“What if you lived at the top of the world?” is the question posed by the sales brochure for the Vidorra luxury high-rise currently under construction near St. Paul Square just east of downtown, an exclusive retreat promising “life from a new point of view.”
With the median price of a San Antonio home hovering around $150,000, the Vidorra is definitely a cut above. Their smallest unit, “The Dallas” is listed at $239,000 for 997 square feet, with “The San Angelo” fetching $863,000 for 2,540 square feet. These prices are modest compared to high-rise rates in other cities, but this building and a handful of others represent a new wave in downtown condo development here.
To make sure this life at the top of the world is as free as possible from intrusions from the street below, a proposed “Quiet Zone” that would silence the loud wail of railroad locomotive horns in the area immediately around the Vidorra is currently in the works. When an ordinance authorizing the project unanimously passed city council back in 2006, it attracted little attention, even with the city on the hook for 40 percent of the estimated $800,000 cost. The Vidorra would pay the other 60 percent, but Jeff Rochelle is quick to correct the impression that the Quiet Zone was initiated at the behest of the high-rise.
“The entire St. Paul Square neighborhood initiated it and it was me as one of the co-developers of Vidorra who proposed a way to pay for it,” says Rochelle.
Many neighborhood residents say they first heard of the Quiet Zone project last November, when District 2 Councilwoman Sheila McNeil held a public meeting on the subject at the Carver Community Cultural Center. Although precise details were in short supply at that meeting, residents reacted with alarm to the prospect of street closings to facilitate the Quiet Zone.
“These street closings would violate the integrity of our neighborhood,” says Nettie Hinton, a community activist and life-long Eastside resident. “There is no evacuation route, and no way for the emergency services to get to us (if the streets are closed).”
The lines of division between proponents and opponents were quickly drawn, even though the final shape of the proposal remains unclear.
“This should not be controversial,” counters Rochelle. “It improves property values; it improves the quality of life; it spurs economic development; it brings civility back to the neighborhood. I don’t know how anyone could justify a position against it.”
The issue has been dropped squarely in the lap of Majed Al-Ghafry, the new director of Public Works for the city who arrived in town only four weeks ago. He heard reports of the November meeting and understands the negative reaction of some neighborhood residents.
“There was at least the perception that the City was going to come in and close every single crossing, so there was the perception that the people in Eastside neighborhoods weren’t being catered to,” says Al-Ghafry, who emphasizes that no final decisions have been reached and points to a report from the engineering firm of PBS&J that outlines a number of possible approaches.
“The preliminary engineering report giving us options and alternatives. We’re evaluating that and we may come up with a hybrid plan,” says the new Public Works chief. “Part of the alternative that would be presented at the end would entail street closures, but out of the nine crossings we are looking at two or three maximum, not every single crossing.”
He says the goal of the city is to “provide the maximum safety measures possible with the most conveniences for the residents. Obviously the
Quiet Zone does not only affect the people in the immediate vicinity like the Vidorra, but it also affects people in residences and businesses in that entire vicinity.” Al-Ghafry promises to come back to the community for input before plans are finalized.
The whole Quiet Zone concept is fairly new by government standards. In 2005, the Federal Railroad Administration issued rules requiring that locomotives sound their horns at all public grade crossings 15-20 seconds before entering. When that rule was promulgated, there was also a provision made for public authorities to establish Quiet Zones provided certain supplemental or alternative safety measures are in place.
In Houston, the city partnered with the neighboring municipalities of West University Place and Bellaire to establish a Quiet Zone a couple of blocks inside the heavily traveled 610 Loop that runs some six miles from Memorial Park to the Willowbend area. Although the track in question runs past some of the most expensive hotels in town, it also crosses more modest neighborhoods and apartment complexes. No street closures were necessary for this Quiet Zone, which was accomplished without much controversy and with the city governments involved picking up the tab.
Katherine Parker is the senior project manager for the Public Works who oversaw the Houston project. “This is not a fast process,” says Parker. “Our first Quiet Zone was some four years in the making, with three distinct applications required. In each instance, there is a 60-day comment period for the railroad to sign off on the application. The goal is to make it as safe as it would be with the horn sounding.”
It is not inexpensive, with a number of structural options to safeguard the rail crossings, including vertical panels that act like a median so motorists can’t get around once the arms come down. The most expensive form of crossing protection is the “quad gate,” which can run anywhere from $200,000 to $500,000. Parker says the success of Houston’s first Quiet Zone has sent other neighborhoods in search of their own railroad- noise abatement, with 12 requests currently pending. Last month, the city of Sugar Land in nearby Fort Bend County implemented their first Quiet Zone along a two-mile stretch of Highway 90.
The Houston experience seems to indicate that Quiet Zones are popular with neighborhood residents, but the first application in San Antonio has managed to spark some serious opposition. Councilwoman McNeil supports the project and lists it among the achievements on her official website, but others are not convinced.
“When the proposal comes up again, we’ll oppose it,” says Hinton, the great-
granddaughter of Isabel Scott, a former slave who settled on San Antonio’s East Side after the Civil War. For years, Hinton has worked tirelessly to preserve her neighborhood. “It’s not that we’re opposed to a Quiet Zone, but if they’re going to have one, it needs to be extended down to protect the Dignowity Hill neighborhood.”
Others wonder about the economic value of projects like the Vidorra for an area like the East Side, which is desperately in need of redevelopment. James E. McNamara, a retired educator who is president of the Crestlake Homeowners Association, has authored a white paper on economic development in District 2 that suggests there is a 100-yard rule that says the economic impact of projects like the Vidorra rarely extends more than a hundred yards. This calls into question the return on tax incentives and other accommodations (like the Quiet Zone) for neighborhood residents without a stake in the project. McNamara says such civic investments are equivalent to “trickle-down economics.”
Recent history suggests the future progress of San Antonio’s first Quiet Zone will not be particularly quiet. •