Apartment Developers and Community Members Clash Over Hays Street Bridge Property

by

MICHAEL BARAJAS
  • Michael Barajas
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 East Side 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 East Side 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 Wednesday evening, nearly 75 Dignowity Hill neighbors packed Alamo Beer’s main room to question how, exactly, a new developer plans 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”), would 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 were upset that the apartment complex — two stories higher than most nearby homes — would block the neighborhood's beloved view of the historic bridge. Only a few spoke in support of the plan.

“Change is very difficult, especially for older people,” said Tom Roden, a real estate broker who said he didn’t live in the area. “Everything from Alamo Brewery to 281 is going to change. What we hear today is that beginning of that change. I think change is good. I wouldn't have come down here when I was in high school or college because it was scary.”

A woman in the crowd scoffed, and said, “I survived it!”

The meeting was the first and only open forum the developers would hold with the community before presenting their plan to the city next week.

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.

Hays Street Bridge at night - FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS VIA NAN PALMERO
  • Flickr Creative Commons via Nan Palmero
  • Hays Street Bridge at night

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.

That's when the partnership began to turn sour.

In 2012, when the city began its sweeping redesign and expansion of Hemisfair Park, city staff began working with San Antonio Independent School District to move its nearby headquarters into the Friedrich Building — a former refrigeration factory on East Commerce street partially owned by Alamo Beer’s Simor. But the city eventually dropped the idea.

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 to be a wash.

Some Hays Street Bridge advocates believe that the sell was an apology gift to Simor for scratching the Friedrich deal. Simor, however, became emotional at the Wednesday meeting when this was suggested. “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 sell, 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.

Nettie Hinton speaking at a 2014 community event. - NOWCASTSA VIA YOUTUBE
  • NowCastSA via YouTube
  • Nettie Hinton speaking at a 2014 community event.

In the meantime, Simor's built his brewery on the undisputed property south of the bridge. Now, it seems the city’s allowed him to start developing on the contested north side as the trial continues to play out in court. He isn’t open to any major changes to the already-planned apartment complex, save for an art installation or two.

“Right now as an economic project in order to get it built, to bring new people into our community there are some things we have to do,” Simor told the audience Wednesday.

According to Amy Kastely, the attorney representing the restoration group in court, “this is not a done deal.”

“The developers don’t have any vested rights at this point,” she told the Current Thursday. Those rights would only come after city approval, a process that kicks off at Wednesday, December 6 at the city’s Historic and Design Review Commission meeting — that is, if it doesn’t get rescheduled. By now, “The Bridge” project presentation has been bumped from the HDRC’s schedule at least twice, in what appears to be the city’s attempt to get neighbors on board beforehand.

Judging by the most recent neighborhood meeting, however, it only seems more likely the HDRC meeting room will be jam-packed Wednesday afternoon with opponents to Simor and Meyer’s high-end apartments.

Councilman Cruz Shaw, who represents the District 2 neighborhood, is sympathetic to the community’s demands to hold on to 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,” said Councilman Cruz Shaw, who represents District 2, 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, the community is asking the city to create a so-called “viewshed ordinance,” which would restrict the height of building surrounding the Hays Street Bridge, similar to restrictions that exist around San Antonio’s missions. An online petition has already gathered over 14,000 signatures (only 1,500 of them based in San Antonio). It also asks the city to install bathrooms and drinking fountains on the property below the bridge.

At the neighborhood meeting, McKnight (the developers' attorney) said that the same kind of viewshed ordinance request for the bridge failed in a March 2015 HDRC meeting. However, there is no record of this request in past HDRC meetings from that month.

“The truth is, the bridge is why people go there,” said Graciela Sanchez, Director of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center who backs the restoration group. “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.”

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The HDRC meeting on this issue will take place on Dec, 6 at 3 p.m. It is open to the public.

Development & Business Services Center
1901 S. Alamo St.
1st Floor, Board Room

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