YWCA Wins Rezoning Case for West Side ‘Living and Learning Center’

The Zoning Commission on Tuesday approved a rezoning application from YWCA San Antonio that paves the way for the nonprofit to open a residential learning center for poor women.

The project proposed by the group was at the center of a months-long debate between some residents of neighboring Westside neighborhoods and the Y womenwho bought the property at 2318 Castroville Rd. on the site of the former St. Andrew’s Convent last year.

Following the decision of the commission, which voted 7-2 to support the rezoning, the matter will go to City Council to rezone the 9-acre property from multi-family to commercial with conditional use for a social services campus. The campus will serve women ages 17 to 25 who are considered “disconnected youth” or who are aging out of foster care, according to the YWCA.

The YWCA first submitted its rezoning application in December, as part of a plan to turn the former convent into a “living and learning center” for poor young women.

Upon review, City of San Antonio staff recommended denying the request due to its proximity to residential areas. Meetings with area residents to review the YWCA plans failed, and neighborhood associations filed their opposition to the rezoning with the city. A zoning hearing originally scheduled for Feb. 1 was postponed at the request of YWCA officials.

Since then, the YWCA has mobilized to garner community support – walking the streets, hosting an open house at the property, and giving a presentation at a local church.

Blanche Ovalle listens as Dora Gomez details the Women’s Y’s plan to support needy women by housing them in a nearby lot. Credit: Nick Wagner/San Antonio Report

Those efforts gave the organization’s officials confidence that they had enough support to move the request forward at Tuesday’s committee meeting.

During the hearing, several YWCA staff spoke about the program and its location, as did advocates for economic development on the West Side.

“Unlike other housing projects that invite long-term poverty, this proposed project will open pathways to economic sustainability and success for the women who find refuge here,” said Ramiro Gonzalez, CEO of Prosper West.

The former owner, the Catechist Missionaries of Divine Providence, also spoke out in support of the YWCA. “We had other potential buyers, but we discerned and felt that this was the group that fit our mission perfectly,” said Sister Esther Guerrero, a member of the order.

That mission and how the property would be used was discussed at length during the hearing, with opponents questioning whether defining the social services campus would lead to the property becoming a homeless shelter.

Leading the charge against the rezoning application was the president of the Westwood Square Neighborhood Association who, along with the Los Jardines Neighborhood Association, submitted a notice opposing the project and wrote letters to the 11 zoning commissioners.

“It’s not compatible for this area,” said Velma Peña, president of the Westwood neighborhood group, speaking to the commission. “We already have shelter, which is great in terms of … the mission and purpose of Haven For Hope, but we also know what happens next.”

She said residents aren’t against helping women in need, but they want “good things to happen in our neighborhood.” They had lost faith in the YWCA, she said, in meetings where the organization could not answer all of their questions about what would be built on the property.

“There isn’t a neighborhood in this city that would support such a drastic zoning change that requires trust when that trust has been broken,” Peña said.

In a Feb. 14 letter to the Zoning Commission, Peña said members of the Westwood Square Neighborhood Association spoke to residents of an area within 200 feet of YWCA-owned property and determined that most neighbors opposed the rezoning.

She said in the letter that the YWCA was reluctant to meet with Westwood and other neighborhood groups so residents could have a say in the project until the zoning change was requested.

“Western people have endured a history of promises made by those who don’t live in the community and when it doesn’t go well, no one is there to help,” Peña wrote.

She acknowledges that the plans for the YWCA campus have become more detailed with each community meeting she has attended, but there is still much to decide. Peña also insists that neighborhood associations were not invited to an open house held at the property on February 12.

“All we asked for was an inclusive and transparent process,” Pena said in the letter.

Francesca Rattray, CEO of YWCA San Antonio, said the group held several meetings with the neighborhood and the District 5 City Council office about the proposed program. The quarters and the former convent are located in District 5.

The property’s transformation into a residential learning campus will be done in three phases, Rattray said, the first being the acquisition and zoning process and the second to rehabilitate existing structures on the property.

“Phase three is a master plan that we would like to achieve in partnership with the community with representatives from neighborhood associations, elected officials, local business owners, as well as the women who would actually work in our center of life and d learning,” she said.

The community contribution plan will be much like what the YWCA has implemented for its other projects, she said, including its Olga Madrid center at 503 Castroville Rd. “The neighborhood was there too,” said said Rattray. “They participated in this process.”

Zoning with Human Services Campus designation is necessary to achieve the YWCA’s goal of semi-permanently housing women until they can become independent. There are no plans to make it a homeless shelter, said attorney Caroline McDonald, representing the YWCA.

San Antonio’s Unified Development Code allows the owner of a social services campus to provide what many consider an overly broadly defined range of services. It currently includes everything from emergency shelters, animal care, and vocational programs to alcohol and drug addiction services and daycare for children and adults.

“We think the code needs an overhaul — it’s been there for a while and the world has adapted … but that’s what we have right now,” McDonald said.

Documents submitted for the rezoning application included a required site plan which shows two additional structures being constructed on the east side of the property to serve as classrooms or child care facilities and a cluster of smaller buildings on the south side which could provide accommodation. Planning and building standards would limit the ultimate size and location of these structures and setbacks.

But any future changes to the site plan would require a major rezoning of the property, a town planner said.

Zoning Board Chairman John Bustamante said that despite the challenges of defining the code as a human services campus that “has enough room to drive a tractor-trailer,” the center is needed in San Antonio.

Bustamante, who is the District 5 representative on the panel, said he understands neighbors’ concerns about the rezoning as well as why city staff said it should be denied. But he disagreed with this recommendation.

“If we look at the use that’s happening here, I’d say it predominates as a residence,” Bustamante said. “It is, even with its commercial aspects for vocational training, education, child care, less intensive than the [multifamily zoning] which is currently in place.

“That, combined with the restrictions of the site plan, to limit that use, to have those stamps here, leads me to the conclusion that this is a project worth supporting, worth having this request zoning be approved.”

Of the nine commissioners, two voted against the rezoning, Kin Hui of District 6 and Glenda McDaniel, the mayor’s representative.

Bustamante asked neighborhood residents and the YWCA to work together and “find a solution that will benefit the neighborhood, benefit the city, and benefit these young women in need of housing.”

Disclosure: Zoning Commissioner John Bustamante is the husband of San Antonio report editor Tracy Idell Hamilton.

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