- Siggi Ragnar
There were no shortage of reasons Wednesday, December 6 for members of the city’s Historic Design Review Commission to reject a developer’s plan to build a four-story apartment complex some 50 feet from the Eastside’s historic Hays Street Bridge.
“I really want to support this project,” said HRDC Commissioner Daniel Lazarine, who represents District 2, where the property lies. “It could be a prime example of good development in this lot. But I just don’t think the execution is there ... it’s disappointing.”
After the 5-1 vote, the meeting room erupted in applause. Strangers embraced in victory and, perhaps, exhaustion — the meeting had gone nearly four hours into the rainy Wednesday evening, with attendees snacking on vending machine dinners as to not miss a comment from the city council-appointed commissioners.
It’s unusual for a HDRC meeting to roll past 10 p.m. But it’s even more unusual for this community, which has been fighting for over 30 years to keep this property a public space, to feel heard.
“It was amazing and beautiful and wonderful that the HDRC members held the developers accountable in a way that our city leaders have not,” said Graciela Sanchez, founding director of the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center. “The developers didn’t do their homework. They’ve never done their homework. And now they’ve been caught.”
The unexpected vote is certainly not the end of the neighborhood’s battle against hungry developers, but it was a sliver a hope in a decades-long slog to return this piece of land to the community who fought for its protection. For long-time neighbors watching investors, business owners, and home-flippers expand their gentrifying creep into the inner East Side, the Hays Street Bridge (and the property beneath it) has become a symbol of resilience.
“The truth is, the bridge is why people go there,” said Sanchez. “Not the beer. Not the films, or yoga, or dancers, or bikers. It’s the bridge. And it should be used in the way the community and the city agreed it should be.”
For newer San Antonians (including the author of this story), mention of the Hays Street Bridge brings to mind sunrise yoga classes, group bike rides, Instagram photoshoots, or a post-microbrew stroll. The 136-year-old railroad bridge epitomizes the last decade’s obsession with turning derelict industrial buildings and structures into hip, high-end hangouts.
But for longtime residents of the inner Eastside neighborhood of Dignowity Hill, the bridge is more than a background for edgy senior portraits. In 1910, when the bridge was installed in San Antonio, the city’s Eastside was one of the few areas where African-American residents could buy a home. That meant the bridge, which created a two-lane road for cars to cross the railroad tracks below, quickly became the corridor connecting the city’s African-American community to downtown.
It’s that same community that, in the 1990s, rallied neighbors and local business owners to keep the city from tearing down the bridge after it became unsafe to drive over. Through fundraising, collaboration with big-name landowners and federal grants, the neighborhood group eventually got the city to agree to restore the bridge for pedestrian use in 2002 — and turn the land underneath into a public park.
That’s why on November 29, nearly 75 Dignowity Hill neighbors packed Alamo Beer’s main room to question how, exactly, a developer planned on turning a huge chunk of that land into a four-story apartment complex, offering rents that are out of the community’s price range. The proposed 148-unit building at 803 N. Cherry St. (dubbed “The Bridge”), was to sit a cozy 53 feet away from the actual bridge. Ten percent of these units would be marked “low-income” (based on federal standards) at the very non-low-income-sounding rent of $1,000 per month.
“I went to college. I have a job. I can’t afford that,” said a self-identified Millennial in the audience. “Who is this going to serve? People from Austin who are going to come down here and raise tax values and take San Antonio away from us? Or is it going to serve the members of this community and our city for whom we’ve already invested time and money into?”
Many kept coming back to the same question: “Wait, isn’t this public land?”
It was a question James McKnight, the land use attorney representing the developers, had trouble answering.
This isn’t entirely the fault of the apartment’s developer duo Eugene Simor (Alamo Beer owner) and Mitch Meyer (head of development firm Loopy Limited). Simor and Meyer are allowed to propose construction on land the city says is available to build on. Which, despite the 2002 community agreement to make the area a public space, the city has done.
Let’s go back to the 1990s, when Nettie Hinton, a Dignowity Hill native, returned from a 30-year stint in Washington, D.C. She had left San Antonio to join the civil rights movement in D.C., and split her time between a government job and activism — like marching to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. speak at the Lincoln Memorial. When she returned to her San Antonio neighborhood, she was shocked to find the bridge of her childhood not only shut down, but slated for destruction.
“I’m thinking, ‘You all don’t know this history,’” she recalled Wednesday. “That bridge was iconic to me as a child ... my father taking my brother and sister and I over it … over those rickety boards and loving it and fearing it at the same time. So I came home and continued to fight for what is right in my community.”
Hinton, along with a posse of neighbors eventually dubbed the Hays Street Bridge Restoration Group, gathered signatures and petitioned the city to keep it standing. By 2002, her group landed $2.89 million in federal dollars from the Federal Highway Administration to restore the Hays Street Bridge and create a “hike and bike trail” that would connect the Mission Reach to Salado Creek trails. The project would ideally include some of the space under the bridge for bathrooms and resting spots for trail users.
There was one catch: the federal grant required the city to cover 20 percent of the cost. And the city didn’t want to. So, city officials penned a “memorandum of understanding” with the restoration group in June 2002, in which the group agreed to cover the city’s costs — around $718,000.
Over the next several years, the group was able to raise nearly $200,000 in cash donations and thousands more in property deals for the city — like actually getting Union Pacific to give the bridge to the city. According to the group, they also convinced the Dawsons, the family that owned the property directly north of the bridge, 803 N. Cherry St., to donate their 1.7 acres to the city in 2007 to become a public park. In the summer of 2012, the group managed to get the bridge entered into the National Register of Historic Places for its rare, historic bridge design.
That’s when the partnership began to turn sour.
A few months later, the city announced it would be selling the newly-donated Cherry St. property to Simor (who already owned land on the bridge’s south side) for $295,000. At the same time, the city said it would give Simor $295,000 for “improvement costs” to build a brand-new brewery on the property. It appeared the property, which neighbors had worked for years to protect, had simply been gifted to Simor.
Some Hays Street Bridge advocates believe that the sale was an apology gift to Simor for scratching the Friedrich deal (which could have made Simor thousands). It’s a suggestion that brought Simor to tears at the November neighborhood meeting. “You got me where it hurts,” he said to Hinton, who mentioned his close relationship with former Mayor Phil Hardberger, who was mayor at the time of the sale.
“The devil is always in the details,” Hinton said.
After the sale, the restoration group immediately sued the city for backpedalling on their 2002 agreement. In the group’s eyes, it seemed their community had done the years of heavy lifting to keep the bridge standing only for a big developer to swoop in when the area they preserved got trendy.
A Bexar County jury agreed. In 2014, a district judge ruled that the city had violated the 2002 memo when it handed the 803 N. Cherry St. property over to Simor. But the city appealed to the 4th Court of Appeals, and the three-judge panel deemed the city immune from being sued in March 2017. The restoration group has since appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, which hasn’t decided whether or not it will hear the case.
In the meantime, Simor built and opened his brewery on the undisputed property south of the bridge. And, so it seems, the city’s allowed him to start developing on the contested north side as the trial continues to play out in court. But, since the property falls within the city’s downtown historic district, he can’t build anything on the land below it without a green light from the Historic Design Review Commission.
At the Wednesday HDRC meeting, McKnight, the lawyer representing Simor and Meyer, told commissioners that his clients went above and beyond the required design guidelines provided by the city. But commissioners doubted the developer’s architectural drawings, calling some sketches misleading.
“For a project that is under this much scrutiny ... I think there should be a much higher degree of accuracy,” Lazarine said.
- Michael Barajas
- Activists hung a banner from the bridge in 2012 to protest the construction of the Alamo brewery.
HDRC Chair Michael Guarino scolded Meyer and Simor for shrugging off commissioners’ earlier requests for more data and documentation. And, that despite the deluge of neighborhood feedback they received a week prior, the developers had presented an unchanged plan to the HDRC. Meyer, who is largely known in San Antonio for owning the Aurora Apartments (a bedbug-infested, fire hazard of a low-income housing complex on the Westside), pleaded with the commissioners to reach a compromise.
“I’m a big boy, I can change it,” he said. “I really want to make this work ... so we can all go home.”
Of the nearly 50 citizens who signed up to speak, only seven were in support of the project. Most of those in support had recently moved into the Dignowity Hill neighborhood.
Neighbor Barbara Garcia said residences right next to the bridge will deter crime, like the public drinking and graffiti she said plagues the bridge. Another, Arvis Holland, said a public park would attract homeless people.
But dozens of long-time neighbors opposed to the construction said those prices are still far out of the community’s price range, arguing that developers are taking advantage of the vulnerable community to profit off the newly-hip slice of the city.
“This hideous complex ... would not be allowed in King William, or other historic districts in San Antonio,” said former District 2 City Councilman Keith Toney. “This will not advance our community at all. Help the Eastside help ourselves.”
Toney said he’s not against development — he even backed Simor’s contested construction of the Alamo Beer brewery. “But this — this is trickery,” Toney went on. “We can’t let trickery triumph over truth. Don’t let someone do something just because they can. That’s the definition of a bully.”
Since the vote rejecting their project, neither Meyer nor Simor have said if they plan on tweaking the multimillion-dollar development to appease the HDRC.
City Councilman Cruz Shaw, who represents the District 2 neighborhood, is sympathetic to the community’s demands to hold onto its quickly-vanishing history. But with an active lawsuit inching its way through the courts, he said the city council’s “hands are tied.”
“I wish we had more community involvement in the very beginning,” Shaw told the Current in October. “My main concern is that I want to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
In lieu of a court ruling, Shaw and District 7 Councilwoman Ana Sandoval submitted a Council Consideration Request in November to expand the city’s so-called “viewshed protection” rules, or height restrictions on buildings surrounding a specific site. Currently, the San Antonio missions are the only structures with such protections. The joint request suggested the city include the Hays Street Bridge and Woodlawn Lake Park on the city’s Westside.
“Preservation of the views and vistas of these landmarks by consideration of their surrounding environment ensures future development does not encroach on or prevent their celebration," the request reads. It has yet to be heard by the full council.
The Esperanza Center’s Sanchez said the HDRC vote may reignite the conversation in the council chambers.
“We’d like HDRC to put pressure on the council to recognize us and take up the viewshed ordinance,” she said. “I hope they tell their councilmembers what they saw. What they heard. We have to get through to them.”
And with the city council’s newfound commitment to bringing equity (in the form of jobs, education, and public projects) to San Antonio’s economically segregated neighborhoods, it shouldn’t be too difficult of a task. To many, projects like “The Bridge” seem to distinctly conflict with the city’s equity goals.
“In a city that’s declared a crisis of inequality, why are we letting developers like Simor widen the gap?” asked Marlon Davis, a born-and-raised Dignowity Hill resident, testifying before the HDRC vote. “It’s been 300 years. When are we going to listen to our community as well as we do capital?”