Controversial Alazan Lofts gets boost from a reluctant zoning commission

by Ben OlivoJuly 17, 2019
This patch of land on the northwest corner of South Colorado and El Paso streets—adjacent to the Alazan Courts—is being eyed for a 98-unit, mixed-income development called Alazan Lofts.
This patch of land on the northwest corner of South Colorado and El Paso streets, adjacent to the Alazan Courts, is being eyed for a mixed-income development. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

After five quiet months, the ongoing debate on the West Side about how best to improve the aging Alazan Courts quickly came to a head at Tuesday's Zoning Commission meeting.

In an 8-2 vote, commissioners rezoned five tracts of land comprising 2.9 acres just south of the courts for the Alazan Lofts, an 88-unit, mixed-income housing development by a partnership of the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) and developer NRP Group.

Several commissioners said they felt pressured by the partnership to approve the rezoning despite roughly two dozen community members who voiced strong opposition to the plan. A denial of the rezoning, or postponement of a decision, according to SAHA and NRP Group officials, would jeopardize the federal tax credit funding the lofts project is likely to receive at the end of this month.

What's AMI?
The area median income (AMI) for a family of four in the greater San Antonio area (Bandera, Bexar, Comal, Guadalupe and Wilson counties) is $71,000, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Here's how it breaks down for lower-income households:
» 80% - $56,800
» 70% - $49,700
» 60% - $42,600
» 50% - $35,500
» 40% - $28,400
» 30% - $21,300

In the $18 million project, the public-private partnership is expected to reserve at least half of the units as public housing; 40 percent of units for households making 60 percent of the area median income (AMI), or less; and 10 percent at market-rate rents.

SAHA envisions the four-story complex as the first phase of the redevelopment of the Alazan Courts area. The plan, simply put, is to build, in phases, affordable housing near the courts, move residents of the courts into the new housing, then gradually demolish the circa-1939, cinder-block structures.

The phased approach differs from the one SAHA used five years ago when it simultaneously removed all 205 residents of the Wheatley Courts on the East Side before demolishing the structures for brand new East Meadows development.

Currently, the Alazan Courts is composed of 501 public housing units, in which residents pay 30 percent of their income on rent, on 26 acres just west of downtown. In SAHA's plan, courts residents could move into the Alazan Lofts, into another nearby gestating development called Tampico Lofts, or receive a relocation voucher to move to another part of the city.

This map shows the 2.9-acre footprint for the Alazan Lofts, a partnership between the San Antonio Housing Authority and developer NRP Group, on the near West Side. Just above it are the Alazan Courts.
COURTESY GOOGLE MAPS

The arguments

At the zoning meeting, activists and some residents lobbed a variety of concerns about the Alazan Lofts, which would occupy the four corners at the intersection of South Colorado and El Paso streets, if built. One of the chief criticisms was the project's four-story height. The critics want more affordable housing, but housing that's more congruent with the West Side's traditional one-story housing stock and occasional two-story commercial building.

Graciela Sanchez, director of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, which operates a cultural center in renovated homes a stone's throw from the proposed lofts, said a four-story development threatens the housing fabric of the historic West Side, including many of the casitas, or little homes.

"We want density, but horizontal, in a more historical way," Sanchez told commissioners after presenting the body with 302 signatures from nearby residents against the project gathered last week. She later added of the older housing stock, "We don't want that to disappear, because that is part of the essence and the culture."

Lorraine Robles, SAHA's director of development services and neighborhood revitalization, told commissioners the buildings' height was necessary in order to make the finances work. In the same rebuttal, she spoke of SAHA's housing strategy going forward—which is to abandon the creation of pure public housing and instead build mixed-income communities.

"In any neighborhood, we know the importance of diversifying our residents, making sure there are different levels of income," Robles said.

"In order to support those deeper subsidized units that are so desperately needed in our neighborhoods, we need the support of the affordable as well as the market rate units," she later said. "There's no way we can replace 501 units with another 501 units of public housing. That won't do anything for the neighborhood."

Jason Arechiga, NRP Group's vice president of development, then chimed in and described a 3-5 year timetable for the redevelopment of the entire Alazan Courts site.

Other concerns include traffic congestion from a denser development critics said will endanger pedestrians, especially kids from the courts who walk down South Brazos Street to nearby J.T. Brackenridge Elementary, in a heavily walked area; and the gentrification they say SAHA is aiding with its pivot toward mixed-income communities.

"I believe this process of gentrification is destroying the city and destroying the culture and destroying the economies," said Francisco Tavira, a member of Mi Barrio no se Vende, a coalition of West Side neighborhoods. "I can see right now how the city is going. We have the Pearl. We have the East Side. We have the South Side. And now (the West Side). So I just ask for time and for the developers to take into consideration the community and see the impact they are doing."

Several entities currently have plans to redevelop west downtown, which will presumably spill into the historically poorer West Side communities. The largest player is the University of Texas at San Antonio, which plans to quadruple the size of its west downtown campus in the next 10 years. VIA Metropolitan Transit is also getting into the development game, as well as developers both for-profit and nonprofit. The Alazan Lofts is part of SAHA's contribution.

The residents also aired concerns about the heat island they said SAHA and NRP Group would create with the loft's 133 surface parking spaces. The rezoning Tuesday from pure multifamily (MF-33) to high intensity infill (IDZ-3) gives the partnership the flexibility to create parking lots, lawyers with Brown & Ortiz, the law firm representing the partnership, said. Arechiga told commissioners NRP Group was willing to scale back its parking and add community gardens and greens pace.

Speaking in support of the project was Gabriel Velasquez, president of the Avenida Guadalupe Association; and Jannet Garcia, a mother of two children, and vice president of the Alazan Apache Resident Council.

"What worked back in the day for the 1940s doesn't work for us anymore—not for our families, not for our kids," said Garcia, who was the only resident of Alazan Courts who spoke at the meeting. "There is not central AC. We don't have outlets for our dryer. The infrastructure is out of date for the 21st Century and our children and our families are being brought up there."

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[ Editor's note: Do you live near downtown? We want to know your story—whether you're a homeowner or renter, whether you've lived in the neighborhood for 30 years or three months. Read more, or email us. ]

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To raze or not to raze

The Westside Preservation Alliance, one of the groups in attendance at Tuesday's meeting, has long supported the renovation of the courts, rather than their demolition.

In a community meeting on Feb. 12, Robles told many of these same residents that renovating the 80-year-old structures was too costly; tearing them down and starting anew made more financial sense, she said.

Twice in the last four years, SAHA, which purchased the 2.9 acres for $1.2 million, has attempted to secure federal Choice Neighborhood funding for the redevelopment of the Alazan Courts area—but lost out to other cities both times.

This time around, SAHA has applied for 9 percent low-income housing tax credits—the sale of which is expected to cover most of the lofts' $18 million price tag.

The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA), the state agency that doles out the federal tax credits, will announce on July 25 the winners of the tax credits. Alazan Lofts is competing against other affordable housing projects in the region—only 2-3 projects of eight will be awarded and Alazan Lofts currently ranks in first place.

Arechiga explained to commissioners that the zoning for the project needed to be in place 30 days after the tax credits are awarded—so, late August. He said the partnership would have to forfeit the tax credits if the zoning wasn't in place.

Commissioner John Bustamante (District 5) described the commission's decision as a kind of checkmate situation.

"I certainly never like to make a decision where I feel that (I'm) sort of being forced into it," said Bustamante, who ultimately voted in favor of the zoning change. He said the land is already zoned for multifamily and any developer could come in and start building a denser development should SAHA be forced to sell the land. He was also satisfied with NRP Group's concession to reduce the parking footprint.

Still, those concessions didn't satisfy some of the commissioners.

"I understand the timeline ... I'm a proponent of affordable housing. I would love that in the area," said Commissioner Sarah Olivarez (District 1), who voted against the zoning request. But with so much opposition, "it just doesn't feel right in my stomach," she said.

Lack of public process?

After the meeting, Amelia Valdez, president of the Historic Westside Resident Association, scolded lawyers with Brown & Ortiz for not approaching the group for feedback.* She describes being blindsided by the zoning case suddenly appearing on Tuesday's agenda.

During the meeting, Valdez and others expressed frustration about what they described as a lack of a public process. They took issue with SAHA and NRP Group officials, and Brown & Ortiz lawyers, describing to commissioners that 17 public meetings had been held on the Alazan Lofts project.

By the activists' count, there had been only two meetings—one in January, another in February.

Robles said the two-year effort to revitalize the Alazan Courts area included 17 meetings. But activists chided that assertion, saying that little input was sought for this iteration of the plan.

Some of the commissioners agreed, pointing to the ironing out of issues during Tuesday's meeting, such as the heat island, for example, as evidence.

"It's just so much that was covered today, which seemed like it could have been covered in the two years," said Commission Chairwoman Joy McGhee (District 3), who voted against the rezoning. "We just came to a discussion right now about landscaping and the parking lot and the green area. I think the meetings should have been more comprehensive."

When asked after the meeting why the case was being brought to the Zoning Commission two weeks before the tax credits were to be awarded, Arechiga said the partnership's time was consumed traversing the arduous and highly competitive TDHCA tax credit process. There's no guarantee the project would get the credits, he said. There still isn't, which is why, in January, District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales convinced her other council members to back San Antonio submitting a letter of support to TDHCA for a single project—for Alazan Lofts—which would boost its score and give it an advantage over other projects in this region.

Because SAHA owns the property, the partnership, including NRP Group, will receive a full property tax exemption for as long as SAHA owns the land. Arechiga said NRP Group isn't providing any equity—or, cash—to fund the rest of the project. Robles said she'd get back to the Heron on who the other equity providers were.

When asked what kind of profit NRP Group expects to make from the Alazan Lofts, Arechiga said, "I don't even know right now. That, I'll have to answer later."

The council is expected to vote on the rezoning Aug. 8.

* Setting It Straight: This article previously stated that Amelia Valdez, president of the Historic Westside Resident Association, had said her group and Brown & Ortiz lawyers had talked previously about Alazan Lofts. They'd talked about other West Side issues, but not about the lofts project.

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

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