San Antonio closed 2019 with major changes to zoning rules meant to better protect established neighborhoods from potentially adverse effects of redevelopment.
The City Council unanimously voted in December to amend Chapter 35 of the Unified Development Code relating to existing MF-33, or multifamily, and RM-4 — residential mixed — zoning designations.
The city will now limit the height of new developments to 35 feet if next to a vacant residential lot. Previously, multifamily-zoned developments could be 45 feet tall.
Other UDC revisions include requiring a 10-foot minimum setback for neighborhood developments, and main housing units in a new development must face the road instead of each other.
“The code change approved today is easy to understand and enforce,” District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño said in a press statement. “Importantly, it will protect neighborhoods from out-of-character development that is too tall, disorients the block face, and where setbacks are incompatible with the rest of the neighborhood.”
The Tier One Neighborhood Coalition or T1NC, comprising neighborhoods across the city, supported the amendment as additional protection from large multifamily developments near single-family homes, the councilman added.
City officials and leaders of neighborhoods say the zoning changes will provide incentives to avoid the demolition of single-family homes, especially in older neighborhoods experiencing infill developments that spur worries of incompatibility, displacement and gentrification.
But often, such concerns run counter to city leaders’ call for more housing density as a response to San Antonio’s increasing population.
The new UDC revisions are the result of a council consideration request Trevino submitted in 2017. Members of various inner-city neighborhood associations and grass-roots groups, such as T1NC, had pushed for stronger safeguards for communities.
T1NC has been instrumental in advocating changes in rules regarding front setbacks and front street-orientation in certain infill developments, officials said.
District 2 Councilwoman Jada Andrews-Sullivan released a statement following the Dec. 12 council vote, echoing Trevino’s remarks.
District 2 includes Mahncke Park and a chunk of East Side neighborhoods, such as Government Hill, Dignowity Hill and Denver Heights, all of which have seen an increase in demolitions of single-family homes in favor of multifamily developments that some community members have deemed mismatched with their surroundings and out of the price range of many longtime residents.
According to Andrews-Sullivan, “Where someone lives, is their peace and we are here to protect it. We know land values and property taxes have tripled in the past years. The integrity of true transparency is to keep a genuine uniformed look for all of the city of San Antonio.”
Residents who addressed the council Dec. 12 said they understand the city’s desire to see more affordable housing and more density, particularly in and around downtown. But critics of city policy said that, in many cases, demolitions and speculation in older neighborhoods result in new housing that is less affordable to a large percentage of people.
“It’s not how much you build, but what you build,” said Beacon Hill resident Cynthia Spielman, a coalition member. “No one is building affordable, sustainable housing in the neighborhoods despite (developers’) assertions that we are hampering their ability to do so.”
Spielman added the recent UDC revisions backed by many neighborhood organizations would support the development of more affordable housing compatible with the surroundings.
Such recent conflicts include one developer’s effort to build townhomes on a vacant compact lot in the River Road neighborhood, a mainly single-family-home community. Similar controversies have arisen in Tobin Hill, Mahncke Park and Alta Vista.
No one representing developers’ interests addressed the council. Despite the unanimous vote, District 8 Councilman Manny Pelaez expressed reservations. He said an increase in density is needed to house the city’s newcomers.
Pelaez also urged T1NC members to be more considerate of the needs of developers and of residents moving into these neighborhoods, especially into multifamily developments.
“I’ll support this. I get it. I’m concerned, however, that it won’t be too long before we come back and revisit this issue and maybe even undo what we’re doing today simply because density is something that is being prescribed to us in order to alleviate traffic,” he added.