A 33-acre vacant property on the Northwest Side, sneered at by neighbors as a haven for vagrants and illegal trash dumping, has become the latest battleground in a struggle between property rights advocates and residents who want limits on San Antonioâs surging development.
District 8 City Councilman Ron Nirenberg is leading a campaign to âdownzoneâ the property, near the intersection of Prue and Babcock roads, to prevent the construction of high-density apartments that would put more strain on nearby roads already in a traffic crisis. The new zoning would allow for 11 housing units per acre, down from 33, making the property more suitable for single-family homes or duplexes.
Nirenbergâs proposal is running into vigorous opposition from local business and real estate leaders â including those of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, the Greater San Antonio Builders Association and the Real Estate Council of San Antonio â who say the downzoning would violate property rights and hurt the cityâs reputation as being friendly to development.
âIt really sets a bad precedent,â said Richard Perez, CEO and president of the chamber. âWeâre in the race for development âŠ Someone could say, âIâm going to go to Houston. Theyâre easier, theyâre nicer, theyâre more understanding.ââ
The propertyâs owner, California investment group Babcock Riverwalk LLC, doesnât have any immediate plans to develop the property, said Ken Brown, an attorney at Brown & Ortiz who is representing the group.
Nirenberg submitted his proposal to rezone the property in January, before Babcock Riverwalk purchased it.
The proposal is likely to have a tough time making it through the Zoning Commission and, eventually, the City Council. The Planning Commission gave it a thumbs down in early March, and members of the Zoning Commission raised doubts when they discussed it at a meeting later that month. The Zoning Commission is voting on the proposal again on Tuesday.
âThe only reason there is an objection being raised is we are interfering with the profit-making of a speculator,â Nirenberg said. âFrankly, I pay much more attention to the lives and the voices of the people who have to live with the consequences of development decisions.â
Francine Romero, who represents District 8 on the Zoning Commission, said in an interview that she has concerns about the proposal, although Nirenberg made it for âthe right reasons."
âWhat concerns me here is whether weâve established the real need to (downzone) in this case when you balance it with the property rights issue,â she said.
The debate is similar to another that embroiled the city in 2012, when Walmart announced controversial plans to build a supercenter next to Phil Hardberger Park. Then-Councilwoman Elisa Chan proposed to downzone the property so that a store couldnât be built there. In the end, city officials reached a deal with Walmart, and the store was built.
Also in 2012, then-Councilwoman Leticia Ozuna submitted plans to rezone the Pecan Valley Golf Club on the Southeast Side to prevent its redevelopment as housing for disabled military veterans. City Council eventually approved a rezoning plan that preserved 101 acres of the golf course and allowed development on the other 82 acres.
The Babcock Road property has a dramatic history that belies its unassuming setting between a church and three neighborhoods of single-family homes. Babcock Riverwalk, a group of investors based in Beverly Hills, bought it in March from the federal government, which confiscated it last year from Mauricio SĂĄnchez Garza, an alleged financier for the Sinaloa drug cartel who fled San Antonio because he was wanted for money laundering and extortion charges. Garza was later arrested in Mexico.
The current owner paid $2.25 million for the property, according to deed records. Opponents of Nirenbergâs proposal say the owner wouldnât have paid that much if the property had the lower-density zoning thatâs being sought. The difference in value is âa little over a million dollars,â Brown said.
Before Garza, the property was owned by a venture that included local developer Mickey Starnes. In 2008, Starnes negotiated the propertyâs current zoning with the nearby Jade Oaks Homeowners Association. They also agreed to a site plan allowing for 23 multistory apartment buildings and an area of one-story row houses, as well as fences and landscape buffers.
The site plan remains in effect for the property. If the downzoning is approved, building on the property would be difficult because developers wouldnât be allowed to build at the density required under the site plan, Brown said.
Thomas Moore, who has lived in Jade Oaks since 2002 and is a member of the neighborhood association, said the associationâs goal all along was to limit density on the site. The neighborhood is just trying to get a better deal this time than it did in 2008, he said.
âAny downzoning to reduce density in the area, weâre happy to go along with,â he said.
Nirenberg said his constituents have been complaining for years that the property was a hotspot for vagrants, target shooting and trash dumping. The strain on infrastructure in the area â including roads, sidewalks and schools â has also been a persistent problem, he said. When the federal government confiscated the property, he saw the public ownership as an opportunity to ease overcrowding in the area, he said.
âIt is a loud lobby on this case, but the fact of the matter is those folks in those neighborhoods put me into office to make sure weâre working in the best interests of them and their neighbors,â Nirenberg said.
Thank you for this great article entitled "Downsizing Proposal In District 8 Sparks Debate - Plan Fuels Debate On Development" by Richard Webner