On Wednesday, the Planning Commission unanimously denied a request to change the land use of properties on the 2000 block of North Walters Street in Government Hill from "low density residential" to "mixed use." The owner wants to demolish eight homes on two properties and replace them with a commercial tenant. Instead, the commission recommended "low density mixed-use," which allows for smaller retail shops as opposed to larger businesses like a gas station, which nearby residents vehemently oppose.
The decision is the latest in an East Side redevelopment saga involving two landowners: Sara Martinez, who owns the property that was voted on on Wednesday, and the Jackson Cloma Living Trust, a Frost Bank entity that owns abutting property that also faces Interstate 35. Matthew Badders, an attorney for Martinez, is working with the trust to combine the properties and lease them to a retail tenant.
The commission’s recommendation will be passed on to the City Council for consideration on Aug. 20. Last month, the Zoning Commission denied requests by Martinez and the Jackson Cloma Living Trust to rezone the properties from residential to C-2, a commercial designation that would allow for large-scale businesses. They were wary of granting a C-2 designation without a known tenant, which would leave nearby residents without a say in what type of business ultimately goes on the property.
Both District 2 Councilwoman Jada Andrews-Sullivan and the city’s Development Services Department support developing North Walters with commercial businesses, because it abuts I-35 and is a corridor leading to Fort Sam Houston. The city also contends any future business on the properties will act as a buffer between I-35 and the neighborhood.
However, the majority of property owners who live near the sites oppose heavy commercial use at the corner. Some are fine with smaller-scale retail, others are opposed to any form of commercial and want Martinez to sell the derelict homes to someone who can restore and lease them.
Overall, there’s a fear in this corner of Government Hill of commercial encroachment into the neighborhood.
In a previous meeting, the Planning Commission approved changing the trust property’s land use to mixed-use commercial. Commissioner Julia Carrillo said she believed the tract that faces I-35 is better suited for commercial use. She could not say the same for Martinez’s property. At the meeting on Wednesday, Carrillo cast doubt that the plan had the proper neighborhood input, despite Badders saying otherwise.
“Although there was discussion, it may have been one sided in that the neighborhood and stakeholders felt they were making headway but perhaps they were not,” Carrillo said. “I want this to move forward with support from the neighborhood. I don’t want them to be misled.”
Badders responded, “Who is the neighborhood? I have the support of the neighborhood association. I’m also in direct conversations with people within 200 feet (of the properties).”
However, of the nearly 20 residents who spoke via phone or email during the meeting, all but one—Government Hill Alliance president Rose Hill—opposed the C-2 designation. It's worth noting many of those who chimed in live in the neighborhood, but not all. The city sent notices to homeowners within 200 feet of the site, and received 22 responses—18 opposed, 14 in favor.
Hill, who represents one of three Government Hill neighborhood groups, but the only one recognized by the city, said the association backs Martinez’s request.
“If the person who is going to purchase the property is requesting C-2 commercial, and we have the opportunity to get a Starbucks in there, then the neighborhood association is going to support that,” she said.
At the last Zoning Commission meeting, Badders told commissioners he was negotiating to get a Starbucks onto the property. However, a Starbucks official told nearby residents recently the company had no plans to build a store in Government Hill.
Commissioner Connie Gonzalez asked Badders if he would consider a low density mixed-use designation in his plan.
“We spent a lot of time considering the proposal from staff as it is and this is streamed by what has been put in already by staff’s recommendation,” Badders said.
Lorenzo Ortiz, whose home faces I-35 and also abuts the area’s only neighborhood commercial business, said he's open to lighter commercial on the properties.
Marlene Hawkins, founder of the Government Hill Community Association, wrote a letter to commissioners detailing her frustration over the potential demolition of affordable housing. “The property owner wants to tear down eight livable houses that tenants were told to move out of or pay double the rent,” wrote Hawkins, who has been the residents' biggest advocate. “I hope Sara will agree to sell these houses instead of demolishing them.”
Currently, the homes are vacant. According to some residents interviewed by the Heron, residents were given until June 28 to move out or their rent would skyrocket.
Magda Barba, 61, who rented a house from Martinez for 14 years, said Martinez displaced her and her husband. She and her 66-year-old husband, Ismael, begged Martinez for another month, and also offered to buy the house from her.
In previous interviews, Badders has refuted claims that Martinez had displaced her tenants, saying that the leases simply weren’t renewed. He says Martinez is an older woman who doesn't want to be a residential landlord anymore, and instead wants to lease the properties for business use.
On Aug. 2, the Barbas turned in their keys and moved in with their 35-year-old son, Julio. The event was so traumatizing, Barba said, she and her husband are considering moving back to their hometown of Guanajuato, Mexico.
“We never thought we’d be in this situation,” she said, speaking through tears.
Martinez has not responded to multiple interview requests.
Setting It Straight: This article originally misstated the day the Planning Commission took place, which was Wednesday. It also misreported the consensus among citizens who spoke or wrote in during the meeting; they vehemently oppose C-2.
Editor's note: Marlene Hawkins is a monthly supporter of the Heron. Click here to view a list of our donors.
Michelle Del Rey is a freelance journalist in San Antonio, and Heron contributor. She graduated from the University of Westminster in London, England, with a bachelor of arts degree in journalism. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @meeshdelrey on Twitter.