San Marcos: City Council Rejects Massive Student Housing Project
Featured Illustration (above): Rendering of the proposed student housing complex in the 100 block of Guadalupe Street just southwest of the courthouse square. Image: Humphreys & Partners.
By Edmond Ortiz
San Marcos (Hays County)–San Marcos City Council voted unanimously Sept. 30 to deny a conditional use permit (CUP) that would have allowed development of a large-scale student housing complex close to the city’s historic downtown square.
Several residents and council members opposed the proposed development for various reasons. Council’s vote came after the Planning & Zoning Commission voted May 28 against changing the current zoning, which supports traditional multifamily uses, in order to permit the student housing.
Read more of VBX’s reporting on this project here.
The proposal has proven challenging to the community and local officials since the Rhode Island-based developer, Gilbane Development Co., began filing paperwork with the city in the spring. The developer had designated the project a shell company, 75 Sylvan Street LLC.
Gilbane envisioned a 171-unit, 545-bedroom, five-story structure on 2.15 acres of a city block in the 100 block of South Guadalupe Street between West San Antonio Street and West Martin Luther King Drive.
The project would have included 409 spaces in a six-level parking garage, limited ground-floor restaurant and retail space, and an amenity area for residents that would have contained bicycle storage and a dog wash.
The project would have necessitated demolition of several existing businesses and other structures, a handful of which city officials had said bore some historical significance.
Many San Marcos officials and residents had been worried by the size of the proposed student housing development in the downtown area. Image: Google Streets
According to concepts for the plan, demolition would not take place on a building housing Brooklyn Pie Co. and the bar Rooftop On the Square, nor a neighboring structure housing an insurance and payday loan venture.
The developer’s representatives previously said the new housing would also be marketed to graduate students and young professionals, especially those working at Texas State University, a few blocks north of the proposed project site.
Gilbane has completed or presently has in development nearly 10,000 beds of student housing nationwide.
The project, located immediately southwest of the Hays County Courthouse square, would have been one of the largest residential developments in the city’s history.
Council held a public hearing on the project in June but postponed action to form a committee this summer in hopes of reaching a compromised solution with Gilbane, but the developer withdrew from those talks and had indicated to city staff it was no longer interested in discussing concessions.
“I was really disappointed. I think that all of us really wanted to try instead of just feeling like we’re being pressured into doing something to sit at the table and say, hey let’s work together to find a product that’s going to work for everyone and the community,” Councilwoman and committee member Melissa Derrick said. The committee met only once.
“We put a lot of things out on the table. We had a lot of thoughtful ideas from the members of the committee and it seems like everything was great. (Committee members) were going to go back and talk to (Gilbane) and then (the developer) never wanted to come back to the table again.”
Months ago, the developer had sent the city letters from several property owners of lots that would have accommodated the new housing complex. Those property owners endorsed Gilbane’s request to proceed with the project.
Elevations of the proposed complex. Courtesy: Humphreys & Partners.
But city Planning and Development Director Shannon Mattingly told council that Gilbane no longer has the property under contract. Regardless, Gilbane asked council to consider its CUP request, she added.
Mattingly also observed that since none of the property owners on the block retracted their authorization for the project, the city could assume they still supported the CUP.
City Attorney Michael Cosentino said the city had not reached out to those property owners to confirm whether they still backed Gilbane’s proposals, despite the developer no longer reserving an active interest in the land, but that none of the owners had withdrawn their authorization.
City staff acknowledged an array of issues, such as potentially historic properties sitting on the edge of the project site to the fire department’s concerns about the size and scale of the proposed structure. The community of San Marcos is still smarting from the 2018 fire at the Iconic Village Apartments that killed five people and injured seven others.
City staff recommended 16 conditions as part of an approved CUP, including ensuring purpose-built student housing does not mean the developer gets to waive development code regulations.
San Marcos Planning and Development Services Director Shannon Mattingly addresses City Council on Sept. 30.
According to city documents, the project met only five of 13 criteria for requesting a conditional use permit. The project appeared “neutral” on six of the criteria.
Gilbane had no representative at the Sept. 30 council session. Derrick said if a representative had been there, she would have asked to see if the company was willing to talk compromise again with the committee or consider changing its project to a more traditional multifamily development.
While new housing for Texas State students has sprung up in recent years, it has been developed within the confines of the main campus.
The city has its share of more traditional multifamily apartment complexes that offer discounts for students.
Several residents raised objections to the project at the meeting and in emails and letters sent to the city over the summer. At the meeting, resident Thea Dake said the student housing proposal was “fraught with problems since the very beginning.”
“If both our citizen boards and elected officials remain concerned about Sylvan’s place in our community, I think we will all live to regret allowing it to move forward as it is,” she added.
Meeting attendee Roland Saucedo was worried about the massive size of the building and its location, surrounded by downtown businesses.
“I remind you all of what happened at Iconic Village,” Saucedo told council. “We can’t allow something like that to happen. That was three floors in a small building. This is one that’s going to take over a whole street.”
Other residents had provided objections when the P&Z Commission took on the issue. Shannon FitzPatrick criticized the business model behind the proposal, saying in a letter that San Marcos is already overbuilt with developments featuring “rent-by-the-bed” student housing.
FitzPatrick said such housing is too expensive for students who likely are already facing debts related to financing their education and rising rents elsewhere around town.
Gilbane Development’s student housing complex would have replaced most existing businesses and structures on this block along Guadalupe Street, between West San Antonio Street and West MLK Drive, save for the insurance/loan/finance building and the Brooklyn Pie Co/Rooftop On the Square building. Image: Google Streets
“These complexes don’t contribute to our parks, our communities and the tax dollars they pay are siphoned off by the increased costs for infrastructure (water, sewer, drainage, traffic, police, fire, etc.). They harm us (and certainly the students) more than help us,” FitzPatrick added.
Kendall Bell-Enders echoed FitzPatrick’s complaint, adding that the city square and downtown should not be “completely overrun with dorms. Allowing another dorm to take up an entire block of our downtown is unacceptable…”
Responding to a question posed by Councilwoman Lisa Prewitt at the Sept. 30 meeting, Cosentino said an approved CUP would apply only to the purpose-built student housing complex as proposed by Gilbane.
A more typical and likely downsized multifamily project could proceed on the same site so long as the developer has the land under contract and property owners sign off on the development.
Prewitt said she felt a tinge of resentment that the developer seemed interested in only getting what they wanted in spite of concerns that residents shared about the project’s use, location, size and potential safety risks.
“I hope we’ve gone back in our land development code and make sure that in the future we’re not put in a position to say if you give me what I want, then I’ll make sure this thing is safe,” Prewitt said. “It should always be safe and we should never be put in a position to vote for something that is not in the best interests of the community.”
According to city regulations, an applicant must wait six months to request another Conditional Use Permit, and one year to request a rezoning.
Edmond Ortiz is a lifelong San Antonian and a 20-plus-year veteran in local journalism, He previously worked full-time at the San Antonio Express-News, and has been freelancing for outlets such as the Rivard Report.