In Dignowity Hill, views are nuanced on incoming apartments

by Ben OlivoJuly 22, 2018
Dwayne White lives near the Hay Street Bridge in the Dignowity Hill neighborhood. V. FINSTER | HERON

On Hays Street on a late Saturday morning, we find Dwayne White emerge from a friend's worn, off-kilter house. White also lives on Hays, but down closer to the Hays Street Bridge and a 1.7-acre lot where a developer wants to put a five-story apartment building.

"They call themselves community developers and planners, but they're basically just opportunists," White says of the project's partners Mitch Meyer of Loopy Limited and Eugene Simor, owner of the Alamo Beer Company on the other side of the bridge, who has said he wants to restore this once prominent neighborhood.

The Dignowity Hill Historic District on the near East Side is perhaps San Antonio's hottest real estate submarket where the median home value has skyrocketed 210 percent in the last five years.

"My taxes have increased, but I'm blessed to be able to cover it," he says.

White inherited the home from his mom, and has a good-paying job at the Texas Department of Transportation in Austin.

Ten minutes into the sidewalk interview, the sun begins to oppress. White's bald head glistens more by the second — we all sweat profusely — but the 59-year-old, longtime Dignowity Hill resident keeps going.

"There's nothing wrong with progress, but still they come in and they dominate," White says of some of the community's newcomers. "It's like the OGs of the neighborhood — our opinion doesn't count."

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A protest sign referencing the Bridge Apartments is fixed on a telephone pole on the corner of Cherry and Lamar streets. V. FINSTER | HERON

Our mission

Every person quoted in this article we met while going door to door in Dignowity Hill. Specifically, we wanted to talk with folks who live near the bridge — we being myself and V. Finster, Heron photographer.

What do those residents think of the imminent Bridge Apartments, the name of the incoming Meyer-Simor development at 803 N. Cherry St., just north of the bridge?

For years, now, the local media has covered this story about attempts to develop land around the Hays Street Bridge, and we've heard the arguments.

On one hand, this project represents gentrification on a mass scale, compared with the gradual and slower changes that have entered the community one household at a time — modern homes built on vacant lots or rehabbed left-for-dead structures — in recent years. It's big, it's market-rate, and it's located in an industrial patch between the neighborhood and downtown. It's become an exemplar of San Antonio's urban neighborhood growing pains. It's sure to assist in raising property values and, therefore, taxes, critics say. So how can some of the poorer residents afford such change? What about rising rents?

It's also visual. The monolithic for-rent structure will block views of the bridge and the downtown skyline from the corner of Cherry and Lamar streets, says the Hays Street Bridge Restoration Group, the project's most vocal opponent.

On the other hand are the project's supporters, those people who welcome private investment into this long-neglected neighborhood. Those who welcome urban density and walkability and bike lanes and a rise in property values because that means building up one's equity.

So we went into Dignowity Hill to spend time there, not to look for a quote. We found that, for many, this issue isn't black and white. The opinions on the Bridge Apartments vary and are complicated and each stem from a perspective as unique as the home it lives in.

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What's a SkyBell?

On Lamar Street, we walk up to a newly-built home that's more suburban sprawl in style than some of the ultra modern-looking houses you'd hire a personal architect to design.

We ring the doorbell, which looks like the controls on the bridge of a spaceship. No answer.

I begin a note that I'll leave for the homeowner when the doorbell begins to talk. It's a woman's voice. She's the homeowner, and she wants to know if she can help us.

We give her the CliffsNotes version of the above paragraphs, and she proceeds to unload hot opinions about how the neighborhood needs more gentrification. Anna Salinas and her fiancée built the house on what was an empty lot about nine months ago.

"I like the potential that it's bringing to the neighborhood," Salinas says of the Bridge Apartments, through the doorbell.

I ask if she could come out and chat face to face. She can't, she explains, because she's talking to us on her cellphone via SkyBell. Oh wow, I thought. It wouldn't be the last SkyBell we saw, or pushed.

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Construction crews work on Lamar street on June 19 near the corner of Cherry Street. V. FINSTER | HERON

Traffic concerns

Every fence we approach is a decision. At the Casias household, next to the Skybell home, we do a quick scan and decide to keep walking after reading a sign that informs us that the home's occupants are packing heat.

But then one of the occupants walks out, and we start chatting.

"This is the most peaceful, quiet neighborhood on the East Side," said Ricky Casias, standing in the front yard that's decorated with potted plants and a Virgin de Guadalupe statue. "If that goes up, there goes the peace."

Ricky, 49, and his brother, Ray, grew up in this house on Lamar, where construction crews are putting in a new street and curbs. It's still their 72-year-old mother's house. The brothers don't worry about property taxes going up for their mom, because she gets the senior exemption — though they do worry about the neighborhood's less fortunate residents.

What they're really concerned about is the congestion and noise they say will seep into the neighborhood as a result of the apartments.

On the corner of Lamar and Cherry, there's an Airbnb four-plex they say clogs up the curbs with cars that sometimes block their fenced driveway.

The family owned the two plots of land on either side of the home. But recently, Ray, 55, sold the empty lot to Salinas and her fiancee, and a rundown historic home on the other side to an Airbnb flipper.

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Michelle McKenna looks at the downtown skyline from the yard of a home she's refurbishing into a short-term rental on Lamar street. V. FINSTER | HERON

Mixed feelings

Most people don't answer the door. Most who do are ambivalent on the Bridge Apartments. Like Kenny Jones, 34, who's new to the neighborhood, "It has to take away from something that people have known for so long."

Everyone we interview seem to be doing well financially. It's not like we ask to see people's pay stub, or anything. But we also start to notice that the homes closest to the bridge — and, therefore, closest to Alamo Beer Co., downtown, and the Pearl — are where the newcomers are flocking to. The signs of poverty are evident the farther east you go into Dignowity Hill.

We also discovered a few Airbnbs.

Michelle McKenna is refurbishing the historic home the Casias' recently sold to her that she's converting into an Airbnb. She has another short-term rental property on Sherman Street.

"It be kind of sad to not be able to see the bridge and the skyline," she says. On the other hand, "It's kind of nice that San Antonio is revitalizing these neighborhoods, because, before, you didn't want to come here."

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Lauren and Tom Bartholomew and their dog Layla, a rescue from the Dignowity Hill, reflect on their time in the neighborhood. V. FINSTER | HERON

For density, but not this

Around the corner on North Mesquite Street, we find one of those homes you'd hire a personal architect to design. Except an architect actually lives in this rust colored, asymmetrical, ultra-modern abode. The neighborhood has quite a few architects, we're told from several of the people we interview.

"I'm for development, but not for the current design, and I'm not for the way the current developers are communicating with the community," said Michael Britt, 35, an architect at Lake Flato who built his house four years ago.

He wants the apartments to interact better with the single-family homes the building will loom over.

We hear this sentiment again from the Bartholomews, empty-nesters from Alamo Heights who had no intention of gentrifying anything when they rehabbed a bungalow on Lamar in late 2016.

"This (neighborhood) has the highest return for real estate," said Tom Bartholomew, 74. "And also it's close to downtown, where we could walk to the Pearl, the river, the library, to the Tobin Center and the Majestic."

They welcome us in and we immediately meet Layla, a Dignowity Hill pooch they took in. They wanted to reduce their carbon footprint, and that's the main reason they support housing density. They even have a carport on the side of the home with a recharge station for their electric vehicle. But in the case of the Bridge Apartments, they don't support it because of the design.

"It turns its back to the East Side," said Lauren Bartholomew, 62. "There could be better design with the open areas like the dog park and the swimming pool facing east — being included in the neighborhood — instead of just the big mass facing the neighborhood."

They say most of their neighbors either oppose the design or the prospect of so many multifamily units so close to this community. But they also point to a newer couple who supports the development, who lives two doors down in a house that looks like it belongs on the shore of a beach. We knocked, but they weren't home.

Previously published:
» Analysis: Explaining the Bridge Apartments revisions that never happened
» Sculley approves Hays Street Bridge apartments

Contact Ben Olivo: 210-421-3932 | ben@saheron.com | @rbolivo on Twitter

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