Tier One Hosts IDZ Seminar

Residents from 22 neighborhood associations attended the IDZ Seminar hosted by Tier One Neighborhood Coalition at Lift Fund on June 16, 2018.

By Anisa Schell

On Saturday, June 16, residents from 22 neighborhood associations, spanning six City Council Districts gathered at Lift Fund to listen to the unveiling of the proposed Infill Development Zone (IDZ) ordinance. Catherine Hernandez and Logan Sparrow from the City of San Antonio’s Development Services Department presented details about the new ordinance at a seminar hosted by the Tier One Neighborhood Coalition (T1NC).  

The proposed ordinance was the culmination of efforts by the members of the IDZ Taskforce after District 1 City Councilman, Roberto C. Treviño filled a CCR in April of 2017. The Taskforce included seven neighborhood representatives from Tier One neighborhoods (those located inside loop 410), seven members from the development community, and non-voting member, Chrissy McCain from the District 1 Council Office.  

The Taskforce met thirteen times over the last year to write the ordinance after concerns were raised by neighborhoods over the current IDZ category. IDZ currently allows for zero parking requirements, heavily reduced setbacks and excessive building heights in residential areas. IDZ was originally intended for use on vacant inner-city lots. In the last few years, legacy neighborhoods like Dignowity Hill, Beacon Hill and Tobin Hill have seen IDZ used by developers to divide single family lots to hold 3 or more houses where one house previously stood. 

The new version of the ordinance would allow for IDZ to be split into three tiers of zoning. IDZ-1 would be the least dense, allowing 18 units per acre, which means for a 50 x 100 foot lot, two units could be built. The height restrictions would be 2.5 stories or 35 feet, and would allow for a parking requirement to be waived in some cases. IDZ-2 would be medium density, allowing heights up to 4 stories, and the highest density, IDZ-3 would allow for the most density, and would not carry height restrictions. 

In addition, two Residential zoning categories would be added with the new ordinance, R1 and R2. These new categories would take into account the historic development pattern of some inner-city neighborhoods that contain much smaller lots. Currently the smallest category the City uses is R3, which is minimum lot size of 3000 feet per unit.  R2 would allow a home to be built on a lot that is only 2000 square feet with a maximum lot coverage of 50%. R1 would allow a minimum lot size of 1250 square feet, the same as the current IDZ category offers. R1 would carry a maximum coverage of 45% and a max height of 3 stories or 35 feet. 

After the presentation, questions were taken from those in attendance. While the proposal seems to address many of the concerns neighborhoods have raised about IDZ, some concern still remains over parking requirements in certain neighborhoods.  There is another opportunity for public comment, June 18, 2018, 6:30-8:30 PM, 1901 S. Alamo, 1stFloor Board Room. More information about the proposed changes to IDZ can be found on the City’s website here.

SA Tomorrow Replaces Neighborhood Plans and the Democratic Process

By Cynthia Spielman and Cosima Colvin

Printed originally in NOWCastSA.com

Neighborhood Plans are civic engagement and grassroots democracy at its most local level.

They were created by ordinary people who care about their community and were willing to work, to participate and to engage with their neighbors in a real partnership with the city under the 1998 Community Building and Neighborhood Planning Program.

We spent hundreds of hours planning, facilitating and attending meetings. We talked to one another, and sometimes struggled with ideas until we finally came to a consensus.

As a result, for the first time in San Antonio’s long history, residents in neighborhoods were able to define what was valuable about their community’s past, and articulate their dream for the future. Fifty-five plans were adopted by San Antonio City Council as ordinance and incorporated into the Comprehensive Master Plan.

We celebrated not only our plans, but a process that we trusted.

The City told us to own our plans, to advocate, and to work for their realization. We did. We do.

But now it seems the engaged citizenry of people who care about the future of their neighborhoods has become an inconvenient impediment to the City’s new vision for our community.

If the SA Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan has its way, our neighborhoods, instead of being of unique identities, will simply be part of a larger Sub-Area Plan, subject to the development vision of others.

We formed Tier One Neighborhood Coalition because, from the outset, the SA Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan has not included meaningful representation from neighborhoods and has repeatedly vowed to eliminate existing Neighborhood Plans.

When the SA Tomorrow planning process began in 2015, the city selected 200 people to serve on the nine Plan Element Working Groups. Just five individuals were chosen to represent neighborhoods, and they were all in one group: Historic Preservation and Cultural Heritage.

Planning staff did not incorporate neighborhood concerns from public meetings even though neighborhood stakeholders asked specific questions and shared concerns regarding the status of their plans within the Comprehensive Plan.

Planning staff insisted at these public meetings, during which consultants took copious notes and placed feedback on wall-mounted white butcher paper, that Neighborhood and Community Plans would be reviewed and included in the new plan.

Instead, language in the May 2, 2016 draft of the SA Tomorrow Plan stated that existing Neighborhood Plans would be eliminated, and contained very few protections for neighborhoods while promoting focused infill growth in the urban core.

The newly formed Tier One Neighborhood Coalition scrambled to come up with revised language to keep our Neighborhood Plans intact, add provisions that would prioritize and protect neighborhood stability and sustainability, and assure that neighborhoods would be included in the implementation process.

As a result, the July 20, 2016 “final” draft SA Tomorrow Plan addressed concerns regarding incompatible development and inclusion in the decision-making process during the implementation stage, but there was no assurance that the neighborhood and community plans would remain intact.

Responding to our concerns, Councilman Roberto Treviño intervened and offered an amendment from the dais as City Council was about to pass the plan on Aug. 11, 2016.

His amendment: 1) “On page 17.10, include “Neighborhood and community plans should be respected, as appropriate, as they are integrated into the Sub-Area Plans.” 2) On page 17.14, include additional language related to neighborhood plans that strikes “replace” and adds “incorporate” so that the whole text reads, “The Community Plans should integrate and will eventually incorporate.”

Section 1.3: of the adopted Comprehensive Plan states: “While the Comprehensive Plan is an umbrella policy and planning document with city wide implications, it does not alter or negate our existing neighborhood plans, community plans, sector plans or any other land use plans.”

Then-Councilman Ron Nirenberg underscored that later in 2016 by telling neighborhood leaders: “Existing neighborhood plans will be respected and built upon, not replaced.”

Unfortunately, despite the assurances of Treviño and Nirenberg and the plan’s own directive, the SA Tomorrow Sub-Area Plan process is about to eliminate and replace our existing Neighborhood and Community plans.

The explanation given by the Planning Department when challenged on the status of neighborhood plans is a lot like when a loved one dies, and people tell you that they aren’t really dead as long as you keep them alive in another form in your heart.

Comforting, perhaps for consoling a family member, but less so when we hear it from City government regarding our neighborhoods and the democratic process.

NIMBY: Not What You Think

By Cynthia Merla Spielman and Anisa Schell

This was published in the San Antonio Express News on March 6, 2018.

Recently a non-profit developer gave a presentation on similar developments in different parts of town. One presentation was given to a group of residents  in an economically depressed part of San Antonio, and another in a more upscale area. One neighborhood welcomed the 100% affordable housing development; the other neighborhood was staunchly against the development and the rhetoric became an ugly comment on the poor.

Often neighbors have valid reasons for opposing affordable housing developments that have nothing to do with the potential residents, even if they couch their concerns in discriminatory language.

Both neighborhoods wanted the same thing: economic diversity that nurtures resilient neighborhoods, neighborhoods that are able to care for its most vulnerable residents. The more affluent neighborhood embraced the change that would work for both established and new residents. The economically depressed neighborhood opposed the development because they felt overwhelmed by their own poverty. Instead of working with the second community to find solutions, politicians and developers were quick to label residents NIMBYs and silence their objections.

NIMBY, an acronym for “Not In My Back Yard,” is a pejorative term. It conveys disrespect and is dismissive of resident concerns. The term NIMBY has been used to label dissent to any project. It is meant to rob neighborhoods of their voice. Rather than listening to the concerns that residents bring forth, the label of NIMBY is applied by those wishing to push the project forward, stereotyping and ignoring the complexity of community.

Any large development impacts neighborhoods and before the City incents these developments or grants them zoning changes, the impact on community and neighborhoods should be assessed for such things as traffic, roads, the effects on local schools, environment (run off), housing values, health issues, and quality of life issues for both current and potential new residents.

Often, developers approach neighborhoods when they are nearing the end of their planning phases. Drawings have been submitted, city approval has been gained, funding is in place. From the developer’s perspective, everything is ready to go. They bring these near-complete plans to the nearby residents and tell them what they are going to build. Residents are taken by surprise and find that there is no room for input into this process. When residents raise objections, the developer becomes frustrated. Tempers flare and concerns are dismissed. Residents cry foul and developers confirm their suspicion that neighborhoods are just against development.

Large developments that offer just a few units of affordable housing benefit developers more than future residents or neighbors. The residents of the surrounding area are left alone to solve the issues that often come with increased traffic, run-off, crowded schools, and a perception of falling housing values to people who have barely hung on to middle class.

These projects are seldom located in wealthy neighborhoods and the wisdom of crowding the “poor” into large developments without support often make the problems of poverty worse. Developers are granted tax abatements that rob school districts, while at the same time burdening the neighborhood schools.

Rather than fighting the residents when the project is ready to break ground, why not garner resident support from the project’s inception? Before funding is applied for or submissions are made, developers should reach out to neighborhood associations and community leaders. To be successful, there has to be more meaningful input from residents and that input should have the ability to create change.

Developers and politicians should take a proactive approach with neighborhoods. No one knows the neighborhoods better than the residents who live in them. Developers and city leaders may be surprised to find that communities can readily identify places where more housing is possible in their neighborhood, and what challenges may be faced when inappropriate development occurs in the wrong place.

Changing the framework of the discussion from one of blame and name-calling (NIMBY) to a positive discussion of community and solutions will help make the building of affordable housing in our neighborhoods possible.

The County Commissioners and Affordable Housing

The County Commissioners recently released its Tax Abatement Guidelines effective January 31, 2018 – December 31, 2020 which incentivizes market rate multi-family rental housing in the Center City. The Commission also released its Bexar County Skills Development Fund for Economic Development which incentivizes companies or businesses with twenty (20) or more employees to train new employees and pay the targeted Occupation Positions no less than $17.44 and no employee at project site less than $11.32 excluding benefits. Only 25% of the new employees are required to be Bexar County residents.

Precinct Four County Commissioner Tommy Calvert wrote an open letter, “Bexar County’s New Incentive Policy Benefits Top 10% Again” decrying the the fact that the proposal allows “only the top 10% of the larges businesses to train and hire 75% of people from out of town after you give them $250,000 for workforce training.” He states his objection to the abatement policy: “…When I asked the court to work with me to provide a market incentive to balance the decade long policy where Bexar County only gave tax abatements for multi-family developments that called for the highest rents and highest mortgages and put in place policies that benefit the vast majority of working people, the staff and court has provide (sic) inaction and excuses.”

On February 8, 2018, Commissioner Calvert held a Neighborhood Reinvestment Fund Committee Meeting at the DoSeum in which he discussed with community and business leaders the proposals and asked for solutions. Hans shot up across the large and crowded room. What happened next was a lively, diverse, and informative discussion of solutions.

In San Antonio, a city with high economic/geographic segregation, where zip code determines fate, affordable housing is tied to opportunity – jobs and education and health.   Our tax dollars should be used to encourage workforce and affordable housing and helping people stay in their homes, not to incentivize market rate housing that most of the hard working citizens of San Antonio can ill afford.

The kind of incentivizing of development and market-rate housing that the Commissioners propose has led to displacement in our downtown neighborhoods. As home prices shoot up, my neighbor Danny stands before me and says he is struggling to stay in the home he grew up in, a home he has cared for and a neighborhood that is the only one he has known. “People tell me that my house is an investment,” he says, “But it is not an investment: It is my home! Where would I go?” We need funds for owner-occupied home rehab and neighborhood reinvestment and tax relief.  Another neighbor, at my kitchen table, demands that we stop improving the neighborhood because she can’t afford it. We shouldn’t have to stop improving our neighborhoods in order to help people stay in their communities, but we should mitigate the unintended consequences of incentivized market rate development. If in n Beacon Hill and other downtown neighborhoods, the affordable housing is the still housing we live in now, it may not be for long.

Median-income households can afford less than half of the homes on the market, making the local housing market inherently unaffordable. The statistics on renters are worse yet: Renters compose 47% of the the housed population.  As of 2010, more than half of renter households in Bexar County would not have been able to afford the two-bedroom fair market rent that requires an income of at least $33,680 or $16.19 per hour over a 40-hour work week.  The average Bexar County worker earned $12.18. Since the Comprehensive Housing Needs Assessment and Strategic Housing Plan of San Antonio (which produced these figures) was produced in 2013, the housing situation has only worsened. Rents have steadily risen.

Teachers, firefighters, City staff, architects, healthcare workers, those at the 80% of AMI, whether they be renters or homeowners, are finding themselves priced out of the San Antonio downtown area. If renters stay, they struggle to pay unaffordable rent which can prevent them from achieving the dream of home ownership. Homeowners may soon join their ranks.

What we need is training programs for Bexar County residents, higher wages, the development of skilled industries (not tourism), and a way for neighborhood  students to have access to to a decent education. What we need is housing that is affordable and  neighborhoods that are resilient.

The SA Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan requires that developments that receive public funding or use public financing tools, provide affordable housing units – an important objective that this Commissioners Court has failed to require.

According to NALCAB’s recent study, “An Analysis of Housing Vulnerability in San Antonio” produced in January of this year, public policy and incentives that are proposed here have helped to make rental housing unaffordable.  The highest multifamily effective rents were in areas with high concentrations of new production, often incentivized production.

In other words, the City incentivized an unaffordable rental housing market, using our tax dollars to worsen a housing crises. Now the County, learning nothing from the City’s errors, seems to be proposing to do the very same thing. It does not make any sense.

There is nothing wrong with market rate housing which will proliferate on its own as the market grows; but our tax dollars should be used to incentivize affordable and workforce housing and training that benefits the citizens of Bexar County, not just the market rate development community or corporations.

I understand the desire to raise the tax base by incentivizing market rate housing, but we can do that by raising the living standards of our citizens through education, opportunity, and housing.

On February 13th, after two hours of presentations (notably by Dr. Christine Drennon of Trinity University and SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez) and citizen input, Commissioner Calvert was able to successfully persuade the Commissioners Court to hire a housing consultant and create a citizen –staffed advisory committee. County Commissioner Tommy Calvert should be commended for working for affordable housing and seeking public engagement as the process.







Neighborhoods and Short Term Rental Proposed Ordinance


Update: Since this was published, the STR proposed ordinance was reviewed by the Zoning Commission on February 6th (after hours of public testimony) who voted to recommend approval with the added language to add authorized bed and breakfast (B&Bs) establishments to the proposed distance limitations for Type 2 STRs. The Commission also voted to recommend revisiting the distance grid for Type 2 STRs, to consider a limitation on the amount of condo and apartments units in individual buildings which are used as Type 2 STRs, and to consider a limit on the number of sleeping areas and occupancies for Type 1 STRs.

The proposed ordinance  will got to City Council B-Session for discussion and then City Council A-Session for consideration.  The dates have not been announced for these meetings.

The STR proposed ordinance can be found at https://docsonline.sanantonio.gov/FileUploads/dsd/ShortTermRentalDRAFTOrdinance.pdf


In February 2017, then District 10 Council member Mike Gallagher submitted a Council Consideration Request to “review current code and research best practices regarding short term rentals.” The City’s Developmental Services Department (DSD) formed a Short Term Rental Task Force (STRTF) to study the issue and draft an ordinance. The Task Force was made of six representatives from five neighborhood association boards.  The task force also included ten STR operators, a representative from Airbnb, two land use attorneys, staff, and various other interests. Since May 2017, the Task Force met eight times with DSD staff as well as five public general meetings held monthly in the evenings for broader input.

The Board of Adjustment met on January 8th and approved the ordinance with the added requirement that no Type 2 STRs be allowed a special exemption only if it “…will not alter the essential character of the district and location…” of the property. The Planning Commission approved the proposed ordinance including the requirement added by Board of Adjustment and also added a request that City Council explore prohibiting Type 2 STRs in designated Historic Districts.


Elements of the draft ordinance that are of particular interest to neighborhoods (Portions of this proposed ordinance at end of this document):

  • A distinction is made between owner-occupied (Type 1) STRs and non-owner occupied properties used exclusively as STRs (Type 2).
  • Much of the permitting (not all), fees, taxation, and safety requirements are the same for both types and both are permitted in any residential zone; however, a distinction is made in two important ways: Only Type 2 STRs have to appeal to the Board of Adjustments (BoA) for a variance and only Type 2s are subject to a density requirement (similar to the existing ordinance regarding B&Bs) although that is subject to appeal. Type 1 STRs have no such restrictions.  All properties registered before the ordinance is adopted are “grandfathered” in terms of density; these properties will not be required to adhere to density standards but will count towards future density calculations.


Most of the inner loop neighborhoods have concerns about the proliferation of Type 2 STRs and seek regulations to guide future STR use. Neighborhoods have come under considerable duress with the rising unaffordability and unavailability of housing (both through ownership and rental). The proliferation of unregulated Short Term Rentals (STRs) deepens this problem by removing housing from the market and community resiliency is strained as long term housing become hotels.

The following recommendations are from the neighborhood representatives who served on the Short Term Rental Task Force:

“Having served on the Short Term Rental Task Force we are generally in favor of the ordinance that was drafted in addition to the recommendations made by both the Board of Adjustments and the Planning Commission with the caveat that we would still like to see language regarding density requirements for the Type 2 rentals strengthened.  Although there may have been an attempt for the representation of neighborhoods to be equal to that of STR operators and other stakeholders we ended up with only six (6) neighborhood representatives on a Task Force of 25 members clearly putting us in the minority.

One of the strongest concerns that we hear from neighborhoods is that residential blocks are losing neighbors because of the slow but sure proliferation of STR rentals.  While the density grid attempts to address this issue, it does not take into account the existence of B & B’s or Type 1 STRs resulting in a narrow view of what could become the accumulative effect on the residential use and quality of life of the neighborhood. As we did during the STR Task Force meetings, we continue to advocate for the inclusion of B&Bs in the calculation of distance as per Figure 399.06-1.

Our second recommendation regarding density goes to the number of STR units per lot. Our concern is that multi-family properties will be allowed to operate like hotels and reduce the number of long term rentals. We would support adding either a percentage or a fixed number of total units per lot to ensure the retention of affordable housing stock.”

Different neighborhoods present different issues in response to the proposed STR ordinance. Downtown neighborhoods like Beacon Hill for example, seem most concerned with the growth of Type 2 STRs, while a historic neighborhood like King William, who is also contending with B&Bs, have an added concern about Type 1 STRs. Most agree that the issue of density of Type 2s, as well as the process of seeking approval from BoA for Type 2s are a priority to protect neighborhoods and communities.

Schedule (Revised)

The next meetings are as follows:

  • Jan. 25, 2018 – Community, Health, & Equity Committee Briefing and Action (dated            stayed the same)
  • Feb. 6, 2018 – Zoning Commission Action (dated changed)
  • Feb. 8, 2018– City Council Action (date stayed the same)

The times, place, and agendas may be viewed at https://sanantonio.legistar.com/Calendar.aspx). There will be one more General Meeting for public input on January 31st from 5:30-7:00 pm at the DSD /Cliff Morton Building (1901 S. Alamo) before the draft ordinance goes to City Council for a vote on February 8th.  A copy of the draft ordinance, the meeting schedules, a history of public comments and other details and information are available at http://www.sanantonio.gov/DSD/Resources/Codes#176642678-short-term-rental.









Neighborhoods’ Rezoning Victory

A trend towards helping legacy downtown neighborhoods is gaining momentum as neighborhoods organize and advocate for their survival.  We have turned the narrative to one of development (exploitation) of neighborhoods to one of protection and compatible development. It has taken education, organizing, attending meetings. and speaking out. This victory is not just for a few neighborhoods in District 1, but all neighborhoods who seek this kind of protection.

A giant step was taken to provide for relief for downtown neighborhoods when District 1 Councilman Roberto Trevino filed and passed an important CCR (City Council Consideration Request), the “Request for Large Area Rezoning of Properties”  which was filed on October 5, 2017 and passed City Council unanimously November 9th at A Session. The Councilman’s office was flooded with letters of support from the Tier One Neighborhood Coalition and area neighborhoods such as West End Hope in Action,  Alta Vista, Beacon Hill, River Road as well as others.  Monte Vista  produced 210 signatures on a petition as well as emails (113 were from the targeted areas specifically).    Representatives from Monte Vista and River Road spoke in favor of the CCR. and others,  such as Alta Vista and Beacon Hill spoke at the Citizen’s to be Heard on November 4th.  Monte Vista should be especially lauded as an example of community organizing for this CCR. Councilman Trevino should be commended  for protecting the neighborhoods in his district.

The CCR seeks to correct incompatible zoning (the result of error) of relatively large tracts in Monte Vista, River Road, Alta Vista and Beacon Hill, as well as the West End Hope in Action neighborhoods.

Mike Shannon, Planning, presented the history of zoning in SA and how the errors occurred. The original zoning was enacted in 1938, and in 1965 COSA adopted categorical zoning districts. In  2001 COSA adopted the UDC conversions. Often errors occurred in which “properties not zoned for what they have right now.”

The City staff will do field research and meet with neighborhoods and with specific property owners. No zoning of a property will be done without consent of the property owners. However, owners of homes will find that their taxes will be lowered by down zoning and there may be other incentives for change such as neighborhood stability.

The fiscal impact of examining a total of 1,231 acres will be about $24,380 of application fees absorbed by DSD. Process will begin after the rezoning of Eastern Triangle and World Heritage which will be around the summer of 2018.

The lone person who spoke in opposition called the change “reactionary and arbitrary” and  that “exclusionary” zoning will discourage future workforce housing in already expensive neighborhoods. But as Councilman Trevino pointed out, these MF-33 properties have single-family, often historic homes, on them; they are not empty lots. There are other multifamily designations that allow for multifamily structures such as RM 4-6 and MF-18 that are more compatible. Some of these erroneous zonings are for industrial uses, not housing. The reality is that in D1 downtown neighborhoods, no developers are proposing affordable work-force housing. As one land use attorney put it, it is economically unfeasible. Affordable housing is being built, he stated, is going to be on inexpensive and large tracts of land with City incentives. Those conditions do not exist in downtown now.

In West End, the zoning corrections will stabilize land use in an area that has historically been the target of inequity in planning. Many buildings sit vacant and many properties violate codes but it is difficult to target when the zoning is incompatible (an example was made of someone is operating an auto repair shop out of a church structure.)

Councilman Trevino stated that this CCR would correct a “multitude of zoning errors…correcting a legacy of incompatible zoning” in District 1 and was in response to neighborhoods’ concern over incompatible infill for density in their communities.

The vote to approve was unanimous, with D5 Councilwoman Gonzalez absent. D7 Councilwoman Sandoval inquired about the process for other districts to correct these kinds of large tract zoning errors. Mike Shannon told her that each district would complete the same process. The Council members who signed off on Trevino’s CCR were from Districts 2,9,4, and 6.

The specific areas targeted for rezoning: Maps on CCR

Areas of Monte Vista as indicated in the adjacent map

  • South of West Mulberry Ave, and areas adjacent to East Mulberry Ave
  • South of Hildebrand and East of McCullough
  1. Areas in the northern portion of River Road NA, and areas inside of District 2 just north of

their boundary along Mulberry as indicated in the adjacent map

  1. Areas of Beacon Hill and Alta Vista: South of Gramercy, North of Ashby, West to

Fredericksburg, and east to San Pedro as indicated on adjacent map

  1. The District 1 Portion of WEHA south of Culebra, north of Leal St., East to Colorado St. and

following the western boundary of the district as indicated on adjacent map

“These four areas have been identified as those neighborhoods in District 1 with the largest sections of these code conversion errors, and therefore present themselves as candidates for large area re-zonings to correct these inaccuracies. This will improve the quality of life for these areas, especially those which have industrial zoning in residential areas, and help implement the land use plans as intended for these areas. One of the four areas mentioned would include the Midtown area.” (CCR)

There are several more CCRs coming up that need support: Councilman Trevino’s CCR addressing incompatible infill, “Review of the current IDZ (Infill Development Zone) Zoning Designation” as well as the ”Request to Discuss and Propose Solutions to Current Issues Facing Multi-Family Zoning Designations” and D6 Councilman Brockhouse’s CCR, “Review of City Incentives for Residential and Commercial Projects”

San Antonio’s Transit Land Use Plan: A Toolkit for Neighborhoods

In collaboration with Tier One Neighborhood Coalition (T1NC)

Update: Due to the following input by Tier One Neighborhood Coalition and Chrissy Q McCain (District 1, Councilman Trevino’s office), the Plan has been modified to address these concerns. The Plan was adopted by City Council in February 2018, but has yet to be released. 


The SA Corridors Transit-Support Land Use (TSLU) Framework is a laudable document, but one that has potentially negative consequences for inner city neighborhoods.  VIA has given us the opportunity to “get it right,” to form policies in partnership with neighborhoods and all stakeholders, including the COSA that serves not only the 1.3 million newly born and those relocating here in the next decades, but for the people who live here now. The SA Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan, a “roadmap” to San Antonio’s future, “recognizes the importance of our existing neighborhoods. These treasured assets are the foundation of our city and will continue to play a critical role in our future planning efforts.” (Sec 4.1)

Public transportation is one of the most important pieces to making San Antonio a great place for us to live, as well as a spur to job growth. Our neighbors who are vulnerable, who have been part of the community for generations, should be able to stay in their homes; our neighborhoods should be safe with a decent quality of life; and our unique and historic housing stock should be preserved.  Thriving neighborhoods, efficient transportation, and revitalized businesses can only happen with us all working together in an inclusive and transparent process to create a transportation plan that will produce a “world class transit system” (Framework p1) to help make our city even better.

Description of TSLU:

 There are five parts (separate online documents) to the SA Corridors TSLU Plan draft.

  1. SA Corridors Transit-Supportive Land Use Framework is a general description of the plan and its goals, and objectives. It presents a snapshot of SA’s present conditions and future potential, especially with the use of “typology” a “powerful tool that helps classify and differentiate transit communities by the size and type of investment that fits them best.” (p.15) Most important to note is the “TSLU Strategies” which are the tools, zoning and incentives, for development that the City offers to promote density in the area (up to a half mile) surrounding the corridors.
  2. SA Corridors Future Land Use Corridors Profiles provide information about the process and issues pertaining to all corridors and then addresses specific profiles. These profiles include Austin Highway, Commerce-Houston, Fredericksburg Road, General McMullen, New Braunfels, San Pedro, Zarzamora. These corridors, which encompass many neighborhoods, are up to fifteen miles long. Do not assume by the name of the Corridor that it does not affect neighborhoods that seems unconnected. For example, the New Braunfels Corridor directly affects Alta Vista and Beacon Hill, the Pearl and Five Points; the Austin Highway Corridor affects Mahncke Park and the Bandera Corridor affects Five Points as well.
  3. Station Concepts are examples of the station area development. A station concept is defined as “a point of entry into the transit system that consists of more than a waiting area. Stations are located outside of the public right of way, meaning that buses have to exit the right of way to board passengers. They also have a greater footprint, due to bus queues and parking/loading areas. Stations often have an enclosed structure on site, providing restrooms and vending areas.” (“Transit-Supportive Land Use Toolkit” from the VIA 4040 Plan, p. 37) Examples of the Station Concept include, but are not limited to, East Point on the San Pedro Corridor, Fresno on the San Pedro Corridor, Maurine on the New Braunfels Ave Corridor, Pearl on the Austin Highway Corridor, Willow Springs on the Randolph Corridor, and Zarzamora on the Commerce-Houston Corridor.
  4.  Station Area Plan Five Points Fredericksburg Corridor explains the Station Area Planning part of the Transit-oriented Development (TOD) that “addresses the need for denser development around transit stations.” Perhaps most troubling is that “developers working on properties located within a ¼ mile of a ‘transit station’ can request that TOD Special District standards apply to their development project, rather than the standards offered in the property’s base zone.” (p. 25) The Station Area Plans includes plans for Five Points on the Fredericksburg Corridor and Huebner & Babcock on the Huebner/Grissom Corridor. These plans offer examples of in depth study of stations that exist today and how they might function in the future. Particularly interesting to note is the “Infrastructure Vision” for Five Points that includes a half-mile radius (p.12) and the Zoning and Policy Strategies (p. 15), Redevelopment Strategies (p.17), and the Catalytic Strategies (p.18).
  5. Executive Summary is a brief summary of goals and the Framework.

Five Specific Issues of Concern:

The TSLU Framework has several areas of weakness that need to be addressed to help make our neighborhoods more viable:

  1. IDZ, zoning, and land use categories recommendations 
  2. Inappropriate use of incentives
  3. One-size-fits-all policies that can be detrimental to neighborhoods.
  4. Affordable housing issues
  5. Meaningful public input process 

1. IDZ, zoning, and land use categories recommendations: Many of the recommendations ignore the specific conditions of neighborhoods and instead rely on general theory that may not be appropriate for every inner city neighborhood.

The Comprehensive Plan states that “the City can develop policies to encourage higher-density housing in some areas while preserving our existing neighborhoods.” (Sec 8.7) It also states, “that the City should “ensure Infill Development is compatible with existing neighborhoods” (Sec 10.12) The following are some of the recommendations from the Framework that should be carefully vetted to ensure this compatibility:

Create special zones a quarter mile within the transit stations for development for density: The Station Area Planning part of the Transit-oriented Development (TOD) “addresses the need for denser development around transit stations.” Of concern is the idea that “developers working on properties located within a ¼ mile of a ‘transit station’ can request that TOD Special District standards apply to their development project, rather than the standards offered in the property’s base zone.” (Framework pp. 25, 26).

Extending Infill Development Zones (IDZ): –“IDZ provides flexibility in terms of parking standards, setbacks, and density maximums and tends to produce transit supportive development. The City of San Antonio should consider extending IDZ to station areas in conjunction with the TOD Special District to provide a broader range of tools for developers.”

IDZ has been problematic in inner city neighborhoods prompting a recent CCR in April 2017, by District 1 Councilman Roberto Trevino to review the Unified Development Code (UDC) Infill Development Zone (IDZ) because “it has stressed neighborhoods with density, lack of parking, and minimal setbacks.  These developments are in fact changing the characteristics of inner city neighborhoods, esthetics, and ambience and at times with a negative effect. After hearing the Zoning Commission concerns, the quality of life for our neighborhoods needs to be taken into consideration at this time.” It is inappropriate for the City to adopt measures that have proven so detrimental to neighborhoods that they are under review.

Apply IDZ Standards for Small-Scale Infill – “Smaller infill parcels on block faces that are primarily single-family residential in nature should be subject to compatibility standards to those that currently exist in IDZ. Specifically, Sec. 35-343(c) – Sec. 35-343(m) of the UDC” which has to do with such issues as lot and building specifications, urban design, and buffers and streetscape planting. (Framework p. 28)

Expedite Permitting in Station Areas: “The City should consider waiving the site planning requirements currently included in both the IDZ and TOD zoning standards for development proposals in designated station areas…”which implies there would be no oversight of developers. (Framework p. 28)

Waive Traffic Impact Analysis Requirements in TOD Districts

 Transfer of Development Rights (TDR)– TDR is a voluntary, incentive- based program that allows landowners to sell development rights from their land to a developer or other interested party who then can use these rights to increase the density of development at another designated location. (Framework pp. 6, 26)

 2. Inappropriate Use of IncentivesIncentives, or any other development tool should not be considered “as of right’” and automatically applied. The “range of tools” to incentivize, such as the use of IDZ, tax abatements, fee waivers, impact fee waivers, forgivable loans, and tax rebates and other recommendations are flawed in their use as evidenced by the recent CCRs dealing with zoning, IDZ, and incentives indicate. We have seen abuse of incentives when it is used in neighborhoods to promote incompatible infill for density.

 3. One-size-fits-all policies that can be detrimental to neighborhoods

Neighborhoods struggle to include language in the Plan that would preserve the integrity of our inner city neighborhoods and counter a “one size fits all” approach to Corridor development.  As one resident states in a recent letter to Councilman Trevino, “There is a lack of specificity of the terms used and the document implies incentives ‘as a right’, where it would be more appropriate to state ‘as appropriate.’ The Framework in the introduction to Chapter 2 states: ‘San Antonio is a dynamic city….across its 500 Square miles, no two neighborhoods are exactly the same.’  We agree; and, therefore in a complex, diverse, city it is necessary to apply incentives ‘as appropriate’ to preserve the culture and livability of the city along all thirteen corridors.”  Qualifying language* added to the Framework alleviates some of the problems of a one-size-fits-all approach.

4. Affordable Housing Recommendations

This framework does not provide adequate tools to promote in-place and new affordable housing. One of the Comprehensive Plan’s policies is to “Develop and implement a plan to preserve and maintain affordable rental and ownership housing for lower income residents within revitalizing neighborhoods,” (H P34, Sec10.12) and the TSLU Framework should be compatible with this policy as well as address the question: “How can the City be proactive in mitigating impacts of gentrifying neighborhoods, especially near Downtown?” (Sec 10.2)

The TSLU Framework makes recommendations to address housing in the sensitive downtown neighborhoods: ”In areas where development is already occurring, it may not be appropriate to engage in some of the affordable housing preservation activities [land banking, affordable housing reserve fund]. Rather, the focus should be on incentivizing affordable housing production.”  (p.31) In other words, residents in gentrifying downtown neighborhoods should begin packing. While the Framework charges that the City, “should use incentives and policy tools to keep existing residents from being displaced,” the policies for downtown neighborhoods seems to be written for the benefit of for-profit developers instead of the people living in our communities.

The tools suggested in the Framework are inadequate or counter to the Comp Plan’s goals for neighborhoods. The tools described are the use of inclusionary zoning and its attendant density bonus.

 Inclusionary Zoning –– “requires or incentivizes developers to include below –market rate housing in their projects. Though mandatory inclusionary zoning is expressly prohibited by Texas state law, cities can offer voluntary inclusionary zoning policies such as incentives that make it economically beneficial for developers to provide a certain percentage of the units as affordable.”  (Framework pp. 30-32) Although this is a potential tool to try and encourage new affordable housing, the reality in San Antonio in the past is that the City gave incentives to housing that offered only a few affordable housing options in expensive housing complexes.

Density Bonus – One example of inclusionary zoning which offers additional height or density to developers in exchange for some percentage of affordable housing units regardless of zoning in an area

The Housing Commission to Protect and Preserve Diverse Neighborhoods voiced some serious concerns at their last meeting (October 10th) when the TSLU plan was presented to them. Specifically, they were concerned that only for-profit developers were consulted in developing its recommendations and questioned not only the idea but the numbers and their effectiveness used in the TOD District Proposed Density Bonus. (p. 32). They explained that if non-profit developers were consulted, the plan could have been made much more successful in ensuring workforce housing.

The newly formed Mayor’s Housing Policy Task Force, created in response to address a severe affordable housing shortage and displacement in inner city neighborhoods, is given the charge to develop a compassionate housing policy. Before we go forward with any development-oriented transportation plan, we should wait for their recommendations. Because COSA is working on affordable housing through the Task Force and the Commission, there will be justified criticism of all efforts if the public does not see a unified effort with particular emphasis given to affordable housing and protecting / assisting current home owners and renters to assure that we have stable and livable neighborhoods.

5. Meaningful Public Input

While the City staff works hard a citizen input and does a good job, input and feedback are two different types of endeavors.  Although there have been many meetings with sticky notes and requests for “tell us what you’d like to see,” or internet input opportunities, it is not the same as having an effective voice with feedback and dialogue with the City.  As one resident states, “The meetings were more about buy-in than real input…” Before any drafts of plan are adopted neighborhoods, as well as other stakeholders, should have an opportunity to study the document and submit recommendations with feedback from the City.


Tier One Neighborhood Coalition (T1NC) came before the Comprehensive Plan Committee on October 18th when the TSLU Framework was presented and asked council members Shirley Gonzales (D5), Roberto Trevino (D1), John Courage(9), Rey Saldana (D4), and Cruz Shaw (D2) to consider delaying the adoption of the TSLU Plans until all of the CCRs that deal with zoning, land use, and incentives have been resolved, the concerns and questions raised by the Housing Commission addressed, the Mayor’s Task Housing Task Force presents its recommendations, and the public, particularly the affected neighborhoods, have had a chance to contribute meaningful input with City feedback.  While the Comprehensive Plan asserts that “…the plan is a blueprint for focusing future growth and development away from existing neighborhoods and into regional centers, urban centers and along major transportation corridors. When coupled with the creation of new neighborhoods in currently underdeveloped areas of the City, the result will be less development pressure on existing neighborhoods,” (Sec 4.4) the opposite seems to be recommended in the TSLU. The Committee voted to delay until January 2018.

It is important that inner city neighborhoods voice their concerns and insist on feedback and changes. As a neighborhood leader wrote, “…the document generally fails to communicate that it is concerned for the people who will be served by the needed expansion and improvement to our transit system and how we move / transit the city. The plan may be based on solid principles of planning but it does not have sufficient discussion on how it is designed from a human dimension and how it will assure the enhancement of a healthy, safe environment for the public.” What would be an effort at transparency by COSA is a  description of the details and  the steps/and or changes that will take place and timeline in the implementation stage, a “roadmap” of future action.  Although staff is maintaining that this document is simply an innocuous reference manual, the fact that they are already using it as a metric on their staff reports when they make zoning or other recommendations belies this narrative. In the recommendations for a recent case in Monte Vista, for example, the metrics include: “PROXIMITY TO REGIONAL CENTER/PREMIUM TRANSIT CORRIDOR: The subject property is within ó a mile of the San Pedro Premium Transit Corridor, but not within a Regional Center.”

We must insist on a process that is transparent and inclusive.


SA Corridors TSLU (completed, and seeks adoption by City Council approx. January 2018)

SA Corridors

VIA Vision 2040 (2014)- the geneses of the TSLU Plan

SA Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan (2017) – describes many of the corridor plans elements

San Antonio Transportation Plan (2012)


Overview by Ricki Kushner:

 Incentives Mentioned in TSLU Framework:

Development regulations [p.5]

Zoning regulations

Infill Development Zone (IDZ) [p.6]

Mixed Use District (MXD) [p.6]

Transit-Oriented Development District (TOD) [in vicinity of transit stations] [p.6]

Expedited permitting [p.28]

Traffic Impact Analysis Requirements waiver [p.28]

Extend IDZ outside CRAG [p.28]

Apply IDZ to single-family parcels & blocks in a TOD [p.28]

Design standards

Investment tools

Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) [p.10]

Inner City Reinvestment/Infill Policy (ICRIP) [p.10]

Community Revitalization Action Group (CRAG) [p.10]

Center City Housing Incentive Policy (CCHIP) [p.10]

Tax Abatements [p.10]

Promise Zone [Eastpoint area] [p.10]

Choice Neighborhood [Wheatley Courts] [p.10]

Historic Tax Credits [p.10]

Impact waivers [not sure whether this is an investment tool] [p.13]

Infrastructure investment [p.24]

TOD Special District standards [developers can “opt in”] [p.26]

Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) [buy and sell density][p.26]

Density Maximums and Parking Minimums [p.27]

Vacant Dwelling Tax Credit [p.29]

TSLU Grant Programs [p.29]

Land Banking [p.30]

Affordable Housing Reserve Fund [p.30]

Density Bonus [p.31]


*Examples of Qualifying Language:

The words, “while preserving the neighborhoods which are the building blocks of every plan” which echoes the SA Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan’s idea that “the first building block is perhaps the most vital as it will continue to be home to the majority of San Antonio’s residents” (Sec 4.2) should be added to many of the goals of the Framework.  For example, one of the goals that is “Coordinate economic development efforts and land use plans to encourage and incentivize employment growth with regional centers and along transit corridors” could be qualified by adding the words, “while preserving the neighborhoods which are the vital building blocks of every plan” at the end of the goal. (Framework p.4)

Another example of the helpfulness of the insertion of qualifying language is in the section of Development Incentives (Framework p. 24) where it states, “Building on a range of tools already available in the City of San Antonio and suggestions for additional tools.” The words “where appropriate” should be added to the end of this and other recommendations.









Mahncke Park NA’s Call to Action

Written by the Mahncke Park Neighborhood Association Board of Directors: Joanie Brooks, President; Stephen Amberg, Vice President; Homer “Butch” Hayes, Treasurer; Camis Milam, Secretary; Jennifer Norton, Estrada Polly, and Noel Matthew Shaddock

A Call for Action by the Housing Commission to Protect and Preserve Dynamic and Diverse Neighborhoods San Antonio’s debate about how to secure affordable housing close to the city core is urgent. As a fast growing city with an anticipated additional one million people expected in the next 25 years, we are a prime target for developers. New people who desire urban living need affordable housing close to downtown to live and work at the same time that existing affordable housing in those areas is being demolished in favor of upper middle-class housing, which is displacing current residents. Our city government must address this growing crisis with a broader set of goals and tools than currently in use. The City should develop policies to sustain current affordable workers’ housing and to prevent displacement as it encourages infill development in the Downtown and Midtown areas.

The City has stated that it is committed to increase affordable housing and preserve existing central city neighborhoods. At the first meeting of the Housing Commission to Protect and Preserve Dynamic and Diverse Neighborhoods, on September 24, 2015, John Dugan, director of the Department of Planning and Community Development stated, “The Housing Commission will have a key role in developing new policies and programs to increase the supply of affordable and workforce housing.” The Housing Commission plans to develop policies and programs to protect and preserve existing central city neighborhoods. It also shares our concerns about affordability and preservation of existing communities. “We are seeing significant reinvestment in many of the neighborhoods located inside Loop 410,” Dugan said. “As new residents move in, we want to ensure that existing residents are not pushed out and the qualities that make these neighborhoods dynamic and diverse are not lost.” The City should now undertake to specify parameters for increased density in and around established Midtown residential neighborhoods, which are already dynamic and diverse, but whose qualities are threatened by inappropriate new development.

Recent developments in Mahncke Park illustrate where stable working class neighborhoods are in direct conflict with developers’ plans for inner tier development and profit. Mahncke Park (MP) is a residential neighborhood in the Midtown Regional Center, which is currently in Year 1 of the SA2020 Comprehensive Plan process, which is projected to gain 1,000 new families by 2040 as well as new businesses and jobs. Because MP has diverse and affordable housing of good quality that is proximate to the Downtown – located south of Alamo Heights between Brackenridge Park and Fort Sam – it has become a magnet for investors who seek to capitalize on rising interest and values. MP is struggling to maintain its identity as a vibrant community of people, who are diverse by income, age, ethnicity, occupation and talents and who share a common interest in maintaining this vibrancy. However, the City’s current housing development policies do not allow MP to protect the values of stability with change, affordable housing stock, and the historic residential fabric of the built environment and community life.

Mahncke Park (MP) is undergoing rapid change as affordable housing is demolished and replaced by upper middle income and luxury homes. MP has roughly 5,000 thousand residents who now live mostly in modest single-family homes, duplexes and quadraplex apartment buildings, and some larger multiunit low-rise apartment buildings, which were built from the 1920’s to the 1950’s. In the new environment, businesses have been allowed to encroach on residential streets and, on the southern side of the neighborhood, homes and apartment buildings that have fallen into various levels of neglect are 2 being snapped up by developers. They are then demolished and replaced with blocks of cookie-cutter “town” homes and condos.

The Mahncke Park Neighborhood Association (MPNA) wants to protect affordable housing and MP’s historic fabric as it supports the SA Comprehensive Plan for greater density in Midtown where it is appropriate. Some developers have worked well with MPNA to make modifications to their plans to accommodate historic values, but others reject community input.

One egregious case where the historic fabric of the MP community is being lost is the Imagine Homes projects. This case also demonstrates the limits of the City’s current policies for appropriate and sustainable development. Imagine Homes (IH) has already demolished homes and apartment buildings and replaced them with upper middle class town homes; it has applied for approval to demolish six more buildings. Claremont Street is being systematically transformed from its heterogeneous residential character to a monoculture of gentrification. IH’s signature project is a single-family house on a 25-foot lot with a front-loaded garage, which is specifically not allowed by the Neighborhood Conservation District (NCD) guidelines. The City adopted the MP Neighborhood Plan in 2004 and the NCD was approved in 2008. The NCD design overlay states that lots greater than 45 feet wide will have garages behind the plane of the house façade. There were no extant lots less than 50 feet wide over the past 50 years. Imagine Homes has made the case to the Development Services Department that the original 1928 platting of the Natalen Terrace area with 25-foot lots should have prior legal authority over later zoning and design guidelines. Imagine Homes is purchasing extant lots with buildings that encompass two or more plats and dividing them up into 25-foot single-family home lots. DSD states that the NCD guidelines do not apply and that zoning regulations do not prohibit what IM is doing. (See the satellite photo of Claremont.)

The Mahncke Park Neighborhood Association (MPNA) has requested a Change Request (CCR) to revise its NCD with the hope of blocking this practice. City Council approved the CCR, but DSD has reiterated the stance that the new NCD will not supersede the 1928 platting. This may well be a correct reading of zoning rules, but the resultant situation is unworkable for the neighborhood and the City. This case calls out for a new policy to govern development to be swiftly considered and acted on.

Debate has gelled on the need for a broader appreciation of our residential fabric than only physical assets. The September 5, 2017 edition of the Rivard Report included an article from Next City reporter Johnny Magdaleño that suggests the proper perspective from which to consider change. It notes that “Part of the value of the UNESCO World Heritage designation includes the ‘intangible heritage’ of people. It’s not the restaurant, it’s the chef,” says William Dupont, director of the Center for Cultural Sustainability at University of Texas at San Antonio. “So, as the city is looking at that, they’re concurrently taking a look at all of their policies citywide, [recognizing] displacement of the people can now cause loss of economic potential.” We urge the Housing Commission to not only look, but to adapt the City’s “equity lens” budget analysis for a new policy to sustain residential equity by protecting the existing community diversity of people and housing stock.

The Mayor and Council must act in a timely way to broaden the policy discussion about affordable housing and city development in ways that address preservation of our neighborhoods’ diversity, culture and heritage. The housing we are living in now is affordable housing. However, it is being torn down and replaced by housing that is not affordable for current residents and/or replaced by affordable housing that is subsidized by the taxpayers.

We recommend the following action items to our City officials.

1. We need a moratorium on the demolition of existing affordable housing until a new housing policy is enacted.

2. The City needs to address historical platting that is antagonistic to the context of current usage and design guidelines in order to maintain the historic diversity of neighborhoods.

3. The Mayor’s Housing Policy Task Force should develop strategies and policies to preserve and rehabilitate existing residential structures.

4. The Task Force should conduct a survey of rents in the sub-area neighborhoods of Midtown.

5. The new policies to preserve existing affordable housing should include support for individuals who own properties, but cannot afford to maintain them, in the form of grants and low cost loans.

6. The new policies should also support long-term residents with appropriate assistance to be able to age in place.

7. The Midtown Regional Planning Task Force should not abandon neighborhood plans, but use them as directives for new zoning maps.

8. There must be neighborhood membership in all decision-making bodies that formulate policies for residential neighborhoods that is at least equal to the representation of development interests.

9. Transportation Corridor planning boundaries for development must be re-scaled from a half-mile to the actual abutting properties while the traffic study boundaries remain in place.


The Case of Tobin Hill North

On August 17, 2017 a large group of Tobin Hill neighbors, many wearing Tobin Hill’s orange t-shirts, came to City Council to advocate for a historic district designation for their block of Mistletoe which would be called the Tobin Hill North Historic District, the culmination of a year-long effort. The effort was in response to a developer’s plans to crowd eight two-story single-family homes on one lot in the middle of the block of  bungalows and cottages, plans the neighborhood deemed incompatible.

Neighbors came together and 51% of them agreed to start the designation process. After a meeting in which the Tobin Hill Community Association endorsed the plans,  four public meetings conducted by Office of Historic Preservation (OHP) and countless meetings in living rooms and dining room tables, Historic Design and Review Commission (HDRC) gave its unanimous approval.

But it is at this point the process exposed a weakness in OHP’s procedures: 51% of the residents agreed to attend meetings for information, but no votes are taken after these meetings. It is as if the vote to listen to information is a vote to become an historic district and the confusion becomes acrimonious.

By the time the case made it to City Council on August 17th, the numbers for and against the designation had slipped back and forth.  In the end, no side had the required 51% majority. Out of 88 properties, 11 abstained (13%), 33 (37%) voted for the designation, and 44 (50%) voted against it.  Several people who were not in the district but within the 200’ radius that is sent notices also voted.

But it was not that simple.

The opposition consisted of some sincere neighbors who advocated for property rights and did not want the designation, but many of the opposition were investors who owned property temporarily, but did not live in the neighborhood or even District 1, begging the question for future debate: Should the votes of temporary property owners, non-residents, be weighed the same as people who live in the district (or own property on a permanent basis) and will live with the consequences in a way that is more than just pecuniary?

Out of 44 properties counted in opposition, 22 of them were possessed by non- residents, some of whom owned multiple properties: Half of those 22 properties are owned by just four investors. In other words, investors made up half of the opposition; just four investors made up a full quarter of the opposition.

It became a no-win situation for the residents.

The Councilman met in February 2017 with the investors along with the District 1 Zoning Commission representative in a room in a local restaurant. One of the condo developers later stated at City Council that he had met with Councilman even before he purchased the property.

The neighbors, although they tried, were unable to get an audience with the Councilman. He did not return their calls. His staff, coordinating everyone’s schedule, produced a meeting with the neighbors and the Councilman. He did not show. A public meeting was set up to discuss the Neighborhood Conservation District (NCD), a year-long process for which the Councilman advocated (even after telling another neighborhood that only historic designation would protect them) but by that time frustration and tension engulfed the meeting.

At the the Zoning Commission hearing on May 16th, OHP asked for a third continuance for reasons that are unclear. One of the neighbors was told that someone had called and wanted more information. No presentation was given for the Zoning Commission by OHP. The Commission (with barely a quorum)  voted against the designation, after listening to speakers for and against, critiquing OHP’s process.

Democracy is strongest at a local level.  Our neighborhoods, our communities, our City is a place that we can nurture it, even as it is tested on a national and world stage. Democracy is not easy. It requires transparency and inclusion and a sense of fair play.

Our City government let us down.

City Council members make whatever decisions they choose, and citizens can debate them at the ballot box, but the process of inclusion and transparency was blatantly ignored to the  advantage of developer interests.

At the City Council meeting on August 17th, neighbors came with a real expectation that they would not only speak, but that they would be listened to, that they would be heard. Before the meeting, a compromise to redraw the Historic District had been accepted by the advocates  and it left out the most adamant opposition, a “flipper,” out of the district, a request he had made at the Zoning Commission meeting.  At the end of over two hours of neighbors’ testimony, District 1 Councilman read a statement that demonstrated that their words, their work, and their presence had no bearing whatsoever on any decision, that it had been predetermined. The rest of the City Council simply voted along with little or no comment or questions and certainly no explanations. It seemed clear by their silence that they had made up their minds (with the exception of District 9 Councilman John Courage) beforehand to support their fellow council member instead of the people to whom they are responsible. The compromise was summarily dismissed. Neighbors were thanked for their  “participation” in a display of condescension. This was the not a democratic process and it exemplifies the worst of City government.

When we question why people do not vote, look to the lesson of Tobin Hill North.  If ordinary citizens are not even acknowledged by their elected representatives, why indeed, does it matter for whom they vote? Citizen input and participation become empty words that breeds the worst kind of cynicism in its citizens. It is this kind of cynicism that kills democracy. “Inclusion” becomes an empty show that benefits those with money and power.  I am not suggesting that this Councilman was wrong to meet with the opposition which consisted mostly of the development community; I am forcefully suggesting that he was wrong in not also making himself equally available to the neighbors of Tobin Hill North and listening to their perspective as well. This is not about one Councilmember: They are all, with the exception of Councilman Courage, complicit.

We have a right to expect more.









Rising Property Taxes: Paying a Fair Share

Property taxes in downtown neighborhoods are on a steep incline. We have conversations about them on Next Door and FaceBook and in neighborhood meetings and wonder what is causing the rise and how we can fight it. We talk with our next door neighbors across the fence to see if they are fighting the increase this year.  If you are upset about your property taxes and want to fight them, it may feel as though you are fighting a losing battle. You are right.  You may be able to lower them this year, but the fix is temporary and will not address the systemic issues of rocketing property values.

This issues around our rising property taxes seems complicated, but it comes down to one simple idea: Everyone must pay their fair share. The first part of this series explains the heavy burden that commercial property tax laws put on the average homeowner. The solutions are not complicated, but they will take political will which can come only from a concerted effort on the part of citizens for meaningful change. Corporate and large commercial property owners are able to shift their share of the tax burden on to others by the use of unequal comparables, lowered median values, and deep pocket lawsuits.

Unequal Comparables

One of the biggest reasons that large commercial property owners are able to avoid paying for their fair share of taxes is that they are able to compare, for assessment purposes, their properties with those of lesser value creating a tax loss for which residential property owners are responsible.

In 1997 a third paragraph was added to Section 42.26 P a1 and a 2 of the Texas Tax Code which deals with appraisal ratios. The uniform and equal (sometimes called “equity”) provision passed without notice but it provides a lucrative opportunity or loophole for commercial property owners to exploit to pay less in property taxes. It states:

“The district court shall grant relief on the ground that a property is appraised unequally if the appraised value of the property exceeds the median appraised value of a reasonable number of comparable properties appropriately adjusted.”

Bexar County Chief Appraiser Michael Amezquita states in one of my favorite quotes, “Paragraph 3 is where the money is. Any blind monkey can win that deal.” (County)

This “equity” provision as well as a series of court decisions have rendered the constitutional requirement that property be taxed in proportion to its market value moot.

Corporate and commercial property owners continue to sue and win large reductions in their appraisals regardless of the market value of their property because of the ambiguity and lack of definition of terms like “reasonable number” and “comparable.”

Since enacted, this provision has undergone some revisions but none more significant and more beneficial to commercial property owners than when the words, “appropriately adjusted” was tacked on to the end of paragraph three in 2003 causing a flurry of  litigation. Through interpretation, an overwhelming majority of judges have sided with the property owners, again, because there isn’t a definition of “comparability” in the tax codes.

These reductions in commercial appraisals has meant hundreds of millions of lost dollars for Texas’s school districts, roadways, emergency medical services and fire protection, a loss homeowners shoulder. “Homeowners pay taxes based on something reflecting market value, but corporate taxpayers just don’t,” said Amezquita. “That’s not equal, and what they’re doing puts upward pressure on tax rates.” (County)

Lowered Median Value on Commercial Properties

The effects of the unequal comparisons allowed by the tax codes to commercial properties is that it lowers the tax base down longer term.  When high value commercial properties are compared to those of lower value the median is lowered. This new lower median level creates a level by which all properties can be reduced. Jim Robinson, who retired from HCAD in May 2013 after serving 28 years at the agency states in the Houston Press, “What we see happening time and time again is tax consultants get everything that’s out there and they’ll pick a set of alleged comparables at the very bottom of the list and argue that they should be adjusted to that.”

The result of the drop in median value is a constant and growing erosion of the tax base” on which Texas’s public-school finance channels are dependent.

Deep Pocket Lawsuits

In 2013,  State Rep Mike Villarreal (D) and Austin property tax agent Jim Popp authored HB585 to make administrative changes to the tax code. It was an attempt to address issues of bias, lack of responsiveness and transparency in Appraisal Review Boards and local appraisal districts. Rep. John Otto (R)  added an amendment that states if a property owner wins an appeal of the property’s value (whether through litigation, arbitration, or through a board hearing) the appraisal district would have a higher burden of proof if it wanted to raise the value the next year.

It did not take long for attorneys to act on behalf of their clients: In San Antonio in 2014, JW Marriott Hill Country Resort & Spa, with a construction price tag that nearly eclipsed $600 million, had been able to lower its value by $125 million by winning multiple lawsuits against the Bexar County Appraisal District.

 Bexar County Chief Appraiser Michael Amezquita told the Houston Press: “I’ve been sued every year by [JW Marriott],” Bexar County at the time was facing $10.3 billion in appraisal-reduction litigation compared to the annual $4 billion to $5 billion average. In the 2011 tax year, BCAD’s ten most expensive courtroom losses to class A commercial and industrial property owners resulted in an absence of $1.8 million in tax revenue for San Antonio-area school districts.

“Valero sues every year,” Amezquita added. “H-E-B is suing every year now. They never used to sue me before.” (http://www.houstonpress.com/news/texas-is-losing-out-on-millions-of- dollars-thanks-to-its-defective-property-tax-system-6601492)

In 2016 local news aired a piece on deep pocket lawsuits by commercial and corporate property owners to lower their appraisal values: “These are the cases set for trial, hundreds of them,” declared Deputy Chief Appraiser for Bexar County Mary Kiekie. But she noted, none of these will ever make it to trial, lawyers will settle it in litigation.” Litigation is the ugly thing that nobody knows about,” she explained.

Of their $15 million budget, in 2016, at least $1 million had been spent on lawyers litigating.” It’s shifting the burden from the corporate and commercial properties onto the backs of the homeowners,” Kiekie said. “The tax rates would go down and still generate the same amount if indeed commercial properties were paying at the same rate that residential properties were paying at.”

Corporate lawsuits had more than doubled in 2016 . From 2009 to 2014, they accounted for an average of 474 lawsuits per year. In 2015, that number jumped to 965.

“It’s a game that the tax lawyers and tax agents are playing, and it’s so easily played,” said Kieke. Last year alone, corporations were able to litigate off almost a billion dollars in taxable value.

Kieke says a loss at trial, even if it’s just by a dollar, could mean a death sentence for her office. So they have to litigate.”If the appraisal district loses at trial, we can be responsible for the other side’s attorney fees up to $100,000 per property, per year,” said Kiekie. “So if Valero sues us on all their convenience stores and puts 130 stores into a lawsuit, they can bankrupt us.” (New4SA)

The problem has been exacerbated by Texas’s absence of sales-price disclosure, which gives property owners a running start in property-tax disputes because appraisal districts must rely on private databases to procure sales numbers. Even then, it’s impossible to seize reliable data for every property.

“Whoever heard of doing an appraisal without sales information?” says Amezquita. Idaho, Utah and Alaska are the only other states that lock away all sales figures on taxable properties.

“It’s like boxing with one hand tied behind your back,” says former Houston County Appraisal District (HCAD) Chief Appraiser Jim Robinson, who retired from HCAD in May 2013 after serving 28 years at the agency. “What we see happening time and time again is tax consultants get everything that’s out there and they’ll pick a set of alleged comparables at the very bottom of the list and argue that they should be adjusted to that.” (Houston Press).

And Now: Dark Store Legal Battle

This from the Texas Comptroller:

Dark store theory primarily concerns the property taxation of big-box stores, behemoth department stores, hardware sellers and other outlets often running to 50,000 square feet or more.

The dark store theory of property valuation, championed aggressively by many big-box retailers, suggests that commercial properties should be appraised and valued the same whether they’re operating or shuttered. They favor appraising all big-box properties as if they were vacant or “dark” to calculate property value, arguing these locations will be difficult to sell because they have little appeal to subsequent buyers. In essence, they’re asking that these properties be appraised according to how the next occupant may use it.

Appraisal districts, by contrast, appraise such buildings according to their “highest and best use,” which in practice means appraising them as operating locations.

The difference between these perspectives, as you might imagine, can be significant. Dark store proponents often ask that the value of their property be reduced by more than half, in one instance from $82 to $20 per square foot. Big-box retailers have pushed dark store theory most vigorously, but the practice has spread to other commercial property types as a way to seek tax reductions.

In Texas, the main proponent of the theory has been Lowe’s Home Improvement, which has 141 stores in the state.

Property tax appraisal methods for commercial properties usually rely on “comparables” — the sale value of similarly situated properties — to determine a property’s market value to a hypothetical buyer. Texas Property Tax Code Section 23.01(a) requires taxable property in Texas to be appraised at its market value as of Jan. 1 of each year.

The Property Tax Code requires determinations of appropriate comparable sales to include the property’s condition, occupancy and any legal burdens. Considering vacant properties as comparables for a property that isn’t vacant is akin to using a ghost town as a “comp” for a vibrant city block.

Bexar County Chief Appraiser Michael Amezquita also believes dark store theory is inappropriate precisely due to the use of comparables, because it begins with the assumption that stores should all be appraised as if they were closed.

“It turns all appraisal theory on its head,” he says. “The first step in any appraisal assignment is to determine the highest and best use of a property. The highest and best use of these properties is usually continued use as a big-box retailer. It’s never appropriate to pretend one could only look to sales of failed, vacant stores for comparables.”

The state comptroller’s office estimates Texas cities, counties and school districts will lose $2.9 billion if Lowe’s wins its Bexar County lawsuit and other commercial properties take up the “dark store” legal argument, potentially leaving homeowners to pick up the property tax burden. (Houston Chronicle)


The solutions are simple, finding the political will is much more challenging. While we can fault corporate and commercial property owners for shifting the burden of their fair share to the rest of us, they could make the case that anyone would take advantage of what the law allows. However, if loopholes were closed, If commercial property owners paid their fair share, billions of dollars of revenue would be pumped into our tax base possibly lowering the tax rate of residential property owners. There are other factors such as tax abatements and school financing, but the failure of commercial property owners to pay their fair share contributes greatly to the problem.

This is a legislative issue.

In this last legislative session, HB 27, authored by Rep. Drew Springer -Muenster (R) and backed by Comptroller Glenn Hegar, aimed to limit businesses’ ability to use the unusual legal strategy when contesting their property values. The bill passed out of two committees but never made it to the House floor for a final vote.

In 2013, State Senator Wendy Davis (D) and Rep Sylvester Turn (D) co-authored a bill that would have addressed the ambiguous language of the equal and uniform provision.

In 2009, Rep. Michael Villarreal (D), Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D), and Sen. Jeff Wentworth (R) authored a series of bills that would require sale-price disclosure in the state.

All of these attempts at property tax reform have failed.

It is up to homeowners to demand that all property owners pay their fair share, no more, no less.