They are the homes much taller and thinner and more modern-looking than typical houses in older neighborhoods—built four to a single lot, in some cases—that have sprouted around downtown in recent years.
On Thursday, the City Council will consider updating the city’s development guidelines to restrict the height of these types of homes, among other measures. The revisions to the Unified Development Code, or UDC, are intended to protect the character of inner city neighborhoods by tempering this type of constellated infill home building. More than two years ago, neighborhood activists north of downtown pushed for the changes. They wanted to combat the construction of homes that clash with, and loom over, the rest of the neighborhood, as well as their impact on the social fabric and affordability of these communities, they say.
At last week’s City Council meeting, Mayor Ron Nirenberg described the new housing style as an unintended consequence of the city’s attempt to reverse urban sprawl the last 10 years.
“Somewhere between the launch of the Decade of Downtown and today that rubber band snapped and that’s what we’re seeing in the difficulty in affordability and the development concerns in our neighborhoods,” Nirenberg said. He added later, “In addition to that, I don’t want us to loose sight and get too far into the weeds of what we’re trying to accomplish as a city, which is: We have to densify San Antonio or all of us are going to be priced out.”
As a result of a UDC conversion process in 2001, many neighborhoods now see a mishmash of zoning types. (This will get technical for a second, but then there are lots of pictures.) The rules changes would impact two forms of zoning: MF-33 (multi-family; max of 33 units per acre; up to 45 feet in height) and RM-4 (mixed residential; four units; up to 35 feet or three stories).
Now the pictures. The following maps show multi-family-zoned properties in yellow, which give you an idea of the properties—if they were available for development—where a structure could be built up to 45 feet.
In addition to yellow as multi-family …
Beige is residential.
Red is commercial.
Purple is industrial.
Blue is special district.
The changes the council will consider Thursday won’t prevent multiple homes on a single lot. They will restrict them, and other forms of development, in the following ways:
» Height: The height of a new building next to house will be limited to 35 feet, which is more in line with a traditional house.
A recent addition, passed by the council’s Planning and Community Development Committee on Monday in a 3-2 vote, would prohibit a 45-foot structure next to a vacant lot. This rule, in which a 45-foot structure could be built next to a vacant lot, was added by the Zoning Commission last month in an attempt to clarify the code’s language. The residents said such a rule would incentivize developers to acquire and demolish a house, turning it into a vacant lot, in order to build a 45-foot structure next to it.
» Front setback: New construction on properties 1/3-acre in size zoned MF-33, adjacent to a house, must have a setback of 10 feet from the building to the street—same as houses. This is to prevent developments with shorter setbacks (meaning a shorter distance from the building to the street, like most downtown buildings.)
» Street orientation: Going back to the tall, thin homes … the front doors of the primary units must face the street. Currently, the home clusters are oriented to face each other thus creating a kind of pocket neighborhood.
How we got here
The changes are the result of a 16-member task force, composed of residents and developers, that met from June to October following a council request by District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño in 2017.
After months of highly technical deliberation, no one seems fully satisfied.
The months-long discussion has fueled an ongoing debate over supply and demand—How does a city achieve or maintain affordability? Build as much housing as possible no matter how high the cost? Or pursue less, more targeted affordable housing?
Mary Johnson, president of the Monte Vista Terrace Neighborhood Association, who also served on the task force that examined the UDC changes, said when she and others nudged Treviño to start the process, it began as a means of preserving the character of the neighborhoods but evolved into an affordability issue.
“We are watching our neighbors be replaced and displaced by upscale luxury housing,” Johnson said. “When that happens, the land values go up, our taxes go up. So if a neighbor has a house that they rent down the street, they can’t keep that rent low because the land values are going up. So their taxes are going up.”
John Cooley, chief operating officer at Terramark Urban Homes, one of the largest builders of new single-family homes north and east of downtown, said putting multiple homes on a lot traditionally meant for one house begets affordability.
“It’s important for San Antonio that we make sure all these decisions we make, (that) we look at them through the lens of: How do we protect neighborhoods? How does this impact affordability?,” said Cooley, who also served on the task force. “Supply is part of the equation. The more houses we build at any price point helps because there are more options. People want to live in these neighborhoods. That’s why builders build houses there.”
It’s unclear whether the changes will pass the council. For one, not all City Council members fully understand the highly complex zoning-rule adjustments being proposed, as was the case at the Planning and Community Development Committee on Monday, when District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran and District 9 Councilman John Courage admitted they were lost at times. The changes are fully endorsed by Treviño, who initiated the process in 2017 on behalf of the Tier One Neighborhood Coalition, which is composed of dozens of neighborhoods throughout the city.
Backing him on Monday was District 2 Councilwoman Jada Andrews-Sullivan, whose East Side district is experiencing rapid change, and which has a preponderance of vacant lots. Sections of her district closest to downtown have seen skyrocketing property values as the area becomes more popular.
“If we’re truly … about being genuine and transparent and having a true character of a community stay in place … keeping the true character is what we’re looking for,” Andrews-Sullivan said.
Others think differently. Gonzales, at the meeting Monday, said she likes the density created by building multiple homes on a traditional single lot.
“I think they’re all nice,” Gonzales said referring to a handout showing the tall homes compared to more traditional homes, which Tier One members distributed to the committee. “I think they’re all appropriate given this idea that we have to have more density, more affordable housing. I think what we don’t want is displacement. … I don’t see a problem with any of these.”
Even if the City Council approves the measures on Thursday, the discussion is guaranteed to continue in January and beyond during a process to amend the UDC as a whole, which San Antonio holds every five years.
That’s when the Tier One Neighborhood Coalition will push for prohibiting multiple, detached units on a single lot, a restriction that was emphasized in Treviño’s request in August 2017. In other words, instead of building four tall homes on one lot, for example, a developer would be limited to one structure.
Developers who served on the task force, such as Cooley and Jason Arechiga, NRP Group’s senior vice president of development, have warned such a restriction would have adverse effects outside the inner city, where multi-structured apartment complexes are preferred over monolithic buildings.
“We know other parts of the city don’t feel comfortable with that,” Treviño said, “so we don’t want to lose these protections that we’re gaining. We have promised to make this a priority in our UDC (amendment process) as that’s coming up next year.”
Treviño added that developers can always request a variance for any zoning rule, which would proceed to the city’s Board of Adjustment for a ruling. Then, a public discussion would begin, appeasing the neighborhood groups’ concern about developers being able to build what they wanted with little to no community input.
Where you have inner city neighborhoods with different needs than suburban communities, even within downtown neighborhoods, they each face similar but varying concerns.
Teri Castillo, a member of the Historic Westside Residents Association, has expressed to council members her desire to see these restrictions pass, even if the West Side hasn’t seen the construction of taller homes.
“But we have had a growing number of demolitions within our district, so we have a growing number of vacant lots,” Castillo said. “The developments are likely going to follow.”
She also points to the predatory use of reporting code compliance violations she said is used by some developers who target struggling homeowners. It’s an issue Nirenberg, in a text to the Heron last week, said he’s going to crack down on.
“The displacement of our neighborhoods and local businesses does not happen on its own,” Castillo told the council last week. “Displacement happens when there is an imbalance in up-zoning that benefits the real estate market and not working people and local businesses.”
This is an extremely complex topic—one we will explore in more depth later this week, as we talk to more people from the neighborhoods (folks who live next to newer developments), more developers and other parties.