By Ben Olivo | @rbolivo | Heron editor
A San Antonio developer’s plan to build eight 2-story homes on two vacant lots on the edge of the Dignowity Hill Historic District was recently rejected by a city board because, it said, the overall project was incongruent with the neighborhood.
On March 2, Ricardo Turrubiates of Mint Development presented his plan for CherryCourt on the 1000 block of North Cherry Street, two blocks north of Hays Street Bridge on the near East Side, to the Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC).
Commissioners told Turrubiates, who was seeking conceptual approval for the project, that the size of the homes in relation to existing nearby homes, and the number of units on the two lots were out of place for the historic neighborhood.
Although the ratio of building footprint-to-lot size was well below the 50 percent threshold outlined in the city’s Historic Design Guidelines for buildings inside a historic district, many of the commissioners said the CherryCourt project was too big when compared to Dignowity Hill.
In a 5-2 vote, the HDRC rejected Turrubiates’ development and told him to return at a later date with another version of the project. Through letters, voicemail, and other forms of feedback, the community seems split on the development. The city’s Office of Historic Preservation (OHP) and The Conservation Society of San Antonio echoed some of the HDRC’s concerns.
Another commissioner, however, defended Turrubiates’ project, saying the developer had abided by feedback he’d received from HDRC members at three previous subcommittee meetings.
“There was a lot of stuff said from both sides in favor and not in favor, and so we’re still reviewing that and making sure that whenever we do come back … we come back with something that appeases everyone—from everyone in the community to OHP, and commissioners,” Turrubiates said in an interview this week. “At the end, we just want to create a good product in the neighborhood that we know very well.”
This is the first development for Turrubiates, who recently left his role as vice president of development for Terramark Urban Homes, one of the largest builders of single-family homes in Dignowity Hill, and other inner city neighborhoods. Terramark’s headquarters is located in Dignowity Hill on North Pine Street.
During the meeting, Commissioner Monica Savino told Turrubiates she was glad vacant lots were being developed, but that she took issue with the number of homes and the space they took up on the two lots.
“I don’t want to see something that disrupts the historic character of the historic setting,” Savino said. “There’s nothing in the guidelines that says you have to bend your building and increase density and make it more like downtown.”
Turrubiates told Savino that he would need to rezone the properties in order to clear the way to build eight homes.
She then asked: “Why eight (homes)? Why not five where there were two houses?”
“To make our project work (financially) and provide an attainable product, density is needed,” Turrubiates told Savino. “It really comes down to making a product that more people can enjoy and more people can move into this community, enjoy the amenities in the community. Not a lot of people can afford $500,000, but more people can afford mid-$300,000s, pushing $400,000s.”
Two homes would face North Cherry, and a common driveway would be shared by the other homes. The homes range from 1,439 to 1,610 square feet, and are designed by Ziga Architecture Group of San Antonio.
HDRC Chairman Jeffrey Fetzer said although the design guidelines allow for two-story homes, he had an issue with height.
“Yes, the code allows for one-story above the existing, but there is one story and then there is an appropriate one story,” Fetzer said. “These are fairly small footprint buildings, and I was concerned that having 9- and 10-foot ceiling heights on these small footprints—the massing of the structures—was going to be somewhat overwhelming, especially the two on Cherry Street and their adjacent neighbors.”
Based on research HDRC members requested, Turrubiates’ team found that the height of the envisioned CherryCourt homes were taller than the existing homes—29 feet tall (CherryCourt’s shortest home) compared to 20 feet, 6 inches (the tallest existing home nearby).
During the meeting, the difference between “density” and “intensity” surfaced—density being the number of units on a property versus the amount of space new construction consumes on a lot, respectively.
One of the commissioners, James H. Cervantes, asked the city staff what the historic guidelines said about density in a historic district.
“What does the math say in regards to what they’re doing here in the neighborhood?,” Cervantes asked. “Just straight numbers.”
“Just to be clear, we don’t review density,” Cory Edwards, the city’s Deputy Historic Preservation Officer with OHP, told Cervantes. “What we review is building massing, coverage of lot, height, scale—all those things.”
It’s up to the Zoning Commission to answer questions of density.
Commissioner Gabriel Q. Velasquez was direct in his criticism of the commissioners’ remarks, stating that Turrubiates met the requirements of the Historic Design Guidelines, and that the HDRC was overstepping the process where HDRC subcommittees provide feedback to a developer, the developer abides, and approval is later given.
“I find it very disheartening that now it appears it doesn’t matter, what we really want to tell them,” Velasquez said. “What I’m hearing is that it’s too much, yet their density is lower than all the other densities.”
Velasquez was referring to the percentage of lot the homes in CherryCourt consume.
At subcommittee meetings, commissioners asked Turrubiates to return to the HDRC with the ratio of building footprint compared to the overall size of the lots.
According to the city’s Historic Design Guidelines, the footprint of new construction cannot exceed 50 percent of the total lot area. For CherryCourt, that ratio, Turrubiates’ team calculated, was 26.5 percent—a calculation no one at the meeting disputed.
The average lot coverage of 12 homes on North Cherry closest to the project was 42.2 percent—another figure not disputed.
“To me, it tells me not only did they do the math, but they got the answer right,” Velasquez said.
But Savino and Carpenter pushed back.
“It’s really not very complicated. When you see a development like this, you have to ask yourself: Does this distract from the historic structures, the setting? That’s what we’re here to determine … This (project) is perfectly fine outside a historic district.”
Commissioner Scott W. Carpenter agreed.
“You can say you are only covering a certain percentage with your footprint, and you can still be grossly out of scale with the neighborhood,” Carpenter said. “It’s not simply a math equation.”
Velasquez motioned to grant conceptual approval, which failed. Here’s how the HDRC voted:
» Journel Maurice Gibbs— N
» Monica Savino— N
» Gabriel Q. Velasquez— Y
» Roland Garcia Mazuca— N
» Scott W. Carpenter— N
» James H Cervantes— Y
» Jeffrey Fetzer— N
Heron Editor Ben Olivo has been writing about downtown San Antonio since 2008, first for mySA.com, then for the San Antonio Express-News. He co-founded the Heron in 2018, and can be reached at 210-421-3932 | firstname.lastname@example.org | @rbolivo on Twitter