Many East Side residents remain bitterly opposed to an apartment complex proposed next to the Hays Street Bridge, even after its developer unveiled a new design Monday night that he hoped would be viewed as a compromise.
The 150-unit apartment complex would be about 10 feet farther away from the historic bridge under the new design, which Xavier Gonzalez of GRG Architecture presented at a community meeting held by District 2 City Councilman Cruz Shaw. But it would also be taller — five stories rather than four — a change that was unpopular with many in attendance.
“It just looks like a beige box,” resident Evelyn Brown said. “There’s no design in there that’s historic, none. And it’s going to be right across the street from a historic neighborhood.”
In December, the city’s Historic and Design Review Commission voted down the project, proposed by local developer Mitch Meyer, after three hours of heated debate among East Side residents who say it would block views of the bridge and raise their property taxes.
Another sticking point was that a parking garage planned along Cherry Street would be a nuisance to pedestrians and homeowners. Instead of a parking garage, the ground floor of the new design would feature live-work units — units that could be used as residences, office space or both — as well as retail and space that could be used as a common area for residents of the complex, Gonzalez said.
“This is a very difficult project,” Shaw said Monday. “How do we work together? That’s what our office is trying to do … We need to have this dialogue because it’s never been had before.”
The proposed complex, named The Bridge, has exposed deep divisions in Dignowity Hill, a historic neighborhood just east of downtown that is being transformed by an influx of new residents looking for an urban lifestyle.
Some residents say the complex would reduce crime on the bridge, a gathering place for vagrants; but others say it shouldn’t even be eligible for development. The property is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit between the city of San Antonio and the Hays Street Bridge Restoration Group, which says the city reneged on a promise to turn it into a park.
“We’re going to see a building here, and we really need everyone’s cooperation,” Gonzalez said at Monday’s meeting. “What I do know is if you don’t join with us and work with us, you’re going to miss out.”
Numerous apartment complexes are under construction in the urban core, many of them much larger than The Bridge, but few have provoked so much community opposition.
The complex has come to represent concerns that new development in the urban core will blot out San Antonio’s historic landmarks and water down the personalities of the neighborhoods they are being built in. Another concern is that the developments will raise property taxes for homeowners that live nearby, pricing them out of their neighborhoods.
“I really don’t know why it’s become a lightning rod,” Meyer said. “We’re not harming the bridge. Actually, I think we’re bringing credibility and a newness to the bridge that it needs.”
After December’s HDRC meeting, Meyer hired local architecture firm GRG to change the design and resubmit it to HDRC. Gonzalez, GRG’s director of design, served as chairman of the HDRC for five years.
The new complex would be 64 feet away from the bridge, about 10 feet farther than the old design, Gonzalez said. The part of the building closest to the bridge will only be one story tall, creating a setback that is intended to give the bridge more breathing room.
Farther away from the bridge, the complex will be five stories tall, versus four stories in the previous proposal, Gonzalez said. But to give it a less monolithic appearance, the project’s facade now has more variety, such as more windows and a pathway going through the ground floor.
Meyer and Alamo Beer Co. owner Eugene Simor previously planned to use the land in between the complex and the bridge for a restaurant, but it will now be turned into a park that will be open to the public, Gonzalez said. The restaurant will be incorporated into the complex.
The apartment complex would have roughly 150 units, the same as before, Meyer said. The rents would range between about $1,000 a month for studio apartments to $1,800 for two-bedrooms, he said. At Monday’s meeting, some East Side residents questioned whether apartments with those rates would really be affordable.
“Our goal is to reach out to the neighborhood,” Meyer said before the meeting. “We weren’t very good at that the first time, but we listened to them … As Dr. Seuss says, we have gone beyond Z in curing those objections.”
In February of last year, the city awarded Meyer with an incentive package worth $1.2 million through its Center City Housing Incentive Policy, according to a document obtained through an open records request. Most of that would come from an $801,000 reimbursement of city property taxes.
The Hays Street Bridge Restoration Group, which raised money to revive the bridge, sued the city in 2012 to prevent it from selling the site of the proposed complex to Alamo Beer, saying the sale violated the terms of a 2002 memorandum of understanding that the group says required the land to be made into a park.
A Bexar County district court jury decided in 2014 that the city failed to comply with the terms of the memorandum by not turning the land into a park, but the 4th Court of Appeals sided with the city in March. The restoration group has appealed the ruling to the Texas Supreme Court.
The land was donated to the city by beer distributor BudCo. When the city sold the land to Alamo Beer in 2014 for $295,000, it gave the company a grant of about the same amount that was to be used for landscaping.
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