In late March, when City Manager Sheryl Sculley revived the controversial Bridge Apartments development on the near East Side, she did so with a set of 11 stipulations the developer had to meet in order for the project to move forward. Or were they 11 suggestions?
Developer Mitch Meyer was to discuss the stipulations with the Historic and Design Review Commission’s design review committee (DRC) and the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association’s architectural review committee (ARC, which has since been renamed the Neighborhood Development Advisory Committee.).
In a May 1 meeting with those groups and city officials, Meyer seemed to shrug off Sculley’s larger points concerning the scale of his proposed five-story apartment project north of the Hays Street Bridge. A month later, the San Antonio Express-News reported on these discussions.
“They were suggestions, and we took it and made our decision,” Meyer told the Express-News.
A look at the revisions that Meyer ultimately submitted to city officials, and that Sculley approved on July 3, show that not much in Meyer’s plan changed since that May 1 meeting.
The larger points
On March 23, Sculley breathed new life into Meyer’s project, which had been struck down twice by the HDRC, and which has been blasted for a variety of reasons by many residents of Dignowity Hill, the near East Side neighborhood that’s in the midst of a slow gentrification. At the time, the neighborhood’s ARC opposed the project’s scale opposite the rows of homes on the other side of Cherry Street. Sculley would approve the five-story apartment building, she wrote to Meyer, if he reached consensus with the DRC and ARC on 11 stipulations. [ Download Sculley’s letter to Meyer. ]
Meyer made revisions, but the community’s larger concerns, having to do with the project’s height and its relation to the historic bridge, did not change.
Whether this was an affront to the process Sculley presented, depends on who you ask.
» Stipulation No. 6 suggests relocating a public “portal” that would provide views of the bridge and the skyline through the development. To that suggestion, Meyer wrote, through his attorney, “It was agreed by majority vote at the DRC Meeting that the current position of the ‘portal’ would remain, and no further design or revision was needed.”
» In response to stipulation No. 8, in which Sculley asks Meyer to create more breathing room between the building and the bridge, “by retaining only a single-story bay at the southeast corner, and stepping back the upper floors away from the bridge by at least one bay,” Meyer wrote: “It was agreed by majority vote at the DRC meeting that the portion of the building mentioned here be left as it was designed; no further changes were requested or required.”
» In response to stipulation No. 9, in which Sculley asks Meyer to explore a reduction in the building’s height, Meyer wrote: “It was agreed by majority vote at the DRC meeting that the building height could, largely, remain as it was designed.”
» The one major stipulation Meyer changed was No. 7, in which Sculley asks that the building’s facade be divided into “smaller modules that more closely resemble the scale of the neighboring residences.” (The rendering at the top of this post shows two “boxed articulations” that break up the monolithic facade of the previous design.)
A matter of semantics?
Meyer, who’s co-developing the apartments with Eugene Simor, owner of Alamo Beer Co. south of the bridge, was simply required to meet with the DRC and ARC, and reach consensus — which they did — says Shanon Miller, the city’s historic preservation officer.
A recent history of the Bridge Apartments
» Dec. 6: The HDRC overwhelmingly denies Mitch Meyer’s proposal for his multistory apartment development north of the Hays Street Bridge at 803 N. Cherry St.
» March 9: The HDRC again denies Meyer’s apartment project, but this time the vote is much closer: 5-4.
» March 23: City Manager Sheryl Sculley resuscitates Meyer’s project; tells him he must meet with the HDRC’s design review committee and Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association’s architecture review committee’s on 11 stipulations regarding the design.
» April 16: Dignowity Hill president Chris Barrows disbands the neighborhood’s architecture review committee, which had been critical of Meyer’s design, and inserts his own selections.
» May 1: First meeting is held between Meyer, city officials, the DRC and ARC.
» June 1: The Texas Supreme Court agrees to hear an argument related to the case.
» June 7: Second meeting is held between the DRC and ARC, but Meyer does not attend. His architect is his proxy.
» June 14: Meyer submits his revisions to the city.
» July 3: Sculley grants Meyer’s development final approval.
For example, on the building’s height, Miller explained, “It was determined through back and forth (discussion) that it didn’t make sense to alter the height. If part of the building is taller, it kind of changes the whole requirements in terms of building codes.”
But that explanation isn’t flying with some of the groups that oppose the project.
The Hays Street Bridge Restoration Group, the most vocal opponent, feels that Meyer and Sculley aren’t following Sculley’s own guidelines.
For example, Meyer attended the first meeting with the DRC and ARC on May 1, but not the second on June 7. Meyer’s absence was confirmed by the Heron from multiple people who attended the meeting.
Perhaps most importantly, the group says, is that after Sculley required Meyer to meet with Dignowity Hill’s ARC, a group that had largely opposed the project’s design, neighborhood president Chris Barrows disbanded the committee in late April and replaced it with his own selections.
This has been well documented in the San Antonio Express-News, first by columnist Gilbert Garcia. Barrows told Garcia that the disbanding had nothing to do with the Bridge Apartments.
Meyer, who did not respond to interview requests for this article, and Sculley both point to ARC’s support for the project as justification for its approval. But critics say that support doesn’t count, because an ARC composed of more critically-minded members was replaced by an ARC made up of heavily pro-development members.
“That’s not what the previous ARC would have done,” said Esperanza Center Executive Director Graciela Sanchez, who’s been fighting the development alongside the restoration group, “they would have continued to push it. Instead, the new ARC bent over backwards to give them whatever they wanted.”
For this article, Barrows declined an interview request, but said in an email response, “We really believe that it is time for the neighborhood to move forward following City Manager Sculley’s decision.”
Sculley declined to comment for this story, but pointed questions to Miller. When asked about Barrow’s purging of the ARC, Miller said:
“At the city, we have to rely on the neighborhood association to reflect the will of the individual neighborhood, and the current president of Dignowity Hill was elected by its membership. At some level we have to trust that what is coming from the neighborhood association reflects the opinion of the neighborhood.
“If that’s not the case, then the neighborhood association has a process of electing new leadership.”
For the restoration group, a letter of opposition signed by more than 200 Dignowity Hill residents, which was submitted to the city last month, proves the current neighborhood association doesn’t reflect the will of its residents.
“Those apartments are (going to be) super expensive compared to what the neighborhood is used to paying,” said Natasha Hernandez, a renter who lives on Hays Street, six block from the bridge, and who helped collect the signatures.
Tomorrow, we’ll take you into the neighborhood, where we talked newer and longtime residents about the Bridge Apartments. The reaction to Meyer’s development isn’t as black and white as you may think.
Site photo by V. Finster / Express-News