill North.

Romero said she could understand the rationale for gerrymandering the district boundaries, but that concerned property owners mistrusted the initiative from the start.

“This process hasn’t been helpful,” she added.

Diaz-Sanchez hesitated before moving to deny the rezoning. Among seven members on hand, only McGhee voted to approve the request.

Afterward, Anisa Schell said she and fellow supporters would reach out to all affected property owners to see how they could move forward.

Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.