A proposed rule would require developers to pay into a sidewalk or bike facility mitigation fund when they are unable to build them – such as in this situation at Oak Valley Apartments.
A proposed rule would require developers to pay into a sidewalk or bike facility mitigation fund when they are unable to build them – such as in this situation at Oak Valley Apartments on Judson Road. Credit: Courtesy / City of San Antonio

City Council’s Transportation Committee on Tuesday considered new rules that would require, or in some cases allow, developers to put money into a fund when they are unable to construct sidewalks or bike lanes alongside their projects. The City estimates its streets lack almost 2,000 miles of sidewalks, a billion-dollar gap that is a common complaint among San Antonio residents.

The Council members that make up the five-member committee were cautious about moving forward with the idea of a mitigation fund because of concerns about over-burdening developers with another expense – especially developers building low-income or infill housing – and about how the money in the fund will be redistributed.

Art Reinhardt, assistant director of the City’s Transportation and Capital Improvements department, explained that the proposed rules came out of a discussion the previous city council had after the Oak Valley apartment complex on Judson Road in District 10 was built without sidewalks because of street and drainage issues. There are several exemptions in the City code for building sidewalks, but no mechanism to capture costs associated with infrastructure shortfalls.

Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) said he was uncomfortable with any new rule or fee that might “impede the development of good housing” and told City staff to get input from the Mayor’s Housing Policy Task Force or Housing Commission before coming back to the Transportation Committee.

Affordable housing developers are already working with thin profit margins, Pelaez said.

Reinhardt said the development community was engaged in the process of formulating these rules and brought up similar concerns. But the conclusion was that people who live in affordable housing often rely on such modes of transportation as walking, riding buses, or biking.

“There’s really no reason to sacrifice the infrastructure,” he said.

Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4), who chairs the committee, said developers will likely have to start considering installing sidewalks and bike lanes simply as a cost of doing business – as essential as a “roof on the house.”

Still, he agreed that the rules needed more vetting before being considered by the full council.

Councilwomen Ana Sandoval (D7) and Shirley Gonzales (D5) said sidewalks and bike facilities should be part of low-income developments, but not if it becomes an obstacle to getting such developments built.

Just as some development requires parking facilities, Sandoval said, lower-income residents who don’t have cars would benefit more from sidewalks. She encouraged City staff to keep looking into ways to close the sidewalk gap. “If there are other options, we want to hear them.”

Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) took issue with the proposal to redistribute funds citywide. He said he’s “really weary” of even considering a bike facilities fund and would be more amenable to rules that kept sidewalk dollars in the same district or near the developer’s project.

“To ask [developers] to pay a fee that has absolutely no benefit to their investment … is wrong,” he said, adding that it’s not the developer’s responsibility to make up for past inequity across the city.

Austin has a program for sidewalks, but not for bike facilities, Reinhardt said, which keeps fund distribution in the general area of where it is collected.

One issue that could arise with restricting funds to such boundaries may be that there aren’t enough funds in each district to take on meaningful projects, he said. That’s a “smaller pool of money that could be leveraged,” he explained.

If the mitigation funds had been in place when the Oak Valley Apartments were constructed, Reinhardt said, the developer would have had to pay $50,000 into the sidewalk fund. That money could have been used for other improvements in the area, future improvements on Judson Road, or another area in the city in need of sidewalks under the proposed policy.

The City is paying more than $1 million to narrow the lanes and install a sidewalk, Reinhardt said, and could have used those funds to assist that project.

“It’s not millions and millions of dollars, but certainly enough to do another project or two per year,” Reinhardt said of the mitigation funds.

Alternatively, instead of making developers build sidewalks or bike lanes where there isn’t a need, they could put money into the fund for the City to use when it is needed.

“If you’re out in the middle of nowhere, connecting to no bike facilities, why build it? Currently it’s required, but we would like to provide an opportunity for them to instead of building it, put that money in the bank that we can use for a larger project,” he said.

Such contributions would essentially be cost neutral for developers and perhaps even cheaper. The City uses a rough proportionality and a general figure of $29 per foot of sidewalk to estimate costs.

“There are some scenarios now where an applicant can go through the process, get an exemption, and then do nothing. In those scenarios we’re saying … pay into the fund for that cost,” Reinhardt said.

The rules are not designed to impact small developers, said Christina De La Cruz, TCI programs manager. “The people that really are going to be impacted are all the commercial properties” and large multi-family residential developers.

There are no current exemptions for bike facilities. They are required on all streets that have been identified as collector, arterial, or as otherwise essential to the City’s Bicycle Master Plan. Developers would pay into either the sidewalk or bike fund, not both.

“We’re trying to build the network out and do it in a way that we think makes sense,” Reinhardt said.

The Planning Commission’s Technical Advisory Committee has reviewed the proposal and made small changes for clarification. The rules will be shared and discussed with the housing task force or commission, City staff confirmed, before the matter goes back to the Transportation Committee.

Click here to download Reinhardt’s Tuesday presentation to the committee.

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org