A City Council committee on Tuesday recommended Brooks and the South Texas Medical Center as proving grounds for smart-city technology.

Downtown, one of three areas proposed in February as a so-called innovation district,  was not recommended for the designation.

Brooks, a former U.S. Air Force base with 1,300 acres slated for live-work-play development on the city’s Southeast side, would serve as a “mini city” model in which various initiatives could be tested. Such opportunities include public Wi-Fi, innovative drainage systems, and the transportation of people and goods, according to the City.

The Medical Center, meanwhile, will serve as a laboratory for new transportation projects aimed at combating traffic congestion, parking issues, and pedestrian accidents, among others.

The innovation districts were chosen from the 13 regional centers identified in SA Tomorrow, the City’s comprehensive plan. That list was pared down to three regions – including downtown – in February.

Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8), who chairs the Innovation and Technology Committee, said Brooks and the Medical Center provide unique conditions for piloting new technology.

“Brooks and the Medical Center present advantages that a lot of these other regional centers don’t,” said Pelaez, whose District 8 is home to the Medical Center. “Both of them are like mini-cities unto themselves. They’re self-enclosed. If you take a cross-section of all the problems they experience and all the solutions they need to those problems, they’re pretty representative of the entire city.”

If technology tested in innovation districts, such as smart streetlights, autonomous shuttle vehicles, and community-wide Wi-Fi, is deemed successful it can then be rolled out in other parts of the city or citywide.

Potential innovation zones at Brooks, downtown (Central Business District), and the Medical Center were presented to the Innovation and Technology Committee meeting.
Potential innovation zones at Brooks, downtown (Central Business District), and the Medical Center were presented to the Innovation and Technology Committee meeting in February. Credit: Courtesy / Office of Innovation

City staff has been meeting with stakeholders in each of the three regional centers over  the past two months to discuss ways in which new technology could address issues they grapple with.

Downtown’s exclusion from the committee’s recommendation didn’t sit well with Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), who represents the area. Treviño was the sole committee member to vote against the measure, saying he was “flabbergasted” that the central business district was left off the final list.

“I’m a little shocked, to be honest with you,” Treviño said. “I feel like downtown is really being overlooked here.”

The councilman helped usher in the City’s Downtown Lighting Master Plan, a measure to update 30,000 residential street lights in the urban core.

“I just don’t understand how downtown doesn’t even make the cut. There’s so much in infrastructure investment happening,” he said, noting the large downtown projects that will part of the citywide $850 million bond program voters approved in 2017. “If there’s ever going to be a time to do it, it’s right now.”

Craig Hopkins, the City’s chief information officer, said the Downtown Lighting Master Plan will be implemented at the same time as the innovation district initiatives. He said excluding downtown from the innovation district designation will not halt smart-technology investments in that part of town.

Fiber internet infrastructure was a major criterion for the City as it considered where to set up its first innovation zone.

Having fiber internet readily available allows the City to rapidly test new technologies and improve upon them, said Jose De La Cruz, the City’s chief innovation officer.

Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3), who represents the southwest San Antonio district that includes Brooks, said testing smart-city investment in that area can help bridge the digital divide in a historically underserved part of town.

“There’s innovative ways to start breaking down these strongholds of economic segregation,” Viagran said. “Why not do that when we have all these different elements and opportunities to leverage different partnerships here?”

Leo Gomez, president and CEO of Brooks, said about half of the development’s original 1,300 acres have been developed, and more infrastructure improvements are underway. Gomez said the redevelopment has helped create more than 3,000 jobs on the site, adding that the innovation district designation makes the center more attractive for collaboration with the private sector to do such things as improve internet access.

“It won’t work if we can’t get it to the private sector as well,” Gomez said. “That’s part of why we’re so interested in it. It would be a benefit not only the employers here at Brooks but also to the neighborhoods around Brooks that have historically lacked the quality of internet service that there might be in other parts of town.”

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez was a columnist, former editor and reporter at the San Antonio Report.