Mayor Ron Nirenberg and many on the City Council would rather the seven-year legal dispute between the Hays Street Bridge Restoration Group and the City of San Antonio over the property at 803 N. Cherry St. be resolved outside a courtroom.
“I do not believe any reasonable resolution to this controversy is going to be found in a courtroom, period,” Nirenberg told the Heron.
In 2016, a group headed by developer Mitch Meyer bought the land from Alamo Beer Co. owner Eugene Simor, who had purchased it two years earlier from the city. The restoration group had arranged for the land to be donated to the city for public use. But when the city sold it to Simor, the city intended the land to be developed;Meyer has plans to build a five-story apartment building, called the Bridge Apartments, there.
The latest sentiment from Nirenberg and the council comes more than a week after the Texas Supreme Court sided with the restoration group when it ruled San Antonio’s governmental immunity, a Texas law that protects governments from frivolous lawsuits, was waived. The decision sends the case back to the 4th Court of Appeals.
Assuming the city drops its appeal, which City Attorney Andy Segovia told the Heron will likely happen, the case would drop a rung to the local district court level, where the restoration group has a pending motion of contempt against the city, claiming the city violated a 2014 district court judgment when it sold the 1.7-acre piece of land north of the Hays Street Bridge to Simor.
Nirenberg doesn’t want it to get to that point.
“I don’t believe we should be pursuing any legal action, any further,” said Nirenberg, who added he wants all affected parties to come to the table and talk.
District 2 Councilman Art Hall, whose district encompasses the property in question, said he’s spoken with the restoration group and Meyer about coming together to find a resolution.
Hall prefers a meeting to happen in 2-3 weeks, because his ephemeral time in office is rapidly coming to a close. In January, Hall was appointed by the City Council to fill the East Side council seat left empty by the departure of William “Cruz” Shaw. Hall said he’d rather reach a resolution before the May 4 election. A new council member, he said, wouldn’t have the benefit of the legwork in negotiations.
“It would be like starting from scratch,” Hall said.
The restoration group, which raised funds to revive the Hays Street Bridge into what has become a popular landmark for pedestrians and cyclists, wants the land to be a park where visitors can learn the bridge’s history. The group also said it’s open to talks.
“That’s what we’ve been fighting for,” said Amy Kastely, the group’s pro bono attorney. “We’re willing to talk to the city. We’re willing to talk with Mr. Seymor and Mr. Meyer.”
In an email, Meyer declined an interview request at this time, stating, “There’s nothing to talk about until there’s something to talk about.”
Hall said he’s spoken to Meyer, and said Meyer is open to discussions. He also said a resolution is not as simple as the city buying back the land from Meyer, whose company has already spent money on the Bridge Apartments’ architectural renderings, among other development-related expenses.
“Everybody’s got to realize … things have been done, steps have already been taken, money has already been spent,” said Hall, who’s a lawyer by trade. “So we can’t take it back to ground zero, because we’re not there. We have to take the issue from where we are currently and consider all the facts as they current stand.”
Last year, Meyer also received permission from former City Manager Sheryl Sculley to proceed with the development, despite the Historic and Design Review Commission twice rejecting its design. Among the restoration group’s points is that a five-story building on the property would block views of the bridge and the downtown skyline behind it from the corner of Cherry and Lamar streets. It’s also concerned the 127-unit market-rate development would accelerate the changing demographic of the Dignowity Hill neighborhood, which abuts the property.
Hall continued about Meyer, “He’s had plans and has received permission to move those plans … and gotten approvals on permits. So there’s been history of progress on the project that everybody’s got to take into consideration in addition to the community’s perspective and the restoration group’s perspective.”
When the land was sold
The sentiment from Nirenberg and the council is certainly different than what it was in 2014, when the council voted to sell the land to Simor.
Before the vote, which happened Dec. 4 of that year, the various sides were negotiating following a jury verdict three months earlier in September that found the city had reneged on a 2002 memorandum of understanding (MOU) that would have made the land public use. The jury said the word “funds” in the MOU to mean money and in-kind donations (i.e., the land). It also found the city never held the land as a park. Judge David Canales then ordered the city to “allocate, apply and use all funds” raised by the group, “including the property located at 803 North Cherry,” toward the Hays Street Bridge project costs.
The group interpreted the ruling to mean the land itself would be applied to the Hays Street Bridge project as it was intended in the MOU.
The city interpreted the ruling to mean it could sell the land and use the proceeds from the sale toward upgrades to the bridge project, which includes upgrades around the structure.
So, the council, in December 2014, voted to sell the land. But the Texas Supreme Court, in its ruling two weeks ago, said the city had not adequately proven that funds from the sale of the land had been applied to the bridge.
Assistant City Manager Lori Houston said funds from the sale, $295,000, went toward landscaping, lighting, restoration of the bridge and rebuilding the bridge’s approaches.
[ Editor’s note: The Heron has asked Houston for documentation to support the expenditures, and we’ll update our story when she responds. ]
When council approved the sale in 2014, the restoration group, which has been vocal throughout its fight, said it was caught off guard. It thought negotiations were ongoing. This is evidenced by the fact that no one from the group showed up to the council meeting to protest the sale. Shortly after the vote, the group sued the city, claiming it had violated Judge Canales’ ruling just a few months earlier by selling the property.
A different council
During that time, Mayor Ivy Taylor, who lives three blocks east of the bridge, was adamant about the need for private investment in what was, at the time, a long-neglected segment of the near East Side.
Originally, Simor eyed 803 N. Cherry St. as the site for Alamo Beer Co.’s brewery, and the land sale, from the city’s perspective, was for that purpose. But the legal fight, which dates back to 2012, when the restoration group first took the city to court when the city originally tried to sell the land to Simor, forced Simor to build on a piece of property he already owned on Burnet Street, just south of the bridge.
Of the current council members, only Rebecca Viagran, Rey Saldaña, Shirley Gonzales, Ron Nirenberg, who was serving as the District 8 councilman, were around for the vote. Saldaña, Gonzales and Nirenberg voted in favor of the land sale and, according to meeting minutes, echoed some of Taylor’s same sentiments. Viagran did not attend the meeting.
The feeling now among the council, judging from a survey the Heron conducted last week, is that this dispute has dragged on too long.
“Obviously, this is a situation that has cast a cloud over the city for a number of years, and if there’s a way we can resolve it together that is our preference,” Nirenberg said. “If that is not possible, then, at the very least, we don’t think any further legal action should be taken.”
Last summer, we visited Dignowity Hill to ask residents what they thought about the prospect of a five-story apartment development being built right next to their neighborhood. We received a mix of reactions.