Preservationists are questioning whether a zoning rule that allows extra homes to be built on lots near the city’s center isn’t also damaging the historical integrity of older neighborhoods.

Large lots with small houses or no structures at all in more established neighborhoods ringing downtown have become some of the most desirable properties for development in the city.

Proponents of the practice say building homes for as many as 33 families per acre where only a few houses once stood is helping fill the growing demand for housing closer to an increasingly vibrant downtown and near-downtown.

Some residents, however, say while they welcome responsible development of under-utilized or abandoned spaces, they have become increasingly concerned by the overuse of Infill Development Zoning. They say IDZ at times packs the streets with cars and crams lots with buildings that don’t look like they belong.

As more requests come to the city’s Zoning Commission for IDZ classifications, San Antonio is in the midst of several public-input hearings and a task force has been assigned to explore the issue.

“We’re glad the city is doing something about it. Even though the issue is being examined, a slew of new zoning applications are coming in under the IDZ rules first put in place in 2001.”

Michael said sometimes the zoning revision is being requested simply to get out of the parking requirements under residential zoning more standard to the neighborhood.

In the most recent issue of the organization’s newsletter, The Preservation Advocate, Michael characterized IDZ as “a zoning classification that has taken over the city like kudzu” because it allows for higher density of housing with lesser setbacks from the street and relaxed parking-space requirements.

The original intent of creating the zoning classification was an incentive to fill vacant lots in blighted neighborhoods and re-energize them.

“Now, however, IDZ has become the default zoning application even in upscale neighborhoods and many are using the site plan, setback and parking giveaways to create dense projects that disrupt neighborhood scale and rhythm,” Michael writes. “Does IDZ mean ‘Infinite Density Zoning?’ It seems every new project within Loop 410 is coming in as IDZ rather than regular zoning.”

He said some groups are working hard to preserve the character of their neighborhoods, while others are more hands-off.

That sometimes leads to the building of several three-story structures of modern design amid one-story homes built in the 1930s, Michael said in an interview. Not building as densely doesn’t mean developers won’t turn a profit as long as demand is high, it just may be to a lesser degree.

“The city’s going to be in growth mode for the next generation, so developers aren’t going to lose money inside Loop 410 for at least 20 years,” Michael said.

For the developers’ part, they see a need for new housing in established neighborhoods and have the means to carve out new housing clusters in former industrial spaces on the edges of neighborhoods.

For example, the longtime manufacturing site of Flasher Equipment is moving to the West Side and putting up its land on West Josephine Street for IDZ consideration. The area is commercial property on both sides of the street and links Broadway to North St. Mary’s Street, and borders the Tobin Hill neighborhood.

Going from manufacturing to high-density housing, retail and entertainment is different than packing dense housing in the middle of an old residential neighborhood. It is an example of the kind of urban redevelopment for which IDZ was intended, proponents say.

SOJO Urban Development is building 30 townhomes in the next few years on 1.3 acres it bought from Flasher Equipment earlier. Most of the larger projects of eight or more units on infill land have been on the edge of neighborhoods or former commercial sites.

“I don’t ever blame developers, because they’re doing what they do,” said Cynthia Spielman, a resident of Beacon Hill and a leader in the Tier 1 Neighborhood Coalition, an alliance of 28 inner-city neighborhoods.

Where IDZ is misused, she said, is when the development is too dense or incompatible with the neighborhood in general.

In northern Tobin Hill where new housing took shape, an attempt to get a historic designation to block that development made it through the city’s Office of Historic Preservation, but was denied by City Council. Developers or absentee landowners already owned a fourth of the properties in the proposed district, she said.

“The use of IDZ as an incentive is a problem,” Spielman said. “It made things possible before, but its time is past.”

Dolly Holmes, president of the Monte Vista Historical Association, said it isn’t just IDZ at issue, but other zoning problems threatening to change neighborhoods.

The Monte Vista Historic District is a highly sought-after neighborhood, but there isn’t much land for infill development. A 9-acre property on the market a few years ago was platted for a gated Tuscan-style residential development that MVHA members believed didn’t fit the area. Ultimately, Trinity University bought the property and has been a good partner with the association, Holmes said.

In early November, the council approved a project to examine existing zoning to see if it matches the use; the end result is to change the zoning as needed. For example, Holmes said, there are some larger properties, mostly along Huisache Avenue, that have two or three cottages on large lots that are zoned for multifamily development for up to 33 units per acre, or MF-33. That needs to be changed before someone buys the land and alters the area, preservationists said.

One of those MF-33 zoned properties was slated for a 10-bedroom senior living facility, but that was stopped and now plans are being retooled, she said. For the most part, Holmes said, they have had good luck working with property owners doing infill developments.

“There are solutions and compromises that accommodate everybody,” she said.

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