With a 8-3 vote, the San Antonio City Council approved a $38 million renovation for City Hall on Thursday after a series of tiffs, stifled laughter, and other atypical behavior on the dais.

After City staff members presented details of the logistics and finances of what they called a “critical” upgrade to the almost 130-year-old facility – which most Council members agreed was needed – each council member, as usual, asked follow-up questions.

It’s not unusual for Council members to address and respond to each other – when it’s their turn to speak. However, as Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) questioned Mike Frisbie, director of the City’s Transportation and Capital Improvements department, about the cost of the new accessibility ramp for the building’s front door, Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) attempted to chime in to provide more context. Treviño led a design competition with the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects last year that produced a ramp and entrance design that was approved Thursday. Frisbie asked him to weigh in because of the Councilman’s experience with that aspect of the project.

As Treviño started and stopped speaking, Viagran repeatedly directed Frisbie to answer her questions instead.

“[Frisbie] can answer the question for me,” she told Treviño firmly.

Meanwhile, Councilmen Clayton Perry (D10) and Greg Brockhouse (D6), who often diverge from the rest of the Council when voting on big-ticket items, told their colleagues that they heard from constituents concerned about the renovation project’s cost. Perry and Brockhouse said they’d rather see the renovation project on the next bond program, which is five years away.

As Mayor Ron Nirenberg re-stated that Perry’s motion was seconded by Brockhouse to delay the vote for five years, he struggled to suppress a laugh.

It is out of character for Nirenberg, or any mayor or Council member, to laugh at a colleague’s motion.

“This, to me, is not a laughing matter,” Perry said later.

Councilman John Courage (D9) voted against delaying the vote and then against the renovation, but did not speak during the meeting. Typically, each Council member weighs in on contested topics such as this, especially if they disagree.

These three out-of-the-ordinary interactions did not go unnoticed by Council staff members on Thursday. Two weeks of tense political conversations surrounding whether San Antonio should submit a bid to host the 2020 Republican National Convention could have contributed to Thursday’s departures from decorum, two different staffers suggested.

Viagran told the Rivard Report after the meeting that she is in no way against equal access to the front doors of City Hall.

“It’s about the design competitions,” she said. “We go through these design competitions, but when people are designing their great designs … there’s not a budget incorporated with that.”

She said that she stopped Treviño because she had the floor at the time and wanted Frisbie, as a City staff member, to respond to her questions.

“I wanted him to give me the answer, not necessarily a male colleague explaining [things] to me,” Viagran said.

Citizens work together to carry a dolly up the steps of City Hall.
Two men carry a dolly up the steps of City Hall, which will undergo a major renovation starting in August 2018. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

While Nirenberg disagrees with Perry’s desire to have the City Hall renovation project delayed, he said after the meeting that he does not find it laughable.

“I agree with Clayton – it is no laughing matter,” Nirenberg told the Rivard Report. “And the momentary levity was not directed at Clayton [Perry] – it was imagining a City Hall that has a preserved, pristine first floor and a crumbling second through fifth floors. And as I was vocalizing the motion to delay the item for five years, levity struck.”

Some have suggested renovating the first floor of the building, turning it into a museum, and moving the more than 150 City employees into the current Frost Bank tower – which the City purchased as part of a land and property swap with Frost and Weston Urban that allowed the new Frost Tower to be built downtown.

“But it is no laughing matter,” Nirenberg continued. “This is the center of the people’s government of San Antonio, which we are celebrating 300 years of, and we have a responsibility to do it in a thoughtful way.”

Talks about City Hall renovations have been in the works for more than two years, and the matter has been discussed at several public council meetings.

Perry, who suggested during a briefing on the project in October 2017 that the building be restored to its original three-story design, questioned the use of certificates of obligation, or non-voter-approved debt, to finance the project.  Voters overwhelmingly approved $850 million in capital projects for the 2017-2022 Municipal Bond, he said, but didn’t have a say in a nearly $40 million project.

“This was part of the debt plan in the adopted budget,” City Manager Sheryl Sculley said, and therefore was part of the public budgeting process.

Other options, such as moving into the current Frost tower or building a new City Hall, would be more expensive than renovation, said Assistant City Manager Lori Houston.

Though he refrained from making public comments during the meeting, Courage explained that he, like Brockhouse and Perry, had concerns about public engagement.

“I just felt for a project of this magnitude we should have done more to educate the public on why there was such a high price tag,” Courage said via text. “Ultimately I didn’t think there was enough public input.”

With Council approval, work can now continue on setting up temporary buildings nearby to house the offices of the city clerk, mayor, city manager, and city attorney, Houston said. Council members and their staff will be moved to the second floor of Plaza de Armas, which is located behind City Hall. Renovations are slated for completion in February 2020.

Thursday’s vote awarded local firm Guido Brothers Construction $30 million to execute interior demolition, replacement of utility infrastructure, and more. Construction will start this summer after building occupants move out in July. Administrative, moving, and inspection costs for the project will be $8 million.

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