Updated 12:35 p.m. with comments from developer Mitch Meyer
City Manager Sheryl Sculley on Tuesday approved a five-story apartment project that a local development team is proposing for a controversial vacant lot just north of the Hays Street Bridge on the near East Side.
Developer Mitch Meyer, who is partnering with Eugene Simor, owner of Alamo Beer Co. on the other side of the bridge, still has some steps to take regarding the building's design before he can begin construction on the mixed-use project. However, those conditions, set by Sculley, are mostly aesthetic in nature. What had been holding up Meyer since March was the final OK from Sculley.
In a statement to the Heron this afternoon, Meyer said he doesn't expect construction to start for at least six more months, because the project has been redesigned.
"I want to thank all the people that have persevered to finally see this project through and still hold an utmost respect for the people opposed to the project," Meyer said in the statement. "I want nothing more than than to let bygones be bygones and start working and living together in peace."
The property at 803 N. Cherry St., however, remains entangled in court proceedings that date back nearly six years.
On June 15, in Bexar County District Court, the Hays Street Bridge Restoration Group requested before Judge Laura Salinas that development be suspended on the site until the Texas Supreme Court hears the case, which is now scheduled for Sept. 13. In 2012, the restoration group first sued the city, after the city sold the property to Simor.
The restoration group contends that the city reneged on a memorandum of understanding, dating back to the 2000s, that would have made the 1.7-acre piece of land into a park. Its more immediate concern is that a five-story development on the corner of Cherry and Lamar streets will block the view of the bridge and the downtown skyline beyond it. Other groups, including people who live near the bridge, worry that market-rate apartments will exacerbate the skyrocketing appreciation of homes in Dignowity Hill, the result of the historic neighborhood's popularity with gentrifiers in recent years. Some longtime homeowners fear it's only a matter of time before they're not able to afford to pay their taxes, while some renters say they'll soon be priced out. Meanwhile, Meyer's project is due to receive a $1.2 million incentive from the city, including $800,000 in rebates on city property taxes over 10 years.
Others residents, who the Heron spoke to while walking the neighborhood in recent weeks, say a big apartment development will add traffic congestion and ruin the peaceful quality of their community.
The neighborhood's newer residents are either ambivalent or they welcome the private sector interest and investment. This is a sentiment seemingly shared by current and past city leadership — from former mayors Julián Castro (who created the housing incentives policy this project is benefitting from) to Ivy Taylor to Mayor Ron Nirenberg. Simor has said that such a project will help restore prominence to the once-thriving neighborhood of Dignowity Hill.
In recent months, Meyer tried twice to maneuver the mixed-use project through the Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) approval process—and failed both times. On March 23, Sculley revived the project, a step she rarely makes but can under the city's Unified Development Code, and presented Meyer with 11 conditions he had to meet in order to gain her final approval. Meyer's deadline to meet Sculley's stipulations had been extended twice, most recently to this Friday, which the San Antonio Express-News reported on Tuesday.
If Meyer wanted her backing, he needed to work with the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association's architectural review committee (ARC), which at the time largely opposed the development's design, and the HDRC's design review committee.
A month later, neighborhood association president Chris Barrows, who's lived in Dignowity Hill less than a year, purged the ARC of its six members and replaced them with his own selections, Express-News columnist Gilbert Garcia reported in April.
During this time, two meetings were held to iron out Sculley's concerns. Organized by the city's Office of Historic Preservation, the meetings were attended by members of Meyer's development team and members of the neighborhood association, among others. But Meyer only attended one, according to several attendees.
Also, Meyer didn't agree with some of Sculley's stipulations, the Express-News reported in early June.
But the neighborhood association under Barrows gave the project its support, anyway, in a letter dated June 3. (The restoration group and other residents say the neighborhood association's decision does not reflect how the majority of Dignowity Hill feels about the development. On Friday, they delivered to the city a letter in opposition of the apartments signed by more than 200 Dignowity Hill residents.)
In her letter to Meyer this week, Sculley noted that three of the 11 stipulations had been met, and that those three were enough to move the project forward. They addressed larger issues such as the building's scale and massing—its relationship to the single-family homes across Cherry Street, and its relationship to the bridge. Also mentioned in these conditions was a "public portal" that would provide public views of the bridge.
"I'm happy that the Dignowity Hills Neighborhood Association is now supportive of the project and that we have met the requirements of the city manager with full transparency," Meyer wrote. He added, "This will be a signature project for the East Side, create housing and remove the blighted lot."
In her letter, Sculley, who did not return requests for comment, points out that Meyer addressed these concerns on June 14, but it's unclear exactly how he did so because Meyer's latest proposal has not been made public.
"The main concern I personally have is the fact that (Sculley) laid out a process which involved the developers changing the design and then meeting with the ARC and the HDRC design review committee — and that those groups decide whether or not the new design meets the conditions — and those things did not happen," Amy Kastely, the group's lawyer, said in reaction to Sculley's final decision.
"The reduction in height of the building close to the bridge, and the moving of the portal so that there would be public views of the bridge, were both waived by the developer, and I don't believe that they were satisfied by any design change," she said.
Yet to be determined still is a pocket park, a compromise of sorts that Sculley vehemently supports, that would reside between the bridge and the apartments. If Meyer wants to move forward with the project, he must change the land deeds to include this "dedicated public space," Sculley wrote, calling it "critical to the consideration of this request."
For the restoration group, that simply won't do.
In 2012, the group sued the city when it first sold the land to Simor. Back then, Simor wanted the site for his brewery, which he eventually built on Burnet Street on the north side of the bridge. The group has long claimed that the city reneged on a deal that would have made the property into a park. In 2014, a jury agreed, but also concluded that the land was not parkland and issued an ambiguous verdict that put into question the property's eventual use. Later that year, the city transferred ownership of the land to Simor for this mixed-use development. In response, the restoration group filed a motion of contempt, arguing that the sale was an affront to the jury verdict.
The city appealed the decision to the Fourth Court of Appeals and won when the court ruled that the city could not be sued because it has governmental immunity.
Now the case is scheduled to go before the Texas Supreme Court in September.
"The Texas Supreme Court is looking at a very narrow issue related to city immunity," City Attorney Andy Segovia said in a statement Tuesday night. The decision "will not impact the project going forward."
But group begs to differ. If the Texas Supreme Court rules that the city doesn't have governmental immunity, Kastely said the case would return to district court, which would then have to determine whether the city was in contempt of the 2014 court decision when it transferred the property to Simor.
Featured photo shows the property at 803 N. Cherry St. V. FINSTER / SAN ANTONIO HERON