Plans to demolish Government Hill homes for Starbucks denied

by Michelle Del ReyJuly 22, 2020
This protest sign faces Edgar Avenue in Government Hill. Photo taken July 21, 2020.
This protest sign faces Edgar Avenue in Government Hill. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

Two proposals to rezone clusters of residential property in Government Hill into commercial were rejected by the Zoning Commission on Tuesday during a video conference meeting that included a last-second twist.

The owners of the properties—one resident with strong ties to the neighborhood, the other an investment trust managed by Frost Bank—are in negotiations to lease the nearly-two acres of land for a Starbucks, a lawyer for one of the property owners told commissioners. The commission voted 7-3 in both cases to keep the properties, a combination of derelict homes and vacant lots overgrown with brush, residential.

The cases on Tuesday reignited a debate in this East Side community over the rights of property owners versus a neighborhood's right to have a say in how their community is shaped. Government Hill is also one of the fastest changing East Side residential areas.

The properties in question include eight homes clustered together on the northwest corner of North Walters Street and Interstate 35, on the far east side of Government Hill, many blocks away from Broadway and the Pearl. It's unclear whether some of the residents still live in the homes, or if they've moved because of the impending lease. In this pocket of Government Hill, there are signs on fences throughout, some that read "Don't Kill Gov't Hill" and "Keep Our Neighbors."

Matthew Badders, an attorney for Sara Martinez, who owns more than half the property in question, said his client will advance the case to City Council on Aug. 20 for a vote despite the Zoning Commission denial.

The vote Tuesday was the latest in a long and complicated saga involving this corner of Government Hill. Many of the property owners, but not all, who live near the site fear replacing homes with commercial development will eat away at their neighborhood. They said as much during a small protest at the Frost Tower on Saturday, which drew roughly a dozen critics of the rezoning.

Supporters of the rezoning, such as Government Hill Alliance president Rose Hill, say commercial is exactly the type of use that previous neighborhood work sessions recommended on Walters Street, one of the corridors leading into Fort Sam Houston. They also say Martinez should have the right to get maximum dollar for her properties.

Map shows residential properties on the northwest corner of Walters Street and Interstate 35 that are being considered for commercial use.
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The first case

In January, the Zoning Commission heard a similar proposal to convert the properties from residential, R-6, to commercial, C-2, which allows for a broader range of commercial uses. At the time, QuikTrip was looking to build a gas station and convenience store on the two-acre property. Then, the commission denied the request by an 8-1 majority with commissioners citing the proximity the gas station would have to residential properties.

D’Ette Cole, whose house on Reno Street abuts the properties to the north, was one of several nearby residents who opposed the development calling it a "pedestrian safety nightmare" that would endanger children cutting through the site from the other side of Walters toward nearby Pershing Elementary during peak traffic hours. The residents also lamented the possibility of the eight affordable homes being demolished.

Several times during Tuesday's meeting, supporters of the rezoning referenced new residential development planned for empty lots east of Walters Street. One of those supporters is Hill of Government Hill Alliance, one of three neighborhood groups in Government Hill. "We cannot continue to say 'no' to development," she told commissioners.

At the start of the meeting, the arguments were hypothetical because Badders and Robert Wynn, who represents Frost Bank entity and property owner Jackson Cloma Living Trust, made the rezoning requests without indicating a tenant or buyer. Some of the opponents presumed QuikTrip or a something similar was being planned once again for the properties.

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Wynn told commissioners that changing the zoning from residential to commercial would help the trust better market the property.

Some residents who opposed the proposition feared a zoning change to C-2 would give Martinez and the trust carte blanche to sign any tenant or sell to any buyer without neighborhood input.

Most of the commissioners agreed.

"If we approve this as a speculative project, it completely takes out the neighborhood from what goes in there," District 8 Zoning Commissioner Francine Romero said.

The commissioners shot down the Jackson Cloma Living Trust proposal 7-3.

Then Badders, Martinez's pro bono attorney, addressed the commission and revealed that he was in negotiations to lease the property for a Starbucks, which caught everyone by surprise. Badders said Starbucks and a company called Vaquero Ventures agreed to a lease from a Martinez-Frost Bank partnership for 30 years, but only if it was rezoned C-2.

Commissioners were not aware of Starbucks’ plans to lease the property before the meeting. Badders said he was not given permission from Vaquero Ventures or Starbucks to discuss the proposal until later in the afternoon, after the meeting had started.

Badders, who describes Martinez as a woman in her 70s with underlying health conditions, said she is incapable of maintaining the properties herself, and despite the committee's decision, the houses on those properties will be razed one way or another.

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Why the rush?

Caleb James, a resident of Government Hill since 2019, leads a protest in front of the Frost Tower on Saturday, July 18, 2020.
Caleb James, a resident of Government Hill since 2019, leads a protest in front of the Frost Tower on Saturday, July 18, 2020. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

During the meeting, Zoning Commission Chairwoman Joy McGhee asked Badders why or his client, Martinez, couldn't hold a public meeting with the neighbors now that Starbucks was revealed as the potential tenant.

"I certainly hope there would be some reach out to the community," McGhee said. "This is an earnest plea as a neighborhood person. I think it's just so vital to have that neighborhood buy-in."

Badders responded by saying, "Mrs. Martinez is not 17 years old anymore."

Badders said the homes will be leveled with or without a rezoning designation. He also said, despite the Zoning Commission's denial, Martinez wants to push the proposal to the City Council, which has ultimate say on the matter, at its Aug. 20 meeting. During the meeting, District 2 Commissioner Lillian Jones said District 2 Councilwoman Jada Andrews-Sullivan supports the zoning change. "I’m not sure how a gas station, or a restaurant, or a shopping mall destroys a neighborhood," Jones said.

District 9 Commissioner Patricia Gibbons was one of three commissioners who agreed with the zoning change. "I think we demonize C-2. This is actually the correct land use for a corner lot that faces a very robust and very large interstate highway." Gibbons at one point asked Cole if residents were willing to accept a lesser commercial designation—which, they had said earlier in the meeting that they would—before interrupting Cole several times when she tried to respond. That's when McGhee asked Gibbons to watch her tone toward residents who signed up to speak.

District 1 Commissioner Summer Greathouse wondered how a Starbucks was going on a two-acre piece of land, a space large enough to be considered for a QuikTrip has station previously. Greathouse's comments were made rhetorically. Badders, when it was his next time to speak, didn't address them.

This property is up for sale and is being eyed for commercial use. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

Michelle Del Rey is a freelance journalist in San Antonio. She graduated from the University of Westminster in London, England, with a bachelor of arts degree in journalism. She can be reached at chelledelrey@gmail.com, @chelledelrey on Twitter.

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