Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Some thoughts on San Antonio; The Impact Guild: Co-working in Beacon Hill

This post has been a long time coming. A number of weeks ago we went to visit some friends in San Antonio. Not being a native Texan, I don't have a great deal of familiarity with San Antonio, outside of hearing about it from others. I've visited a few times, but certainly not enough to gather all of what is happening in the city. Certainly Houston takes the cake when it comes to flash, glitz and pace of life, but San Antonio by all impressions seems to be a bit more laid back (I mean, even the Spurs seems laid back compared to other NBA teams). It strikes me as a city of neighborhoods and families.

But, I'll admit, there's something alluring about San Antonio and what is happening in the city right now. We spent some time in the Beacon Hill neighborhood, which is located about 2 to 3 miles to the northwest of Downtown San Antonio. Beacon Hill was one of the many neighborhoods that came about due to the expansion of electric trolley lines, in this case the San Antonio Street Railway Trolley. As one of the first platted subdivisions in San Antonio, Beacon Hill reminds me a great deal of Houston's Houston Heights neighborhood.

Beacon Hill has a great housing stock, as well as an active neighborhood association. (Which, by the way, has an incredibly detailed and informative neighborhood newsletter.) As previously mentioned, the craftsmen-style bungalows that line the streets of Beacon Hill reminded me of the Houston Heights, except that there were no Houston-style townhouses. Of course, the development and continued development, of the Beacon Hill neighborhood is influenced by development codes.

Beacon Hill is equipped with a Neighborhood Conservation District, an historic district-lite type regulation, something with elements of a form-based code. (Here is the Beacon Hill NCD document). The intent of the NCD is listed as saying:

While there are a number historical styles that exist in the neighborhood, the intent of the design standards is not to replicate the styles, but ensure the historically common site/building configurations are perpetuated in the future. Substantial porch areas located in the front of the primary structure, walkways that lead directly to a entry space from the street, garages located to the rear of the primary dwelling structure, regular building setbacks across block faces, and vertically oriented windows are some of the common site and building features that are regulated through the Residential Design Standards.
While this particular property lies just outside the Beacon Hill NCD, it is representative of the housing stock of the area.

As we drove around, it was evident that the NCD has facilitated maintaining some common configurations and design, which I would argue leads to a friendlier environment, with large porches and rear-oriented garages (many homes take garage access from rear alleys, something I wish we encouraged more in Houston). Residential and non-residential buildings have different standards within the NCD. For residential the NCD addresses building height, number of stories for buildings, lot sizes, building lines, building size and massing,  and a number of other design guidelines, but doesn't seem as strict as a typical historic district.

For non-residential uses the NCD addresses lot sizes (no larger than 1 acre in Beacon Hill), building lines (no more than a 25 foot setback in Beacon Hill), as well as building height. Other design guidelines included are related to fencing, parking, signage, tree preservation, building materials, among other things.

What was immediately noticeable was the amount of multi-unit buildings located within the district. They weren't out or place, and were generally identical in style to the other homes in the neighborhood. I don't know whether these buildings were converted into multifamily units (which is likely the case with larger homes), or whether these were added as rezonings as time has gone on. If you look at the zoning for the neighborhood, there is a smattering of multifamily sites, most of which conform with the design guidelines of the NCD. This is a reasonable way to achieve a certain design or character of a neighborhood, while also allowing for a mix of residential intensity, something that is necessary, especially when attempting to redevelop corridors like Fredericksburg Road.

But, along with every changing neighborhood comes the fear of change and encroachment of development. Take this case from Beacon Hill, where the owners of the French & Michigan building had hoped to live on the site, as well as operate an art gallery and coffee shop, likely to be welcomed amenities in many neighborhoods. This article from the Rivard Report does a great job of explaining the tension within Beacon Hill, and the cry against gentrification. I will say, however, that minor traffic jams due to increased activity in a neighborhood shouldn't be enough for us to oppose development. From my experience in the neighborhood, there is still a need for vitality, which will mean adding businesses and residences. Unfortunately, after a number of attempts to sort out the situation, French & Michigan moved to another location in San Antonio.

Finally, Beacon Hill can look forward to The Impact Guild, which will be a coworking community in the neighborhood exploring how they can use their vocations to work together for the good of the community. The Impact Guild is being housed in a former building supply company building, which is coincidentally shaped like a lighthouse, appropriate for any neighborhood with the word "beacon" in its name. The building is currently being remodeled, and you can keep up with its progress on The Impact Guild's Instagram account.

During our time in Beacon Hill we visited Chris Madrid's, and I enjoyed the Tostada Burger, accompanied by all that cheese. As we drove around the neighborhood on our final afternoon, we noticed a home being built around a tree. This caught my attention, and the owner happened to see us gawking at his work. He invited us in, and we took at look at his construction. (He assured us he had all the correct permits and inspections. I was a bit unsure.) However, it was an ambitious-looking project, one that can be applauded for his desire to preserve such a large tree. This was yet again another reminder of the uniqueness of certain neighborhoods, and will serve as a lasting memory of my experience in Beacon Hill.