A 1.7-acre tract of land north of the Hays Street Bridge, which, for seven years, has been the focus of a legal battle that made its way to the Texas Supreme Court last year, will become a public park.
On Thursday morning, the City Council voted 10-1 to approve a land swap deal with the property’s current owner, developer Mitch Meyer, which will return the property to city. In the same vote, the council also signed off on a last-minute amendment that will convert the vacant lot into a public park “dedicated to the historic Hays Street Bridge.”
After the vote, the Hays Street Bridge Restoration Group, which first sued the city of San Antonio over the land back in 2012, declared a “bittersweet victory.”
While the vote resolves their grievance, they said, they also apprised council members that Meyer was being compensated for land the group says he never should have owned. They also aired concern over the public engagement process. The amendment that pledges the land as a park wasn’t included in a version of the deal first posted on the council meeting agenda last week. Instead, the language was added this morning, after group members pressured certain members of City Council in the days leading up to the vote.
“We’ve been clear with the city what we sought with the litigation, and what we were entitled to … was a return of the land and dedication of the land to an open space that is related to the bridge, that enhances the public visit and understanding of the bridge,” said Amy Kastely, the group’s pro bono attorney, who did not attend the meeting because of a personal matter, but who watched the proceedings via livestream.
“The disappointment is that it was done through this land swap that is more public monies given to (Alamo Beer Co. owner) Eugene Simor and Mitch Meyer,” Kastley continued, “without a whole lot of justification.”
The meeting was packed with emotion—with remorse (from Mayor Ron Nirenberg and some council members), with anger (from activists), and with sadness (from East Side children of all ages whose affecting statements seemed magnified by the fact that they were, perhaps for the first time, talking directly to the people with power).
“Oh, thank you for giving us the land that belonged to us … you’re giving it back to us and acting like it’s something we should be (grateful for),” Asiko Gomis, 17, who lives in the southeast neighborhood of Highland Park, told the council.
District 2 Councilman Art Hall, who brokered the deal, acknowledged a breach of trust between the city and certain members of the community regarding the land next to the bridge.
“I have heard a lot of comments here today that we have not listened, and broken the trust,” Hall said. “Our goal today is to let you know that we are listening. Part of the aim today is to bridge and rebuild that trust.”
Since the Texas Supreme Court ruled in favor of the restoration group in March, Councilman Hall had met multiple times with Meyer, and members of nearby communities. Yet it was only last Thursday when the restoration group got its first official sit-down meeting as a group with Hall, City Manager Erik Walsh and Assistant City Manager Lori Houston, once the terms of the land swap deal had already been decided between Meyer and the city.
All this time, the leverage the group had over the city of San Antonio was an active motion of contempt in local district court against the city, which claims the city violated a 2002 memorandum of understanding between the city and the group when the city first tried to sell the land to Simor in 2012. The contempt motion is one the Texas Supreme Court backed in its ruling in March.
Late Wednesday, the day before the vote, Graciela Sanchez, a member of the group, submitted the amendment language at the request of Hall and District 7 Councilwoman Ana Sandoval, Sanchez said. Thursday morning, after the four-hour discussion began during the City Council meeting, Hall handed printed copies of the amendment (which had been altered slightly, but still reflected the group’s request that the land be dedicated to the bridge) to Sanchez to hand to members of the group.
As a matter of procedure, Kastely said it may be months before the group drops its contempt motion in the local 73rd District Court. The group wants to see the city follow through on the land swap, and also allocate funding for the park, which will include restroom facilities; tree or shade structures, or both; picnic areas; and information telling the history of the bridge.
During the meeting, Nirenberg and outgoing District 4 Councilman Rey Saldaña made the strongest statements of regret over the initial vote in 2012, then again in 2014, that relinquished ownership of the land to Simor, and eventually Meyer, for development.
“It is unfortunate that this bridge has become a symbol of why people’s trust in government has waned—in local government,” Nirenberg told the room.
It was a sentiment that echoed Saldaña, who spoke before Nirenberg.
“Trust is a fragile thing,” Saldaña said. “It’s easy to lose and it’s incredibly hard to gain back. We will vote on this and we will not get the community’s trust back … This is part of my atonement for a decision that I was part of. I have atonement to pay for a decision in 2012 that really started this whole thing.
Saldaña said he voted for the land sale in 2012 and 2014, because he believed the East Side needed more private investment. In 2012, when the city first tried to sell the land to Simor, Ivy Taylor represented District 2 on the council. By the time the council made the sale final, in December 2014, she had become mayor. Throughout the process, Taylor vehemently defended the decision to sell the land, because she said community members had been begging for investment from the private sector.
In an interview she did with me in 2016, when she was still mayor, and when I was working for the now-defunct news nonprofit Folo Media, she said people can’t complain the East Side is being neglected, and then complain when it receives an economic generator like a brewery, and the housing and retail that would naturally sprout up around it.
On Thursday, Saldaña acknowledged the rationale, but balanced it out with the notion that maybe the council acted too fast.
“Sometimes, you get exactly what you ask for,” Saldaña said, alluding to the wave of new investment turned gentrification in abutting Dignowity Hill, and other near-East Side communities.
District 6 Councilman Greg Brockhouse, who is leaving the council next week, along with Saldaña and Hall, was the lone vote against the ordinance.
He has long sided with the restoration group, repeating the assertion that the deal to sell the land to Simor and Meyer was a classic case of nepotism—the former having close ties to former Mayor Phil Hardberger, he said. He said he would have preferred one vote for the land swap, and another vote to designate the parkland. By conflating the two, the city made it seem like it was paying the price for an improper deal seven years ago, when, in fact, Meyer was still coming out ahead, he said.
“The whole premise was wrong,” Brockhouse wrote in a text message. “The land should have never been taken in the first place. The legal challenges were dead wrong and another sweetheart land deal for an insider connected to Hardberger is a joke. I get the community gets the park, but the city acting like this was some sort of win or grand compromise is hypocritical.”
“To me this whole thing was a clear cluster f— created by the city and its insiders.”
Other council members were more clinical in their assessment of the situation. District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales said she supported the land sale in 2014, because she was supporting Taylor as the East Side council representative. On Thursday, by the same logic, she supported Hall’s deal.
In the deal, Meyer will receive two acres of land the city owns at 223 S. Cherry St., nearly a mile south of the bridge, next to the Alamodome, which a city contractor values at $2.58 million. In exchange, the city will recoup two properties at 803 N. Cherry St., next to the bridge, which are valued at $2.6 million.
The city has also agreed to spend at least $600,000 for environmental abatement, demolition and cleanup work at the South Cherry Street property that the city says it would have incurred regardless if it was deeding the land to Meyer.
Meyer also gets to keep a downtown housing incentive package he received for a 127-unit apartment project he was planning to build next to the bridge, and can apply the incentives to the housing project he plans to build on South Cherry. The original incentive package was valued at $1.2 million, and includes a 10-year rebate on city property taxes. It’s unclear whether the same package will be valued the same when applied to the new property.
Meyer has said he plans to build a housing development no higher than five stories—to appease the concerns of the Denver Heights neighborhood.
For Gomis, the 17-year-old who lives nearby, the land swap deal only moves the threat of gentrification exasperated by multifamily development from Dignowity Hill a mile south to Denver Heights, on land the city had allocated for affordable housing.
“You’re putting gentrification over affordable housing,” Gomis said. “How is that OK? How does that make sense?”
At 223 S. Cherry St., the city owns another 1.92 acres. It will seek a developer of mixed-income housing for the property, but if it doesn’t find one, proceeds from the land sale will go toward affordable housing efforts in the area, Houston told the council.
While some of the discourse during the meeting touched on the legality of the land sale, most of it seemed to address the dramatic changes happening to the near-East Side neighborhoods because of city-backed development. Many of the people who criticized the city were students, mostly in their early teens, representing SAISD’s summer Mexican American Studies Leadership Institute at Bonham Academy, the Martinez Street Women’s Center (located in Dignowity Hill), and other programs from various East Side schools.
Some of their comments to City Council were less testimony and more of an outpouring of emotion.
“These new style homes are taking over,” said Alfredo Gonzalez, a sixth-grader at Booker T. Washington Elementary School and a lifelong resident of Harvard Place-Eastlawn, the neighborhood east of Dignowity Hill. “Some people don’t know what this means. This means displacement. What does displacement mean? It means that the people I go to school with have to leave their neighborhood, leave their home and memories.”
Gonzalez is a member of the Light Catchers Society at Booker T. Washington, a photography club that formed this year to chronicle the gentrification happening to the East Side.
During the meeting, Nicholas Rivard, president of the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association, said he supported the deal, but it was unclear which version. Hall said the neighborhood had considered an affordable housing development on the property on North Cherry.
María Greene, representing the Denver Heights Neighborhood Association, said the neighborhood strongly opposed the land swap because it was unclear how Meyer’s market-rate development next to the dome would affect the neighborhood.
“Gentrification is already taking place at an astounding rate in the Denver Heights neighborhood,” Greene said, “and affordable housing is a critical issue.”
Toward the end of his remarks, Nirenberg said the city will reassess how it deals public property in the future.
“We have to make sure we develop a process of public participation that ensures any conveyance of public property comes with robust and comprehensive public input,” he said. “That’s my commitment as your mayor to make sure we solidify that process.”
Meyer, who did not attend the meeting, did not return a request for comment.
For more background, read:
San Antonio pushing for resolution on Hays Street Bridge land case [ March 27, 2019 ]
Texas Supreme Court rules in favor of Hays Street Bridge group [ March 15, 2019 ]
» City Council majority want Hays Street Bridge land appeal dropped [ March 20, 2019 ]
Editor’s note: This story is complex and includes many viewpoints, the Heron will break it down further in the weeks to come.