The year-long zoning battle being fought in Government Hill, over a plan to convert two acres of residential property into commercial at the Interstate 35 frontage road and North Walters Street, has caught the attention of neighborhoods outside this East Side community.
This became evident on Sept. 17 when the City Council made a zoning decision it rarely makes: It stymied the wishes of the council member from that district, which, in this case, is District 2 Councilwoman Jada Andrews-Sullivan. The councilwoman has sided with a trust managed by Frost Bank and a property owner named Sara Martinez who own adjacent lot clusters and are partnering to build a commercial development where eight homes currently stand.
At the front of the opposition’s minds is the prospect of those homes being replaced by a commercial development, while those who support the plan advocate for more business growth, especially on a key thoroughfare such as North Walters, which leads into Fort Sam Houston.
What’s been brewing for a solid year now is a vigorous debate over a property owner’s right to capitalize their land to the fullest, versus a neighborhood’s right to have a say in how their community evolves.
The majority of property owners within 200 feet who responded to the city’s zoning survey oppose converting the properties from R-6, residential, to C-2, commercial.
On Aug. 20, the City Council rezoned the cluster owned by the trust that faces the I-35 frontage road from R-6 to C-2 NA, which prohibits the sale of alcohol.
But four council members expressed concern during the council meeting on Sept. 17, which focussed on Martinez’s properties, either about the merits of the case itself, or because they had been bombarded with constituent emails who had been paying attention to the Government Hill case and were worried a precedent was being set.
For starters, there’s the optics of eight homes, which were being rented to lower-income families, being demolished for commercial development at a time when the city has prioritized affordable housing under Mayor Ron Nirenberg.
If these eight homes are razed, which ones are next? Not just in Government Hill, but in any neighborhood, they contend.
Martinez has said she did not evict the residents, but simply did not extend their month-to-month leases. She said she gave them free rent during the months they looked for new housing, which took place over the summer, and refunded 100% of their deposit. Through her lawyer, she also says the homes are in poor condition and that she wants to get out of the landlord business.
Many who oppose C-2 have agreed to compromise to a lesser form of commercial, C-1; but say Andrews-Sullivan reneged on a promise to do so, and has since pushed for C-2 NA.
Andrews-Sullivan said she recognized her earlier commitment to C-1, “then the understanding of deed restrictions cannot be enforced by the city weighed on my heart. Do I put something in place that continuously leaves a community vulnerable or do I step up as a leader and put the best zoning in place for this community?,” she said referring to the “no alcohol” restriction she backs. But the neighbors have said the sale of alcohol is not the sticking point, but rather the various large-scale uses allowed under C-2.
Martinez and the trust lately have not said which tenants would be leasing the prospective development. The owners, which are now represented by attorney Matt Badders, said they have agreed to place deed restrictions prohibiting a gas station (the neighbors’ biggest fear), a tattoo parlor and a gun shop. Nothing has been put in writing, at least on the Martinez properties, stating as much, which has cast doubt in the minds of the neighbors that the restrictions will be followed.
“The applicant is saying it could be, it might be, but we don’t know. You don’t know,” said Dora Lopez, 53, who inherited the house she grew up in on Sandmeyer Street, adjacent to the lots in question, during the council meeting two Thursdays ago. “I don’t know the applicant even knows what’s going to be developed.”
Badders has used broad language to describe the kind of tenant the development partnership is pursuing.
“Both the councilwoman and the neighborhood association told us they don’t want another fast food, unhealthy option,” Badders said. “They want something first-class and name-brand that will bring amenities to this neighborhood it doesn’t have.”
At least one council member, Clayton Perry, has questioned the lack of a meeting mediated by Andrews-Sullivan where all parties were seated at the same virtual table for a compromise.
Because more than 20% of the property owners within 200 feet oppose the rezoning, a supermajority vote was required by the council at their last meeting. Andrews-Sullivan failed to gather the nine necessary votes when council members John Courage and Roberto Treviño voted against the rezoning, and council members Perry and Ana Sandoval abstained.
That’s when Andrews-Sullivan made a motion for a continuance, and the council will now revisit the matter at its Oct. 1 meeting, which is Thursday.
The continuance triggered a community meeting via Webex, which was held last Tuesday. But many of the attendees said the meeting did little to resemble a mediation. For starters, Andrews-Sullivan did not attend and no one acted the role of mediator. Andrews-Sullivan’s chief of staff, Lou Miller, ran the meeting, and higher-ups at the Development Services Department (DSD) explained nuances in the zoning code. At one point, some of the neighbors engaged Badders directly, and Badders made the statement that his clients have compromised with the aforementioned restrictions. This left the neighbors with a bad taste in their mouth, feeling like they’re no better off now than what they were when the council voted for a continuance.
In a statement to the Heron, Andrews-Sullivan defended the meeting.
It “gave the community an opportunity to speak to one another rather than talking at each other,” she said. “There have been several meetings in the past whose sole purpose was to negotiate and compromise. The biggest benefit was the fact that we invited all parties, in and outside of the affected area, that was concerned about this zoning case. It is our hope that the question and answer session was beneficial to all those concerned.”
In January, those who oppose commercial development defeated a proposal by QuikTrip, on behalf of Martinez and the trust, to turn the properties into a mega gas station after the Zoning Commission denied the request. Six months later, the rezoning request resurfaced, this time with Badders representing Martinez pro bono, while the Jackson Cloma Living Trust represented itself. But without a known tenant.
At a Zoning Commission meeting in July, in the middle of his presentation, Badders caught commissioners off guard when he told them they were eyeing a Starbucks to lease the property. In the following weeks, after being pressed by some of the neighbors, a Starbucks executive told them directly the company had no intention of opening a shop in Government Hill.
Fast forward to hear and now.
Residents believe a carte blanche C-2 commercial zoning designation, meaning one without a known tenant, would leave residents powerless to oppose, should they feel the incoming business is inappropriate for their neighborhood. The Zoning Commission agreed saying rezoning without a known tenant would leave residents powerless to fight should they not agree with it, except with a lawsuit.
Supporters say the properties are a perfect place to build more retail and restaurants, because they’re close to Fort Sam and they face a busy intersection, and they would give this historically low-income community an economic boost.
“What we’re talking about is economic development,” said Rose Hill, who is president of the longest active neighborhood group called Government Hill Alliance. “We have restaurants in our neighborhood that are closing. We have families that have lost income. We need jobs.”
Badders has declined to say what tenants they’re looking to fill the commercial space, nor will he shed light on the number of tenants. Badders said he’s negotiating with a development partner, one that would bring capital to the project and a list of potential tenants, but that any deal hinges on how the council votes on Thursday.
“Here is the problem with answering your question: The last time they backed me up into a wall. Then they organized a protest and scared them away,” Badders said, referring to the neighbors contacting Starbucks. “Their efforts are counter productive.”
The C-2 NA designation, according to Andrews-Sullivan, would, in theory, kill any possibility for a gas station, because it prohibits alcohol. But the neighbors point out that a non-alcoholic business that pumps gas could still be placed there, as well as a convenience store that sells alcohol, allowed under C-1.
The neighbors have said they’ll accept any business allowed under C-1, alcohol never being a dealbreaker.
In a recent interview, when asked why C-1 wasn’t an option, Badders said it was still on the table, but that it limited his clients’ options. They’ve never been shy about saying C-2 increases the value of the property, which is a good card to have during any real estate negotiation. During Tuesday’s community meeting, Badders asked DSD officials whether a dentist office could work under C-1, and was told it would not.
“We have to bring something that brings the kind of jobs the people in the neighborhood want to have, such as dental offices,” Badders said. “There’s not a 24-hour Texas Med Clinic in the neighborhood. Those are specific categories that I don’t get in C-1. This is the reason why so far we have been disinclined to accept C-1.”
Badders said Martinez and the trust are willing to add deed restrictions that would prohibit a gas station, a tattoo parlor, or a gun shop, but neighbors doubt they will be enforced. Badders said the deed restrictions would be enforced by Martinez and the trust, and any tenant who leased the land and who violated the restrictions would lose control of the property.
“If I’m an evil gas station, why would I spend millions of dollars knowing the property owner can rip it out of my hands?” Badders said.
For weeks now, the Tier 1 Neighborhood Coalition, a group of neighborhoods largely within Loop 410, has spread the details of this case to its members. Though the coalition hasn’t taken an official stance, members have been loud in the ears of their respective council members, most notable District 1’s Treviño. They’re worried a case such as this one, one without a known business, will set a precedent for commercial use invading neighborhoods unchecked.
Their efforts were enough to delay the vote at the last council meeting.
“It’s called commercial creep,” said Cosima Colvin, a member of the Tier 1 Neighborhood Coalition. “It’s a well-known phenomenon. It continues to happen. The problem with that particular little area—if that property is successfully (zoned commercial), how do you deny the next one over? You cannot.”
One of the main fears from neighboring residents is how far inward the development would come. If it were just the trust’s property, which faces the frontage road, less residents would have an issue. In that scenario, the homes that face the neighborhood would back up to the development. With the trust and Martinez’s proposal, homes across the site would face the development.
“It devalues our properties,” said D’Ette Cole, one of the neighbors leading the charge against C-2, who lives on Reno Street with her husband Steve Versteeg, across from the site. “We would have never moved here if we were going to be facing the back of a possible gas station or convenience store and dumpsters.”
Badders has argued the section of commercial property that faces the homes would be less intrusive, and contain some kind of barrier such as a stone or stucco fence that encloses the property, as well as retain the trees currently planted there.
“There are other things you can do to create sound and visibility barriers,” Badders said.
Badders disagrees with the notion that successfully rezoning Martinez’s properties C-2 would set a bad precedent.
“The fun part of real estate, every property is unique,” he said. “So if this happens in Government Hill, is this going to happen in Beacon Hill? I mean, does Beacon Hill have a military base with the single largest economic incentive package in San Antonio’s history? Does Beacon Hill have I-35 running through it? I can see a lot of ingredients that make this property at this location and this space different.”
Government Hill is one of the fastest-changing of all inner city neighborhoods, mostly because of its proximity to the Pearl and the Broadway corridor. That end of the hill has seen the most gentrification in the form of rehabbed homes and some new construction. On the opposite end of Government Hill, up the hill some 20 blocks east of Broadway, is this pocket where the neighborhood’s changing, but at a much slower pace. Over here, dozens of signs have gone up at homes that read, “Don’t Kill Government Hill.”
Managing change in Government Hill, what kind of philosophical stance this community should take toward incoming development, has resulted in three neighborhood associations, two formed in recent years.
During the summer, Carolina Davila, a teacher’s aid and a mother of three who lived in one of Martinez’s homes on Edgar Avenue, told the Heron said she didn’t want to move. She said Martinez gave her an ultimatum: leave by June 28, or start paying $1,1000 in rent, an increase of almost 70% of what she had been paying, Davila said.
Though Martinez has declined multiple interviews from the Heron, Badders vehemently denied last week any assertion that Martinez forced her tenants to move by pricing them out.
One Government Hill housing advocate, Marlene Hawkins, opposes a zoning change to any form of commercial, and feels the homes can be repaired through HUD’s FHA 203K program, or moved to vacant lots elsewhere.
Badders has said Martinez is an older woman who wants to development her properties and lease the building to one or more tenants. He’s said the homes are in such bad shape, they’re beyond repair, and they will be demolished whether the land is rezoned or not.
‘Flipping whole neighborhoods’
A year ago, Cole moved her home goods store, GOOD|goods, from its spot in a retail strip on the southeast corner of Nolan and North Pine streets. A gun shop and tattoo parlor called Transfer Station opened next door at the start of the year, which caught many in adjacent Dignowity Hill off guard.
“Never once did (they) mention (the gun shop),” Andrews-Sullivan told the San Antonio Report at the time. “They were not fully transparent with City Council and the neighborhood. That to me is not a community partner.”
Cole asserts the situation happening across from her home is the same.
Andrews-Sullivan “mentions that ‘I’m not going to be bamboozled again like I was the tattoo parlor and gun shop’,” she said. “This is exactly how you get bamboozled, when you award someone rezoning without knowing what will go in there.”
Badders says he wants the neighbors to give him an example of a C-2 use they wouldn’t support that’s not a gas station, a gun shop, nor tattoo parlor. Cole said there are plenty of uses they would opposed under C-2, saying it’s too abrupt for a neighborhood.
“If the City Council allows this to happen, to rezone from R-6 to C-2 without any kind of project, just this blind rezoning, so that they can get the most money, that is allowing them to flip an entire neighborhood block. Really, we are going to open the door from the city to this kind of speculative real estate venture that’s going to destroy neighborhoods like ours.
“You’re going to have this whole culture of people flipping whole neighborhoods, instead of houses. That’s what this is.”
» City Council OKs rezoning residential land for commercial use in controversial Government Hill case
» Planning Commission recommends light commercial use for contentious Government Hill land
» Starbucks not opening on contentious Government Hill property
» Plans to demolish Government Hill homes for Starbucks denied
Setting It Straight: The name of D’Ette Cole’s business was misidentified in an earlier version of this article. It’s called GOOD|goods.
Editor’s note: Marlene Hawkins and Steve Versteeg are monthly donors to the Heron. View a list of all donors here.