At his home on Mason Street, Argelio Cuellar has a sign fastened on his chain-link fence that reads, “Stop Land Grab,” which is painted in magenta-colored block letters over yellow roses.
It’s a small sign, one of the smaller ones in Government Hill, but Cuellar says the size is intentional—to consolidate his feelings towards the neighborhood’s change. Some of the nearby homes display larger signs. Some have several signs of various sizes and messages.
Cuellar, 65, has lived in Government Hill for 24 years, where he and his wife have raised a family.
“That one is fine, I like that,” said Cuellar, pointing to the home across the street, which had several signs. “But (my sign) is only one idea, only one solution.”
In Government Hill, the diverse and evolving neighborhood sandwiched between Fort Sam Houston and Interstate 35, north of downtown, some residents have turned to artistic yard signs to express how they feel about their changing community.
Stop displacing us
No se vende
Tax incentives (for developers) to gentrify us—Feels like a genocide!
The signs, which are done to look like post-impressionist paintings, are in protest of the city’s decade-old policy to incentivize multi-family housing in the center city. The construction of market-rate and luxury apartments up and down Broadway, which delineates Government Hill from the Pearl, is a direct result of the housing-first strategy for downtown that current presidential candidate Julián Castro introduced when he was mayor. Since Ed Cross and David Adelman built 1221 Broadway, since Silver Ventures began developing the Pearl, since the Museum Reach was completed—all around 10 years ago—the mixed-use growth that has branched off from these early developments—a combination of residential, retail, hotel and, now, office space—shows no signs of slowing down.
It continues to creep into neighboring Government Hill.
For a year now, a difference of opinion on how the neighborhood should handle the change has caused a rift in Government Hill Alliance, the neighborhood association that’s represented the near-East Side community since 1988.
Concerned the alliance is being too cozy with developers, some of its former members have splintered off and formed a new group called Government Hill United. Some developments, they say, do not fit the character of the historic neighborhood. Or worse, the newer projects will drive up already-climbing property values, resulting in higher taxes, they say.
While neighborhood in-fighting may not be anything new, Government Hill is at ground zero of such change in San Antonio because it abuts the massive city-backed growth that’s approaching from Broadway.
It’s taking a direct hit.
“There’s going to be change in our neighborhood,” said Tiffany O’Neill, one of the early organizers of Government Hill United, which held its first official meeting in April. “But we have to weigh and measure what the benefits are to the neighborhood.”
The way the two groups handle voting, transparency, and membership deeply divide the organizations.
Government Hill United’s main fight, however, is to be recognized by the city as a second neighborhood association so its members can be notified when a property’s designation is to be decided by one of the city’s commissions.
In such cases, property owners within 200 feet of the land under consideration are also notified.
Because Government Hill Alliance is registered with the city as the official neighborhood association, the group receives notices on zoning changes, planning amendments, code variances, appeals, historic landmark designations, and potential demolitions.
It’s the city’s way of reaching a community at large. But United says that’s not happening under Alliance.
Case in point is 1.7 acres of land on North Alamo Street, which the Zoning Commission rezoned on Tuesday for some sort of multifamily housing. The project is a piece of developer GrayStreet Partners’ larger plan for a 23-acre mixed-use campus it’s calling Broadway East, which will be built on the Government Hill side of Broadway.
United wasn’t made aware of it.
At the zoning meeting yesterday, city officials said there had been no response from the neighborhood association, i.e. Government Hill Alliance, when contacted for its opinion on the rezoning.
And so, from the split in neighborhood representation in Government Hill emerges a larger question:
How much say should residents have in how their entire neighborhood evolves, not just changes happening next door or on their block?
Rose Hill, president of Government Hill Alliance, believes the city decides to pass or reject developments, whether the neighborhood votes to support a project, or not. She also believes having multiple neighborhood associations won’t make much of a difference for an area—the near East Side—the city is anxious to redevelop.
“Whether you have one or two or three neighborhood associations, the city’s going to make the final decision,” she said. “We’re advisers.”
She continued, “If (a project) is not in (a resident’s) favor, I understand that. But there are people in this neighborhood that do see something different, too.”
Hill accuses Government Hill United as being anti-development, and says that’s the reason the organization does not have the same trust with city departments.
O’Neill says Government Hill United is not anti-development. Nor does O’Neill believe residents are powerless against the city. She says a neighborhood association can affect a development’s impact on a neighborhood by challenging its design, project scope and its accessibility to residents.
By regularly voting in support of projects, United says, Government Hill Alliance may be incentivizing developers to build in Government Hill, because they feel the neighborhood at large supports their efforts.
When asked about this, Hill said it was a fair criticism. But she also said developments in Government Hill were not the main reason property taxes are rising. Rather public schools are becoming more reliant on money from property taxes, because their state funding has decreased, she said.
Government Hill was born from Fort Sam Houston, which is just north of the neighborhood, in the 1870s after suburbs developed around the U.S. Army base from 1890 to 1930, according to the city’s website. At one time, 12,000 people lived in the area, but after World War II, and the construction of the Interstate 35 corridor that separates Government Hill from Dignowity Hill and Harvard Place-Eastlawn, the population declined.
Now, nearly 4,000 residents live within Government Hill’s boundaries.
This year’s median home value of a house in Government Hill is $116,370, an 11.7 percent increase from last year’s figure of $104,100, according to the Bexar Appraisal District. Overall, homes have appreciated 75.9 percent in the last five years. The area, largely because of the growth of the Pearl, with its restaurants and popular programming, has become one of the most attractive neighborhoods in San Antonio. All of the residential developments nearby take advantage of property tax abatements offered by the city, which can span 10 or 15 years.
To try to mitigate some of the effects of the rapid appreciation in home values, the city is considering designating Government Hill as a neighborhood empowerment zone, a state mechanism that freezes city property taxes for eligible residents for up to 10 years. The city is also considering Denver Heights, Hot Wells, the area around Brooks and part of the near West Side. It has not determined eligibility requirements for the program.
In Government Hill, the developments seem to be getting larger.
Jefferson Bank plans to build a 12-story tower for its headquarters at Broadway and East Grayson Street. GrayStreet Partners plans to build Broadway East, which it describes as “an extension to the Pearl District” on properties between the Government Hill single-family homes and Broadway.
However, two smaller developments help illustrate the strife among residents.
Earlier this year, some residents were particularly incensed over what they called a lack of communication from the developers of the Palmetto Town Homes, a three-story, eight-unit project planned for a 0.4-acre lot at 1945 N. I-35.
Late in 2018, the city made Government Hill Alliance aware of the townhomes because the project was slated to go before the Planning Commission in November, and eventually the Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC), for approval.
But when members of the neighborhood’s splinter group tried several times to arrange a meeting with the developers, they were unsuccessful.
In February, Palmetto Town Homes’ design was presented to the HDRC, and developers and irate residents finally met face to face.
Residents Cindy Tower and Antonia Infante, now Government Hill United members, held printed email threads they had sent to representatives of the project: Carlos “Gilley” Mendoza, owner of local real estate firm Gilley Properties International; employees with JMS Architects, a local architecture firm designing the project; and lawyers with Brown & Ortiz, a local law firm representing Mendoza.
Tower said she had collected more than 200 signatures from Government Hill residents petitioning against the townhomes.
“This developer hasn’t even had the guts to share these plans with the community,” Tower told commissioners.
In an interview after the meeting, Hill said the neighborhood supported the project after meeting with the developers. Hill said the developer and the alliance met in December and January, when members voted to reduce the initial unit total from 10 to eight.
In the end, HDRC commissioners denied conceptual approval for the design, saying the townhomes were too tall, and the entrances facing the street incongruous with the other homes in the neighborhood.
Hill said when the city tells Government Hill Alliance a property in the neighborhood has a prospective zoning or planning change, she and the alliance’s board contact the developer and meet to discuss the project. She then invites the developer to an upcoming meeting, where they’re given a chance to present the project and take questions from alliance members. Depending on their concerns with the project, members can delay voting to support the project until changes are made.
“We made clear to the city, when an applicant comes in, and they’re going to rezone and build, they better tell them they need to come to us, so we can take it to the community,” said Hill.
One month later, it was Government Hill United’s turn to negotiate with a developer.
In March, partnership SA Quad Ventures contacted Government Hill United about its plans to build Grayson Heights, a 300-unit, mixed-use project slated to occupy about four acres on Carson Street, deep in the neighborhood.
O’Neill said the investment group, which is headed by DFB Pharmaceuticals Inc. president J.J. Feik, approached United because of the group’s reputation of being vocal at zoning, planning and HDRC meetings—a method O’Neill says differentiates Government Hill United from Government Hill Alliance. O’Neill says the strategy gets developers, or their representatives who attend commission meetings, as well as the commissioners themselves, to recognize the organization’s voice.
The day before United was to meet with SA Quad Ventures, Alliance held its own regularly-scheduled meeting, where attendees praised the developers for the project, calling it a stimulator for the area.
At United’s meeting the next day, members got SA Quad Ventures to agree to use proceeds from the sale of a Sears Craftsman house on Pierce Street, which will have to be relocated for the development, toward owner occupied rehab efforts within Government Hill.
Such a concession would not be possible until residents put pressure on the developer to work with them, O’Neill said.
At a meeting in April, Barbara Ankamah Burford, neighborhood engagement administrator with the city’s Neighborhood and Housing Services Department (NHSD), told Government Hill United members the city couldn’t register the group as a neighborhood association because city policy prevents more than one association within a neighborhood boundary.
Government Hill United is registered as a nonprofit, however.
According to a 2011 policy from the city’s Planning Department, the only way two neighborhood associations can co-exist within the same boundary is if the registered neighborhood association president—Hill, in this case—sends a letter to the department agreeing to share the boundary.
In cases like these, the groups are responsible to resolve their differences through mediation, not the city. The city tells feuding groups to use the Bexar County Dispute Resolution Center’s dispute mediation service.
In this case, Government Hill United is seeking to share the boundary with Government Hill Alliance, so both groups can receive notices of proposed development projects, and other changes.
O’Neill and Hill were scheduled to meet with the resolution center on April 30, O’Neill said. But because Government Hill United had a meeting scheduled on the same day and time, she asked the resolution center to postpone the mediation meeting. In an interview afterward, Hill said she was no longer interested in pursuing mediation.
Before Government Hill United officially formed at the beginning of the year, some residents tried to stage a coup a year ago. In April 2018, they attempted to lead the organization themselves.
At the time, the city only recognized the current board and president, according to reporting by the San Antonio Express-News, because their names were listed in state nonprofit records, and not the names of the members who replaced them. When the Heron reached out to NHSD about why the coup d’etat was deemed illegitimate, Carlos Valuenzuela, a city spokesman, said the city had no comment, calling the matter an internal issue.
Cuellar is now retired and works part-time at Chick-Fil-A for extra income. His property tax bill used to be around $800, when he first bought the home nearly 25 years ago. It’s now more than $4,000. Cuellar protests the appraisal every year, but he’s only able to shave off a couple hundred dollars from the total.
The father of three has attended Government Hill Alliance and Government Hill United meetings, but says he’s not a member of either and isn’t interested in being one.
He turned 65 this year, so he’ll be seeking a homestead exemption for seniors. He knows the house’s property taxes might be passed on to his children, if they decide to keep the home.
His adult son David said taking over the home depends entirely on his income, whenever the time comes. David said he’s noticed younger people moving in and more traffic on the streets heading toward the Broadway corridor and Pearl. The noise and difficulty driving out of Government Hill is new for this small inner-city neighborhood.
If there’s a Government Hill institution that’s emblematic of the push and pull going on inside the neighborhood, it’s St. Patrick’s Catholic Church.
Government Hill Alliance had been holding its meetings in the church’s annex building until late February.
At that meeting, which Brown & Ortiz was supposed to attend to discuss Palmetto Town Homes, but didn’t, Father John Raharjo told Hill the group could no longer hold meetings there. At the time, Raharjo said the church wanted the space open for parishioners. Hill protested, saying Government Hill Alliance had just paid their annual $300 fee to serve the space. Raharjo said he would return the check and that the alliance could finish their meeting that day.
“Even if we have to have a meeting underneath a tree,” there will be Government Hill Alliance meetings, Hill told attendees after Raharjo left the room.
Raharjo said the recent “turmoil” in the Government Hill Alliance led to his decision to bar the organization from holding meetings at the church.
“It’s safe to say that the parish here at St. Patrick would like to take one step back, until things are not so contentious among the neighbors,” he said.
In March, the church hosted COPS Metro Alliance, a meeting attended by O’Neill and other Government Hill residents. It was also attended by two city officials, including NHSD director Veronica Soto.
At the meeting, COPS Metro organizers informed attendees about the city’s downtown housing incentives policy, and began to strategize about how to leverage the May election to get council members to act swiftly on anti-displacement policies. It worked.
The next month, on April 7, the church hosted COPS Metro’s accountability session, a type of debate for mayoral and council candidates. For the May election, marquee candidates were grilled about whether they’d support and demand deeper levels of affordability for projects that receive city incentives. All of them said they would.
It’s from this pressure NHSD decided to consider Government Hill among the first communities to designate as neighborhood empowerment zones, the state mechanism that freeze taxes for eligible residents for up to 10 years.
That same month, O’Neill asked Raharjo if Government Hill United could hold their meetings at the church, now that the space was open, and he obliged.
Raharjo said COPS Metro is more aligned with the church’s principles, which are to “help those who are less fortunate among us.” Raharjo said St. Patrick’s Church is also trying to develop COPS Metro’s presence in the neighborhood.
When asked if Government Hill United had these same principles, and if that was the reason why he allowed them to meet at St. Patrick’s Church, Raharjo said the church had “no perpetual allies.”
“Whoever has concern for the neighbors and helps the poor among us,” he said, “then they will come to work with us.”
As of March, Government Hill Alliance is now holding meetings at Fort Sam Houston Church of Christ on North New Braunfels Avenue.
After Government Hill Alliance’s meeting in April, a resident approached Hill and was concerned with the amount of development coming into the neighborhood. Hill said that Government Hill did not have the wealth or power of developers, but said the neighborhood’s best way to mitigate their impact was to attend Government Hill Alliance meetings and voice their opinions. The resident walked away satisfied with Hill’s response, and said they would attend the next meeting.
As the sky went dark, and Fort Sam Houston Church of Christ’s security came to close the parking lot, Hill gave a parting thought, a sentiment that, universally, is shared between Government Hill United, Government Hill Alliance and inner-city neighborhood residents across downtown San Antonio.
“I can tell you, everybody is scared of change,” said Hill. “I’m scared of change; we’re all scared of change. But what do we do to prepare for it? Nobody’s helping us prepare for this.”
“It came so fast, it hit us so fast. We didn’t know how to prepare.”
Setting It Straight: This article has been updated to better reflect the city’s strategy for neighborhood empowerment zones.