By Richard Webner | @RWebner | Heron contributor
You could think of this as part of the epilogue to the Hays Street Bridge saga—that seven-year-long battle between East Side activists, the developer Mitch Meyer and the City of San Antonio over whether to build a park or an apartment complex on a vacant property beside the bridge.
The fate of that property was decided in 2019 when the City Council voted to turn it into a park, as the activists had long sought, after the city lost a legal battle that went all the way to the Texas Supreme Court.
Yet the story wasn’t quite over: Council also voted to swap the property with Meyer, who had owned the property, for another owned by the city. He then took possession of a 2-acre plot three-quarters of a mile to the south at 223 S. Cherry St., just north of the Alamodome.
In a text message two weeks ago, Meyer referred to that property as “the illegitimate child of my Hays Street Bridge project.” Now, at last, it has a father.
In late June, a shell company led by local developer Cory Stehr purchased it from Meyer, county deed records show. Stehr declined to say how much he paid for it, but it had been marketed for $3.5 million and his shell company borrowed $2.28 million from Encore Bank to make the transaction.
Stehr, who moved to San Antonio from Los Angeles two years ago seeking to take part in the “resurrection” of downtown, said he hasn’t yet formulated plans for the site. In discussing it, he emphasized the virtue of patience, saying that he’s willing to wait until there’s enough momentum in the neighborhood to build a high-quality project that fits the wishes of those who live nearby.
As part of Meyer’s property swap, the incentives which the city had awarded him through the old Center City Housing Incentive Policy (CCHIP) to build a five-story apartment building on the Hays Street Bridge property were grandfathered into the new site. The incentive package is worth an estimated $1.2 million, $800,000 of which is the estimated value of a 10-year tax rebate on city property taxes based on the North Cherry location.
Stehr said he doesn’t plan to make use of them.
“I have no clue what I’m going to do with it,” Stehr said. “I just looked at it and I said, ‘You know, you can build something today, of course, and you could build with the incentives for Mitch, and put up some lifeless five-story apartment building, or you could wait and see what the neighborhood needs.”
Next to Stehr’s property, a Fort Worth developer is advancing closer toward breaking ground on a 340-unit, five-story apartment building called Cherry x Commerce.
Stehr’s property also has the advantage of being directly across the Union Pacific railroad track from the historic St. Paul Square district, where the downtown developer David Adelman and his partners Michael Jersin and Don Thomas are engaged in a longstanding effort to transform the area into a nightlife area by rehabbing historic buildings and filling them in with new retail tenants.
Most notably, they turned the former Sunset Station train depot into The Espee, an entertainment venue that hosts the 1902 Nightclub. The depot is a block north of Stehr’s property.
Stehr said he is likely to seek a partnership with a developer with experience building high-density projects. So far, his projects in San Antonio have been more small-scale; he is working on rehabbing the two-story Leeds building at 345 W. Commerce St., which he bought last year.
[ Related: Leeds building restoration in west downtown approved by historical commission | July 7, 2021 ]
“I don’t want to waste an urban infill site building a sprawling, low-density complex in an area that needs super-high density,” he said. “I don’t know what type of density it needs right now, and I’m also not fit to do it, so I would need to partner with someone.”
He said he has reached out to the office of District 2 Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez for feedback on potential uses.
“The stage I sit at right now is, ‘Wait and see and invite feedback’,” he said. “I know that community gardens are big for them, local restaurants are big for them.”
Stehr’s options could be limited: In his property-swap deal with the city, Meyer agreed to build a five-story multifamily project on the site, and that requirement carries on to Stehr, according to the deed marking the transaction.
Erika Ragsdale, a spokeswoman for the city’s Neighborhood and Housing Services Department, confirmed in an email that the requirement still stands. She didn’t answer a question as to whether the city would consider other uses.
In a text message, Stehr said he wasn’t worried about the restriction, saying he didn’t “want to play legal eagle on this.” He didn’t respond to a request for further comment after the city confirmed that the restriction is still in effect.
In May, the city’s Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) gave final approval for the design of Berkley V. and Vincent M. Dawson Park, the name eventually given to the land at the center of the Hays Street Bridge saga, perhaps the most contentious development battle to have arisen from the wave of growth that has swept through San Antonio’s urban core over the last 15 years.
It had its roots in a 2002 memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the city and the Hays Street Bridge Restoration Group. East Side activists joined forces with activists from other parts of town and argued that the city, in the MOU, had agreed to turn the property into a park, to complement the restoration of the bridge.
[ Archive: Land next to Hays Street Bridge will become a park, after all | June 13, 2019 ]
In 2012, when the city first tried to sell the land to Alamo Beer Co. owner Eugene Simor, the activists sued, saying the city had violated the MOU. The sale ended up going through at a sale price of $295,000, according to city officials. Later, Simor sold the land to a group headed by Meyer, who would unveil plans to build a five-story apartment complex.
Then-City Manager Sheryl Sculley was a firm advocate of offering the property for private development; in 2018, she approved Meyer’s plans even after they were twice rejected by the city’s Historic and Design Review Commission.
After many twists and turns, the saga came to an end in June 2019 with council’s vote to turn the property into a park after the Texas Supreme Court ruled in favor of the restoration group in its lawsuit against the city.
In a text message, Meyer said that he had intended to develop the property he’d accepted in the swap, but his “heart wasn’t in it.”
“Cory is the right person for this site and he’ll do a good job,” he said.
Editor’s note: Cory Stehr is an individual supporter of the Heron.
Richard Webner is a freelance journalist covering Austin and San Antonio, and a former San Antonio Express-News business reporter. Follow him at @RWebner on Twitter