Bookended with tall buildings and high-rises just outside each of its Broadway Avenue boundaries, affluent Alamo Heights has become a pre-election battleground pitting residents intent on preserving their sleepy town’s character against outside development interests working to block a building height-restriction ordinance that more than 620 petition-signing registered voters put on this month’s ballot as Proposition 3. Among the well-heeled ’09ers, there is fear that flood-plain improvements now underway will soon lead to towering redevelopment projects through town.
As it stands today, the best land parcels are held by a couple of Terrell Hills residents. Trebes Sasser, owner of Ridgemont Properties, controls 14 parcels of downtown property valued at $11.8 million. George Geis, of Geis Properties, controls nine parcels encompassing nearly 4 acres, appraised at $4.2 million — including the property housing the popular Cappy’s Restaurant owned by restaurateur Cappy Lawton. For the most part the developers have kept a low profile during the increasingly hot election fight on heights. They’ve had the benefit of Alamo Heights Neighborhood Association founder John Joseph and AHNA-endorsed candidates to do the heavy lifting in that skirmish.
While the AHNA formed in 2008 to fight against residential demolition and increasingly popular construction of aesthetically wanting “McMansions,” the group organized as a political action committee to defeat a proposed $10.3 million bond package for new city facility improvements in 2009. After that victory, members threw their weight behind a slate of Council candidates and started filling vacancies with their membership.
Today, the AHNA, with a full-color newsletter advancing its political agenda distributed to 2,500 homes every month, has became the preeminent voice against height restrictions — efforts that have inspired one mayoral candidate to drop out of the race and file a criminal complaint against Joseph for harassment.
If commercial property owners in Alamo Heights had any cause for complaint, the first would be the length of time it’s taken to pull properties out of the floodplain by fixing the infrastructure. Out of frustration, some appear to have let their properties sit without receiving needed maintenance or repair. Mayoral candidate Bill Kiel cites as an example the Geis property at 4901 Broadway that has plummeted in value by 50 percent since 2006 — one that he sees as a strong contender for high-rise development. The 2.4-acre tract is the same size as the site on which the 21-story tower at Broadway and Hildebrand was built, construction that required the demolition of the iconic Earl Abel’s restaurant.
The voter-initiated petition to control building height, now slated to be on the May ballot as Proposition 3, would only allow high-rise development on a voter-approved case-by-case basis. Without such public oversight, just three council members would be able to approve such developments under a special use permit.
All the sitting council members — along with future councilman Bobby Hasslocher, ensured a council seat since longtime councilman Stan McCormick opted to withdraw from the race — couch their opposition to the height-limiting proposition as one that is incongruous to property rights, a disincentive to revitalization, or a duplication of existing building codes. No one comes out to say they support high-rises in town.
After telling residents at an April 27 candidates’ forum organized by AHNA that he does not “support high-rises on Broadway,” Mayor Louis Cooper encouraged voters to slow down. “My God! This is one of the biggest changes in our city that’s going to change its course for years and years and years to come, and why would we vote on this right now? There is no urgency. What I would tell you is vote no now and let’s get together and work on this.”
In the January edition of AHNA’s Advocate, the mayor reiterated his opposition to the height amendment. Yet a paragraph from the original letter to residents, obtained under the Texas Public Information Act, suggests the mayor is more amenable to vertical development than he’s let on.
“Consider the condos at 200 Patterson Avenue, behind Central Market,” the editorial originally read, referring to a 12-story complex jointly owned by some 70 condo owners. “I have never heard a single comment about it being a bad thing for our City. To the contrary, it is often cited as being a major aesthetic plus for the entire community. … It is obvious that a project like 200 Patterson makes a very significant economic contribution to the city, while at the same time possibly actually decreasing the taxes on all other property owners.” The stricken paragraph never made it past Joseph.
Many residents first became aware of John Joseph last summer after his home was removed from a Garden Conservancy tour of properties after his inaccurate claims the house was once owned by arts patron Marion Koogler McNay for whom the landmark museum on North New Braunfels Street is named. A search of old land records, archived correspondence, and news accounts contradicted Joseph’s claim of McNay ownership, prompting the Conservancy to drop the home from the tour and remove a description of the home as “Mrs. McNay’s Hermitage” from their website. After making the decision to drop the home from the garden tour, Conservancy members were further dismayed to learn that Joseph had taken his share of the gate from ticket proceeds to bolster AHNA coffers rather than donate the money to garden-related projects as is the custom.
But Joseph had his real coming-out party in November 2009, when his efforts to defeat the multimillion-dollar bond package proved successful. Riding populist anger over the aborted bonds, the AHNA for the first time backed three political newcomers for office — John Savage, Fred Prassel, and Elliot Weser — each one successfully securing a seat on council.
Now with a new war to wage and a new slate of candidates to position, the AHNA has reactivated its Political Action Committee to support Cooper and incumbent council member Bobby Rosenthal. And the animosities Joseph has generated by drumming out members who weren’t in line with his politics have rubbed some the wrong way.
May O’Neal, an 84-year-old former schoolteacher, was pushed out for supporting the city’s original bond initiative, saying that four AHNA members came to her home urging her to step down. “They were infuriated to see the signs on my yard and asked for my resignation,” O’Neal recalled. “I asked for what reason, and their answer was I was no longer trusted. They kicked me off because I gave money to the opposition,” she said.
Joseph blames O’Neal for leaking sensitive AHNA information to the city manager’s office, saying, “The problem with Ms. O’Neal was that one member of the city council at the time made a remark to me that she was the source of the city’s information from within the board of directors.”
Since then, the AHNA changed its bylaws requiring a 2/3 vote of the AHNA board before allowing people to join or be retained as members. While Joseph has claimed as many as 300 members in the past (and told the Current this week he had “200-ish” members) Margaret Houston puts that figure at less than 30.
Though she considers herself a member, she knows the group has been trying to have her removed.
“When the AHNA was formed, it was a conservationist group to address demolitions and home preservation and to not have high-rises in our community. Now the AHNA is the group against Prop 3, meaning they want high-rises … which is not what AHNA started out doing,” Houston said.
“When you read the Advocate, you do feel threatened if you do not think the way they think. They call you uber-zealots, troublemakers in the community, divisive. Yeah, you can feel threatened that they want to ruin your reputation (laughs).”
More recently, Joseph even threw his hand-picked successor under the bus, albeit in the shadows, as evidenced by further emails. Joseph announced in January he would step down as AHNA president, tapping AH resident Fernando Centeno as his replacement. Joseph cited work obligations at his job as a travel agent but noted he would continue serving on the board and be involved in producing the Advocate.
“Pleased to be here, and trying to fill big, big shoes with John’s efforts over the years,” Centeno said in a brief statement at the January 24 city council meeting.
“Just don’t trip on them,” Joseph joked.
Such collegiality appears to have dissipated. Centeno quickly used his newfound position to officially question the process by which a dog park is being developed in Alamo Heights — an issue he’s long voiced concerns about. A former municipal planner, Centeno has long been a critic of the planning process and emailed a former assistant city manager about it after ascending to the top AHNA post.
Joseph was not pleased, admonishing his successor for his criticism in emailed correspondence. Joseph went further in a January 25 email to the former city manager: “Just know that he is acting individually, and definitely not on behalf of AHNA. Know this: he will NOT be printing any of this in The Advocate.”
Two days later, Joseph reiterated the point, copying each council member with advice on how to best handle Centeno. “My suggestion at this point is for everyone (CoAH `City of Alamo Heights`, City Council and AHNA) to ‘ice’ him. Don’t engage. ‘Thank you for your email. We will consider your point of view’ type thing. Period.”
Confronted with Joseph’s leaked emails advising council members to “ice” him, Centeno resigned as AHNA president on April 27. Centeno declined comment when contacted: “AHNA’s members tend to lay low and pretend nothing is wrong (or don’t want to acknowledge anything),” Centeno wrote in an email to the Current. “Knowing John Joseph as we do, he may be the one to say malicious things. I’ll let you know later as a few days pass. Thanks.”
Joseph claimed Centeno was “combative” with the city from the outset, and only wrote to inform the city that the newly crowned president wasn’t speaking for the entire AHNA board. “He was extraordinarily aggressive … He was marching off to war, and frankly he burned a lot of bridges to the city,” Joseph claimed.
At times, AHNA tactics border on intimidation. During the last election that swept in the AHNA political slate, then-incumbents Susan Harwell and Jill Souter, along with political newcomer Suzy Bettac, say they were slowly trailed by two vehicles — one involving an AHNA member — while stumping door to door.
“We were followed by two cars last year,” Bettac said. “It was definitely meant to psyche out us girls. I took a couple of measures to ensure I was safe and doubted they would actually do us harm. Cowards are the first to duck and run.”
Having witnessed the rise of the AHNA and its repercussions effecting city policy behind the scenes, Harwell has joined Kiel in attempting to regain some control over city business. Kiel notes that if the AHNA is successful again this time around, they will have every single council member owing them a debt of gratitude for their election support.
Civic firebrand Sarah Reveley became so frustrated with emails she was receiving from Joseph that she filed a complaint with the Alamo Heights police, dropped out of the mayoral race, and threw her support behind Kiel (see sidebar, Reveley vs Joseph).
Kiel, a relative Alamo Heights newcomer, speaks of the support AHNA members have received from the city in return for their campaign support.
Of the six members to the Residential Design Standards (RDS) committee — charged with overseeing ongoing changes to the single-family design code — four are closely linked to the AHNA. Meanwhile, Joseph himself was recently appointed to the city’s Facilities committee, formed to address deficiencies that exist in city buildings for which the city sought the bonds in the first place. Some see irony in the selection, given that Joseph once sued the city over its videotaped tour of aging city buildings on its website to make the case for a new building. Though he was unsuccessful in forcing the city to take down the video he deemed pro-bonds propaganda, the city nonetheless had to spend $30,000 in taxpayer money to defend itself.
While the AHNA’s influence over Alamo Heights politics is notable for apparently championing the interests of builders over those of homeowners, in the case of height restrictions, Joseph claims the effort to kill Prop 3 has partly to do with saving the city from possible litigation.
Alamo Heights City Attorney Michael Brenan told the Current in an email that there are cases that hold that zoning authority cannot be delegated to the citizens by means of a public vote. “There is a strong argument that Prop. 3 contravenes those cases and state zoning law. If so, Prop. 3 would be illegal. To find out, the subject could be litigated which would take significant time and money.”
Joseph bristles when accused of carrying water for the developers. “The neighborhood association was founded to combat ‘McMansions,’” he says. Enough said. •
Alamo Heights zoning code restricts any building from being erected in business districts that “exceed the maximum height of forty (40) feet.” However, a majority of council members can grant exceptions by granting a specific use permit, which have no upper limits. The 12-story “Patterson” condo referred to by Mayor Cooper was built with such a permit.
Prop 3 impact
Under Prop 3: “No council, mayor, board, or commission of the City shall allow a change in the zoning laws of the municipality to permit the construction of any structure within the municipal boundaries of the City in excess of 40 feet … without the approval of the voters.”
Current Staff Writer Michael Barajas and Editor Greg Harman contributed to this article.