The Planning Commission listens to concerns regarding the SA Tomorrow plan. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
The Planning Commission listens to concerns regarding the SA Tomorrow plan. in June 2016. Credit: Iris Dimmick / San Antonio Report

A draft of the SA Tomorrow comprehensive master plan was given the all-clear by the Planning Commission on Wednesday afternoon, but the document differs greatly from the one released two months ago.

Now the Comprehensive, Sustainability, and Multimodal Transportation plans – which total more than 1,000 pages with dozens of corrections, deletions, and clarifications – will go to City Council for review during a briefing and discussion on Wednesday, Aug. 3 at 2 p.m. followed by a public hearing at 6 p.m. SA Tomorrow will be up for final City Council approval the following Thursday, Aug. 11 at 9 a.m. Citizens can also sign up to speak during that meeting. Both are held at the Municipal Plaza Building. For meeting details and agenda, click here.

The coming public meetings will likely host many of the same voices that testified on Wednesday. Several spokespeople from inner city neighborhood associations asked the Commission to delay the vote on the Comprehensive Plan, citing a lack of representation in the process and a concern that the citywide plan will override their own neighborhood plans. Ultimately, a majority of commissioners found that the City’s public engagement method and the Comprehensive plan’s roadmap to incorporate existing neighborhood plans were not cause for alarm.

The draft document released in May has gone through rounds of public feedback and Planning Commission meetings, resulting in several deletions, language changes, and clarifications. Some fear these changes have resulted in a weaker policy-guiding document that favors developers, while others see a more flexible, “nimble” plan that can better adapt to changing political and economic forces.

The long-term plans were initiated by Mayor Ivy Taylor in 2014 to use SA2020 as a foundation to prepare for the estimated 1.1 million increase in San Antonio’s population by 2040. The three-pronged plan covers topics ranging from education, to housing, infrastructure, economic development, public health, development, and more. Public engagement officially launched in April 2015.

Martha Reyes and Jaime Payan provide feedback during the SA Tomorrow kickoff at the Alamo Convocation Center. Photo by Joan Vinson.
Martha Reyes and Jaime Payan provide feedback during the SA Tomorrow kickoff at the Alamo Convocation Center in April 2015. Photo by Joan Vinson.

“Approving this plan will set us out at the 50,000-foot level and then we can begin to drill down into regional centers (and neighborhood plans),” said George Peck, vice chair of the Planning Commission, before casting his vote of approval.

Click here to download the Comprehensive Plan draft revisions.

The Planning Commission removed two policy goals from the Sustainability Plan that called for the City to “evaluate and update” its Dark Skies Ordinance and another that would “develop and implement effective impervious surface standards for new development and redevelopment projects,” expanding those standards outside of the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone.

Click here to download the Sustainability Plan draft revisions.

The only plan that received unanimous approval was the Transportation Plan. The Commission approved the addition of language that incorporates Vision Zero – the goal to achieve zero traffic fatalities and serious injuries on roads – into its goals, but removed items that were considered too far-reaching.

“In Chapter 7 we had a couple of potential funding (mechanisms),” said Terry Bellamy, assistant director for Transportation Planning. “After discussion, we wanted to make sure that we did not put something in that would impact future cost of housing.”

The so-called “sprawl containment fee,” which would impose fees on developers who want to build outside of established activity and transit areas, was removed.

“It’s something that could surface back up,” Bellamy said, “but (not) right now.”

Click here to download the Multimodal Transportation Plan draft revisions.

The Planning Commission, as a recommending body, suggested several changes to the plan that were incorporated last week and more that were recorded on Wednesday. City Council still has the power to change the language of any element of the plan before it is approved.

City: Neighborhood Associations, Plans Will Not be Forgotten, Overridden

More than a dozen residents and neighborhood association representatives from Dignowity Hill, Monticello Park, King William, Beacon HillOlmos Park Terrace, River Road, Alta Vista, and Highland Hills said they felt left out of the SA Tomorrow planning process.

Barbara Witte Howell, who lives in River Road and was a member of the Comprehensive Plan’s Historical Preservation Working Group, said when the draft plan was released to the public in May 2016 she was shocked to find that it suggested smaller neighborhood plans should be “eliminated and replaced,” likely the result of having “not one neighborhood represented on the 211-person team of nine working groups.”

Several neighbors feared that the community and regional center plans that will be formed over the next several years will override long-established or developing neighborhood plans and allow high-density apartment complexes to take over single-family neighborhoods.

A site plan of 112 Lindell Place. Image courtesy of Alamo Architects.
Many neighbors opposed the construction of this multi-family project in River Road that was approved by HDRC. Some fear more dense developments will be encouraged by the SA Tomorrow Comprehensive Master Plan. Image courtesy of Alamo Architects.

The working groups, set up to tackle different elements of the plans, including housing, public facilities, jobs and economic competitiveness, and more, were established by a large stakeholder steering committee.

Howell attributes the lack of neighborhood association participation to the former Planning and Community Development Director John Dugan, who was leading the SA Tomorrow effort until he left San Antonio in April 2016. When Bridgett White then took over as interim director, she firmly denied that there was any oversight on Dugan’s part.

The working groups were composed of technical experts, White said. “Those people still live in the community. They still live in neighborhoods.”

“The response rate could have been better (from neighborhood association leaders). It wasn’t enough,” Planning and Community Development interim Assistant Director Rudy Niño said of the City’s initial attempt to reach neighborhood associations. City staff then encouraged all association members to take part in the Neighborhood Workshops, he said, to some success.

While there were some neighborhood association leaders incidentally included in some working groups, there was no concerted effort to get neighborhoods on board until after the plan was formulated, Howell said.

“(City staff) worked furiously to get neighborhoods’ reactions to the plan draft,” she said, but it was too little, too late.

The same concerns about neighborhood plans emerged during the Planning Commission’s initial review of the draft in May. White said that feedback from commissioners and the public was recorded and is reflected in the draft to clarify, more so than it had before.

(Read More: Revisions Underway on Draft of San Antonio’s Comprehensive Plan)

Pen and paper were still needed to source questions and feedback from citizens at the meeting sites. Photo by Paul DiGiovanni.
Participants were asked to fill out feedback forms during a “digital” SA Tomorrow meeting in November 2015.  Photo by Paul DiGiovanni.

The plan’s introduction states: “While the Comprehensive Plan is an umbrella policy and planning document with citywide implications, it does not alter or negate our existing neighborhood plans, community plans, sector plans or any other land use plans.”

In the revision, lengthy sections have been added to the Building Blocks section of the plan’s framework as well as Implementation to further reinforce the role neighborhood plans will play: “…existing neighborhood plans as defined in the existing (Comprehensive Planning Program) are still applicable until another plan at the Sub-Area Plan level (Level 3) or Specific Plan (Level 4) is completed for that particular geography. Sub-Area plans in particular should utilize existing neighborhood plans as a foundation and provide the platform through a coordinated planning effort for updated neighborhood level visions, values, goals, recommendations, and priorities.”

Click here to download the Comprehensive Plan draft revisions.

In other words, neighborhoods have control over their own plans, White said. Some neighborhood plans need updating, while others don’t even have one, and others have recently completed one.

“When we do the community planning, we’ll be able to identify those areas,” White said, adding that higher level plans will incorporate neighborhood plans.

Still, neighbors on Wednesday left with their concerns unaddressed, said Cosima Colvin, a member of the Beacon Hill Neighborhood Association.

“It’s still more to the City’s advantage than ours that it gets passed in its current condition,” Colvin said. “Although they say that our neighborhood plans will be used as a foundation … when they talk about updating our plans, they’ll have an eye on highly incentivized infill, high-density growth.”

“How much influence are we going to have,” she added. “How much is lip service?”

This is a disconnect that White recognizes and is confident will subside once the implementation process starts.

“The next step in terms of doing the community plans and regional plans and incorporating the neighborhood plans, I think that’s where we’ll be building that trust,” she said.

Niño noted that out of the estimated 300 official neighborhoods in San Antonio, less than a dozen were represented at the meeting.

Neighborhood leaders said the public wasn’t given enough notice about the proposed plan revisions, which were posted on the City’s website only last week.

Some Sustainability Goals ‘Overreach’

Two items in the Sustainability Plan stuck out to most Planning Commissioners on Wednesday: exploring the possible expansion of both the Dark Sky Ordinance, and impervious cover restrictions. Impervious cover is essentially anything (parking lots, buildings, etc.) that prevents water from being absorbed into the ground. Commissioners weren’t necessarily opposed to the idea of researching the two, but most took issue with how they were worded.

The strategy for the Dark Sky Ordinance said “evaluate and update” the ordinance based on research highlighting the energy savings and health benefits associated with having darker nights.

“As a result, the plan was, in my view, recommending a policy change that was beyond the scope of protecting our military,” said Commissioner Brad Carson, a local real estate and business attorney. The ordinance is intended to restrict lights around military bases to allow for optimal training and operation conditions.

“I support the military mission 100%, but anything beyond this requires more study and discussion by the community,” he added, “and I felt the current plan overreached in assuming that the ordinance should be updated.”

Carson, and a majority of the commissioners, had a similar problem with the language of describing how development should be limited in terms of impervious cover. It’s already restricted over the Edwards Aquifer. The plan calls for the City to “evaluate and update, if deemed necessary, impervious surface standards for new development and redevelopment projects outside of the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone.”

Expanding impervious cover restrictions would help protect rivers and other bodies of water, said Douglas Melnick, the City’s chief sustainability officer. The more impervious cover an area has, the farther and faster water travels to get to a stream, river, lake, soil, or aquifer. This increases the risk of flooding and poor water quality.

Chief Sustainability Officer Douglas Melnick briefs the Planning Commission on revisions made to the SA Tomorrow Sustainability Plan.  Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Chief Sustainability Officer Douglas Melnick briefs the Planning Commission on revisions made to the SA Tomorrow Sustainability Plan. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

“I support protecting the recharge zone, after all, I live here to,” Carson stated in an email after the vote. “But the wholesale revision of impervious coverage standards for the rest of the community outside of the recharge zone is, in my opinion, an overreach, especially when the other elements of the Sustainability Plan provide for other, more effective avenues to achieve the same goals, such as incentivizing low impact development (LID) practices.”

Melnick and his staff thought the “if deemed necessary” phrasing covered the concerns brought up by Commissioners last week during their preliminary review of the revisions.

Melnick defended the inclusion of the two items before they were voted out by a 5-4 Commission vote.

It was the public that brought these items into the plan, he said, “(San Antonians deemed them) worthy of evaluating as part of being a sustainable city in the future. That’s why it’s in the plan.”

Meanwhile, the commission and community revisions left several goals and strategies untouched.

“I think it’s important to note that the concerns of the Planning Commission and the community at the meeting focused on a very small percentage of the overall SA Tomorrow Plan,” Carson stated. “Of the 1,000+ pages in the Plan, the community and the Planning Commission … had questions and concerns about a only a handful of pages. All of those questions and concerns are normal, healthy, and, frankly, importantbut I don’t want us to lose site of the fact that an overwhelming percentage of SA Tomorrow has the full support of the community, City staff, and the boards and commissions.”

Nirenberg and the Difference Between ‘Regulate’ and ‘Incentivize’

As one of three chairs of SA Tomorrow, Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) has been closely following changes to the Plans. He expressed concern over changes made to the plan that might weaken its effectiveness.

Words like “regulate,” “require,” and “establish” have been replaced with more flexible terms like “incentivize,” “promote,” and “consider” on more than a dozen strategies and goals throughout the Comprehensive, Sustainability, and Transportation plans. Many are located in the Comprehensive Plan sections that deal with sustainable, targeted development.

Panelist Councilman Ron Nirenberg spoke about the importance of transportation as a means to improve the city of San Antonio. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone
Councilman Ron Nirenberg speaks during a recent panel discussion.  File photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone

“In order for us to have a meaningful blueprint for growth in San Antonio, I think it has to achieve a very delicate balance between incentivizing the better growth in urban form that we want to see and requiring a change in our development code,” he said during an interview with the Rivard Report before the meeting. “If we have a plan that simply suggests thing to consider rather than instruct policy change, have we really moved the needle?”

It’s the age-old balance between the carrot – incentives and fee waivers – and the stick – restrictions and new/increased fees. Developers, naturally, prefer incentives and resist regulation.

“(City Council) should be concerned about a plan that comes forward with just incentives — that’s all public dollars,” Nirenberg said, “and we can’t simply incentivize good behavior. We want predictability and fairness with regulation. Once we have that I think everyone benefits. … So unless the plan prescribes those conversations, they’re not going to happen with any consistency or intent.”

When asked about the possible implications of these term swaps sprinkled throughout the plans, City staff said they don’t necessarily dictate what tool – a carrot or stick – will be used.

“The intent is to be more flexible,” Niño said. “It doesn’t say that we can’t do anything, what it does is it actually provides us the ability to be more flexible and look at our incentive programs (and regulations) in the City.”

The new language broadens the tools available, he said.

“I think a lot of times people assign money (to language),” White said. “Sometimes you have to think outside the box with what you can do to accomplish that long-term goal.”

Changes made to the document were not inspired solely by the development community, Niño said. “We’ve had comments from neighborhood associations, we’ve heard from different community organizations,” and other stakeholders.

Ultimately, SA Tomorrow is supposed to guide the City forward with smart growth policies.

“By its nature, the details of any regulations, incentives, regional plans, and neighborhood plans that might arise out of SA Tomorrow must be left to future efforts by the City Council and the community,” Carson stated. “I think City staff was wise to revise overly restrictive language to give the City Council and the community the flexibility to be nimble in solving our current and future problems, as opposed to being locked into any one policy.”

For Nirenberg, however, the new language is too flexible.

“My hope is that we have guidance as opposed to platitudes,” he said.

Top image: The Planning Commission listens to concerns regarding the SA Tomorrow plan. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

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Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...