San Antonio Development: Density, Intensity and Affordability.

December 15, 2018 Blog, Chicago Buildings, Economics, Historic Districts Comments (0) 293

Minneapolis just eliminated single-family zoning, and Oregon is considering the same for its cities.  The goal is to increase affordable housing and redress a century of racial bias undergirded by said zoning.  Planners are excited by this trend and see more of it on the horizon.

Buurma section of River Forest, Illinois

San Antonio just reformed its zoning code to include R-1 and R-2 zones, because our old zoning allowed high density pretty much everywhere.    The new R-1 and R-2 zoning will help low-density core neighborhoods and historic districts by encouraging appropriate infill.  So, with all of the current City Hall concern with affordable housing, why are we doing the opposite of what Minneapolis did?

Four houses sidewise on one lot, Grove near Roosevelt.

The contrast with Minneapolis is actually not as dramatic as it seems.  Not only is San Antonio more affordable in general, it is not landlocked like Minneapolis.  Plus the zoning in Minneapolis was actually, really “single family.”  In contrast, even our new R-1 and R-2 districts could see 2-3 units on a lot.  King William, the oldest historic district in Texas, is full of accessory units and always has been. In fact, one of our highest priced houses was once seven apartments:

Yup.

At the San Antonio Conservation Society we meet regularly with neighborhood representatives, and in a recent meeting we learned the difference between density and intensity.  We tend to think only of the former, but look at the little two-story apartment building below.  It has been in the heart of the King William district for decades and is incredibly dense – something like 126 units per acre.  But it is not intense.  It fits in.

In the heart of the district.

Now look at the development below, which is less dense, but more intense.

Also ugly.

After the meeting, I shared a project from Oak Park, Illinois about a dozen years ago.  Two historic houses built in 1875 and 1908, the latter actually a two-flat.  The owners proposed ten units over parking massed up front toward the sidewalk.  Super intense.

This is what they were inspired by, to replace the two houses below.

Since it was in a historic district, the demolition was not allowed, and today the two houses look the same as they did before.  Better, actually.

So did preservation mean gentrification?  Nope.  Turns out you are looking at seven units.  You just can’t see them unless you get right up to the buildings and look into the back.  What preservation meant was that density was increased without increasing intensity.

In fact, Oak Park’s Long Range Historic Preservation plan way back in 1994 encouraged accessory units and coach houses as a way to maintain the historic character of the area.  Preservation is about improving development, not opposing it.

18th Street, Pilsen, Chicago

There was some more interesting news out of Chicago this week when the city landmarked the Mexican-American neighborhood of Pilsen, with the specific intent of preserving its vernacular architecture and its culture.  They are crafting a historic district with the specific goal of preventing gentrification. 

Got it? Yes, you heard that right.

This mural was painted over last year, an outrage that certainly propelled the landmark designation.

Chicago combined landmark designation with a five-year Affordable Requirement Ordinance (ARO) and an arrangement with Chicago Community Land Trust to reduce property taxes. Crucially, the effort is focused not just on architecture but also the distinctive culture of Pilsen.

A Pilsen tour led by local activists in 2009.

This is something we have been working on in San Antonio for a few years , notably with the City’s Living Heritage Symposia that the Conservation Society has supported.  Cultural heritage conservation is the leading edge of our field, and it is exciting to see how various communities are developing new tools to achieve it.

West Guadalupe, San Antonio

It is also nice to see an end to the 35-year old myth (shibboleth, perhaps) about preservation and gentrification.  I was asked the question by news reporters when I came to San Antonio in 2016 and I said what I always have said – gentrification and its definable cohort – displacement – is a much bigger phenomenon than historic districts. 

Let me be clear – when preservation emerged as a form of zoning in the 1920s, it was used to exclude minorities and preserve wealth, just like single-family zoning. 

Ansonborough, Charleston.  It happened here.

But that was no longer true by the 1980s, when preservation had been inflected by the 1960s community planning movement, permanently altering its character.  Someone wrote a dissertation about this 🙂

Yes, there were historic districts that gentrified.  There were also historic districts like Wicker Park in Chicago that slowed gentrification while nearby unregulated areas saw values double or triple in a year’s time.

Wicker Park

This week San Antonio extended its housing incentive program, to the cheers of some and jeers of others.  There are different opinions about whether the tools work or not.  San Antonio is shrinking the target area and adding an affordable housing fund following concerns that the incentives were being used for more upscale projects.  

Neighborhood workshop at San Antonio Conservation Society

As someone has commented regarding the Pilsen plan, there are always unintended consequences of incentive programs, whether financial or regulatory.  IDZ zoning was intended to provide affordable housing in inner-city areas and after a decade became a default for developers trying to avoid various regulatory requirements.

And maybe squeeze in a few more square feet.

Real estate development always follows public subsidy – from roads and sewers and trails to zoning and funding incentives.  The Pilsen experiment includes industrial job goals. It also includes a recreational trail and policies designed to allow the trail to improve the community without increasing values too much.  The obvious parallel here in San Antonio is the RiverWalk, especially the Museum Reach, which together with the Pearl has spurred a flurry of development.

The Mission Reach has potential for the South Side, and another piece of that puzzle was added this week with the Mission Historic District Design Guidelines.  Like the Pilsen landmarking, these will help conserve an architectural vernacular particular to a place and a people.

We have seen an increase in the number of Great Blue residents.

These various efforts demonstrative how much the preservation/heritage conservation field has evolved a lot in the last 35 years.  Zoning has certainly changed significantly in the last century.  Most importantly, the goals have shifted in the wake of urban revitalization.  Time will tell whether these various programs work toward the new goals of affordability and amenity or have unintended consequences.  

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