Neighborhood associations can play an important role in protecting and improving a neighborhood. King William has a particularly strong neighborhood association, one with a big budget, a professional staff, a broad agenda, and a powerful voice.
Lavaca’s neighborhood association isn’t at the same level as King William’s — it lacks the budget, the staff, and the visibility — but it has a very important role to play in the neighborhood. That’s particularly true right now, as the city-center develops at an unprecedented rate, and the neighborhood is faced with development projects that will directly and dramatically alter its character over the next few years.
Those character-altering projects range from huge — like the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) project in the northeast corner of Lavaca — to the small-but-impactful — like the once-proposed 7-11 gas station capping Florida and Carolina streets by the highway.
At the nexus of all this, speaking for the neighborhood, is the Lavaca Neighborhood Association (LNA).
But historically, only a minority of neighborhood residents have become involved with the association. That lack of involvement limits the power of the association and limits how well it can represent all the voices in the neighborhood.
Part of the problem is that a large number of neighborhood residents have only fuzzy ideas about the association. They’re not completely clear on what it does, who it represents, how it works, and how they can participate.
WHAT IS THE LAVACA NEIGHBORHOOD ASSOCIATION?
First, let’s talk about what it is not.
Neighborhood associations are often confused with homeowners associations. We’ve got both types of associations in our neighborhood, and both are recognized by the city, but they’re very different.
Homeowner associations are usually mandatory — if you own property within the boundaries of the association, you are a member. Homeowner associations have the legal right to impose regulations and to collect fees for common purposes. Typically, homeowner associations are created by developers for their developments, and your contract to purchase property in the development makes you subject to the association. Members elect officers, define budgets, collect fees, and take responsibility for common needs — like maintaining a swimming pool or, in the case of townhomes, maintaining landscaping, roofs, and building exteriors. Their rules and fees can be legally enforced.
Within the Lavaca neighborhood, the Artisan Park Townhomes are governed by a homeowners association. Homeowners associations are often referred to by the acronym HOA.
Neighborhood associations, on the other hand, are voluntary. If you own property or reside within the boundaries of the association, you have the option of becoming a member, but you’re not obligated to do so. The association has no ability to impose regulations on residents, nor does it have the right to assess any fees (except for voluntary fees, such as membership dues).
ROLE OF THE NEIGHBORHOOD ASSOCIATION
The neighborhood association has several significant functions:
It is a pathway through which the city can deliver information to the neighborhood
It is seen by the city and other entities as the voice of the neighborhood
It can organize the neighborhood for various activities
The City of San Antonio maintains a registry of neighborhood associations and homeowners associations. That registry includes information about each association, including such things as its geographical boundaries, the number of members, the official bylaws of the association, and contact information for the current officers.
Whenever issues arise at the city level that affect a neighborhood — such as a proposed zoning change — city departments can use that registry information to notify the neighborhood of the issue.
When major development projects are proposed for the neighborhood, city officials, including council members, will give weight to views of the neighborhood as expressed through the association. For that reason, developers will usually work with the association to get its endorsement or — at a minimum — reduce its outright opposition to their projects. The neighborhood has no direct vote or legal authority in such cases, but its voice is heard.
It is in the case of major development projects that the neighborhood association plays its most significant role. Two decades ago, the Lavaca Neighborhood Association negotiated with the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) to develop a neighborhood master plan that resulted in the construction of apartment buildings, townhomes, and single-family homes in the area bounded by César Chávez, Labor Street, Leigh Street, and the I-37 highway. (For more information about that, see our interview with Darryl Ohlenbusch).
That master plan has served the neighborhood well for about twenty years. It is now being revisited as SAHA proposes to continue development with construction that wasn’t contemplated in the original plan. Once again, the neighborhood association (along with the Artisan Park HOA and the residents of the new homes on Leigh Street) is playing a key role in shaping that plan.
The neighborhood association is also a structure for organizing neighborhood action. Some of those actions are civic — for example, working to get a reduced speed limit for the neighborhood or hosting candidate forums prior to elections — and others are social, such as the annual National Night Out event in the autumn.
The boundaries of the Lavaca Neighborhood Association run from César Chávez in the north to the railroad tracks in the south and from South St. Mary’s in the west to I-37 in the east (see the map).
The boundaries of the Lavaca Neighborhood Association and LNA President Cherise Rohr-Allegrini.
Carolina and Florida Street residents fought the development, and they brought the neighborhood association into the fight as well.
Based on our latest information, that pressure worked, and the developer has cancelled plans for the store.
Read more about the issue in this article.
Traffic is a perennial issue in Lavaca.
Traffic concerns relate to both volume and speed, and those concerns apply mostly to Labor Street, Carolina Street, and Florida Street, but there’s also some concern about the increase in traffic volume that will result from SAHA’s new construction in Victoria Commons.
The association’s Transportation and Public Safety Committee started a project earlier this year that would aim to get the neighborhood’s speed limit reduced to 25 mph.
“We have no traffic calming, “ Cherise says. “We have a lot of traffic. We have a lot of fast traffic. But there are state guidelines, and we don’t have the level of traffic required to get those calming measures.”
But what we can do, she says, is get the speed limit changed from 35 to 25.
People have pointed out that speed limits don’t work without enforcement, she acknowledges, “but in the real world, people do 35 in a 25 and 45 in a 35, and 35 is better than 45.”
“So the committee would like to get a Lavaca-wide 25 mph speed limit.”
The LNA has served as the voice of Lavaca on a broad range of topics for many years. Although it has no ‘official authority’ in matters concerning development and preservation of our community, its influence has, at times, been both powerful and effective. The extent to which its influence continues into the future will depend heavily on the engagement of Lavaca residents.
The enclosed area is heavily residential, but it also includes the Presa and St. Mary’s commercial districts and the upper end of South Alamo Street.
Restaurants such as Azuca, Battalion, Bliss, Señor Veggie, Taco Haven, Pharm Table, and the future Rosario’s are all part of the neighborhood, as are businesses such as Garcia Art Glass, Pig Liquor, Al Rendon’s photography studio, and the two big restaurant supply stores, Ace and Mission.
Membership in the association is voluntary, and membership is open to anyone — even those from outside the neighborhood — although voting rights are limited to people who reside in Lavaca or own property there, and to businesses located in the neighborhood.
The number of active members, however, doesn’t live up to its potential. Earlier this year, LNA president Cheris Rohr-Allegrini told us “The neighborhood association is not as reflective of the entire community as I’d like it to be, but that’s not because the neighborhood association makes that choice. We have actively tried to recruit from all populations in the neighborhood. but the reality is that it’s hard for a lot of people to engage.”
She acknowledges, however, that recruitment is primarily dependent on specific issues. People tend to become engaged only when they’re directly affected by an issue, like a developer attempting to change the zoning on property next door, she says. She also believes that there’s a perceived socio-economic barrier that keeps some people from joining. They see members and officers as part of a clique to which they don’t belong.
It isn’t expensive to become a member of the association. Membership categories and dues are:
RESIDENT - $15 individual, $25 family: Resident members must live in the neighborhood; they have all privileges of membership, including voting and serving on the board.
NON-RESIDENT - $30: Non-resident members must own property in the neighborhood; they have all privileges of membership except serving on the board.
ASSOCIATE - $30: Associate members are interested in the goals of the LNA but neither live in nor own property in the neighborhood; they cannot vote or serve on board.
BUSINESS, CLUB OR ORGANIZATION - $50: Businesses and other organizations located within the neighborhood may become members and may designate a representative to vote during general membership meetings.
But even those minimal dues should not be a deterrent to membership. The neighborhood association aims to be inclusive and doesn’t want the expense of dues to prevent anyone from participating in the organization. For that reason, the association’s bylaws allow anyone to ask the Board for a waiver of the membership dues.
BOARD AND OFFICERS
The association is governed by a set of bylaws that specify the election of four officers — a president, vice-president, secretary, and treasurer — to serve two-year terms. The president and vice-president then appoint the remaining board members, subject to approval by the outgoing board.
The board consists of about a dozen members, including the President, Vice President, Secretary, Treasurer, a Lavaca Business Owner, Historic Preservation and Zoning Director, Planning Director, Communications Director, Membership Director, Events/Fundraising Director, and Transportation and Safety Director. The board may also include one At-large member, and the immediate past president remains on the board as President Emeritus. Board members must be Lavaca residents and paid-up members of the association.
Current officers and board members are:
Cherise Rohr-Allegrini, President (email@example.com)
Sarah Sorensen, Vice President (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Kat Doucette, Secretary (email@example.com)
Vik Gudi, Treasurer (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Amy Young, Communications Director (email@example.com)
Nick Melde, Planning Director
Douglas Mendizábal, Membership Director (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Jim Johnson, Transportation & Public Safety Director
Darryl Ohlenbusch, Zoning & Historic Preservation Director
Alma Gonzalez, Events & Fundraising Director
Billy Lambert, Southtown Business Owner
Nataly Jennings, Board Member At-large
Officers serve a maximum of two consecutive, two-year terms. Cherise is in her second term, and the association will elect a new president in January.
The association holds meetings for members every other month, beginning in January. Meetings are scheduled for the third Tuesday of January, March, May, July, September, and November. There will not, however, be a November meeting this year.
The next meeting — the association’s annual business meeting — will be in January (most likely in the third week), and will include the election of officers. It will also be a big neighborhood potluck dinner. The association has promised to announce details of that dinner and meeting soon.
Prior to the pandemic, the association had been holding its regular membership meetings at Freetail Brewery on South Presa, just outside the official neighborhood borders. During the pandemic, however, meetings were held online, using Zoom.
Note that you do not have to be a member of the association to attend meetings.
ISSUES FACING THE ASSOCIATION
“Part of our mission is to preserve the historic character of the neighborhood,” Cherise says, “and we interpret that to mean preserving the community that is the neighborhood. So historic preservation is central to what we do and what we can do. And that means generally opposing demolition of houses that add historic value to the community, but it also means — and this is more my interpretation of it — preserving the community that’s there. And that means doing what we can to make it a livable place for people of all backgrounds — from people who have been there forty or fifty years to people who moved in yesterday.”
With that mission in mind, this has been a busy year for the association. Here are some of the issues that have faced the association.
Development in the neighborhood is an ongoing issue, according to Cherise.
There’s no legal obligation for developers to consult with the neighborhood association regarding a development project. However, the city listens to the association’s input when considering such things as zoning changes, and it is, therefore, in the developer’s interest to get the association’s endorsement.
One problem for the association is that the entire neighborhood isn’t registered as historic. Because of that, ‘we’ve had a handful of developers requesting to demolish buildings on those non-historic blocks.’
The Office of Historic Preservation and the association work together to get the affected property defined as historic, and that usually works, she says.
‘That’s something that happens behind the scenes and most people don’t know about it.
SAHA 'Victoria Commons' development
The biggest project in Lavaca — and the one that will have the greatest long-term impact — is the Victoria Commons redevelopment by the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA).
From the 1940s until 2000, the northeastern corner of Lavaca was the site of the Victoria Courts public housing. By the turn of the century, the Courts had become run-down and had a reputation for being dangerous. SAHA demolished the buildings, pledging to replace them with a mix of public housing, affordable or workforce housing, and market-rate residential units.
(For more information about the history of the Victoria Commons project, see our interview with Darryl Ohlenbusch).
Since the teardown, SAHA has been rolling out more and more of its replacement housing, starting with the Refugio Place apartments in 2004, and followed closely by the Artisan Park townhomes, HemisView Village apartments, and the single-family houses along Leigh Street, east of Labor. More apartments are currently under construction at the corner of Labor Street and César Chávez.
Until recently, the replacement housing has been more or less in accordance with the master plan negotiated two decades ago with the neighborhood association. That plan emphasized affordable housing — a mix of market-rate and subsidized housing — and a ‘step-down’ of density and building height from César Chávez (tall buildings with high density) to Leigh Street (single family homes).
SAHA's current plans, which diverge from that master plan, will add two multi-story apartment buildings backing up to I-37, one a four-story building with 100 units and the other a four or five story building with 250 units. The first would be offered exclusively to those earning 60% of our ‘area median income’ ($57,600 for a family of four). The second would offer half its units to people earning 60% to 80% of that median income; the rest would be offered at market rates.
The ground floor of one of those buildings would be reserved for a daycare and community center facility, to compensate for the removal of the YMCA daycare center currently located at Labor and Leigh Streets. The YMCA space would be taken over by single-family homes.
SAHA also owns the now-unused SAHA Administration building at the corner of Labor Street and Refugio, including a portion of Labor Street Park (which is leased to the city). SAHA has not yet decided whether that land will be used for additional residential units, and is working with the LNA and the city to maintain the park for public use.
SAHA has held public meetings on the plans and has met frequently with representatives of the neighborhood association. As a result of those meetings, SAHA has taken steps to cut back on density, increase the proportion of affordable housing, and reconsider building on the site of the old admin building and park grounds.
Some of SAHA’s plan will involve zoning changes, but those changes, Cherise points out, will actually tighten restrictions on what can be developed on the SAHA land. In general, the association supports the current SAHA plan, with some reservations, in particular with regard to traffic.
Cherise points out that there are two other neighborhood groups speaking with SAHA about the Victoria Commons project — the Artisan Park Homeowners Association and the Leigh Street residents. Both of those groups represent neighbors who will be very directly affected by the development.
7-11 Gas station and convenience store at Carolina and Florida
Earlier this year, a developer of fast food restaurants and chain retail operations proposed building a 7-11 gas station and convenience store on an empty lot that abuts residences on Florida and Carolina streets. The 24-hour business would have been adjacent to the I-37 highway and would have attracted traffic from the highway.
Jim Feuerstein is co-editor of LNF Weekly; he also designs and manages the website.