Leave it to former Mayor Phil Hardberger to summon a passage from the Book of Proverbs in support of the $850 million 2017 Municipal Bond and, in particular, the $13 million in public funding for the proposed $23 million Hardberger Land Bridge.

“Without vision, the people perish,” Hardberger said, defending his legacy project against critics who do not support it.

“Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he,” is the actual passage in the King James Bible translation of Proverbs 28:18.

Put another way, what was good for the people and community thousands of years ago is good for the people today.

We will see if voters agree when they go to the polls on May 6 this year to elect a mayor and city council members, and to vote on six different bond initiatives that together represent an unprecedented public investment in San Antonio. By comparison, the 2012 Bond was $596 million, 43% less than is now on the table. The 2007 Bond, the first in what is now a historic level of infrastructure and major capital project investment in the city, was $550 million.

Former San Antonio Mayor, Phil Hardberger observes the meeting from the front row of the City Council Chambers.
Former San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger observes the meeting from the front row of the City Council Chambers.

All three, five-year bond cycles have come on the watch of City Manager Sheryl Sculley, who was hired during Hardberger’s first mayoral administration in 2005. Prior to her arrival, bond projects were unambitious in scope, divided equally among the 10 council districts as a political accommodation, and did not include citywide transformative projects. Genuine public input was minimal.

The 2017 bond propositions include Streets, Bridges and Sidewalks ($445 million), Drainage and Flood Control ($139 million), Parks and Recreation ($121 million), Facilities ($125 million), and, if approved next month, Neighborhood Improvements ($20 million). On the ballot, Facilities will be divided into two parts: Public Safety Buildings and Library, Museums, and Cultural Arts.

The 2017 bond process also has been unprecedented in terms of public engagement. There has been a more transparency, more citizen participation, and less closed-door action than ever before, in my opinion. We at the Rivard Report, in concert with various partners ranging from Overland Partners to the Pearl to Centro San Antonio have tried to play our part by staging events such as Build Your Own BroadwayBuild Your Own Bond, and other public gatherings that allowed civically active citizens to network, share ideas, meet with public officials, and have a say.

That’s one reason I believe voters will show strong support for the bond. One measure of a well-designed bond is that it leaves everyone a bit unhappy with the outcome. No one gets everything they want.

The historic underinvestment in downtown and the urban core is being addressed more slowly than I might like, personally, but it is being addressed, with 20% of the bond, or $169 million, dedicated to center city improvements that will have a citywide impact. That leaves most of the money, $691 million, for district projects, and little room for serious complaints.

Councilmen Joe Krier (D9) and Mike Gallagher (D10) grumbled mildly over some of the downtown spending, but when 80% of the bond is being spent everywhere but downtown, it’s hard to protest too loudly.

Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) moved unsuccessfully at Thursday’s meeting to isolate the Hardberger Land Bridge as its own ballot item, but that failed. She will see an historic level of investment in the Mission district, particularly in street improvements and wayfinding signage. Investment on such a scale would not have happened without the UNESCO World Heritage listing of the Alamo and the four Spanish-colonial Missions. It’s a good time to be representing District 3, where development tensions are far outweighed by the coming public sector investment.

“These investments are necessary today because past investments in these areas were smaller,” Mayor Ivy Taylor said at Thursday’s council meeting, defending the various citywide projects. “We’re still only playing catch-up.”

In sum, individual council misgivings seemed more about the nature of representation in single-member districts than anything else. With four departing incumbent council members in districts 6, 8, 9, and 10, there could be some concern they will campaign less vigorously for the 2017 bond than if they were seeking re-election. I hope that’s not true.

A private campaign to get the ballot items approved by voters launched immediately after last Thursday’s unanimous city council vote. OneSA, a political action committee, will be led by prominent local political consultant Christian Archer. This is the opportunity for each member of the current council to claim some credit for keeping San Antonio on a path of transformation.

Another former mayor, Julián Castro, returns home from Washington and his service as HUD secretary in the Obama administration to witness the home stretch of his “decade of downtown.” Even leaving office nearly four years before he would have left because of term limits, Castro can take enormous satisfaction in what has transpired since his declaration in 2009 and the advent of SA2020.

What he will find upon his homecoming is an almost breathtaking array of work underway or on the drawing boards. The San Pedro Creek Improvements Project and Zona Cultural improvements have started. The Frost Bank Tower groundbreaking is one month away. The Convention Center expansion is completed, and the redevelopment of Hemisfair is proceeding. The Alamo Master Plan is underway, and a redesigned Broadway is on the drawing boards.

From the Broadway Cultural Corridor to Southtown, dozens of new businesses and various residential complexes have opened. Weston Urban and GrayStreet Partners are bringing historic downtown structures back to life with restoration and new tenants. The downtown Tech District is becoming a reality and new life is being breathed into the dreary Fox Tech campus with multiple in-district charter schools. The expansion of the H-E-B corporate campus is visible next to the company’s South Flores Market, and the letters USAA now crown a downtown commercial tower.

Less noticed are the tens of millions of dollars going into street improvements and restoration around Hemisfair, the Alamo, and at Soledad and Main streets.

The site of part of the south wall of the original Alamo complex. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
The site of part of the south wall of the original Alamo complex. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

Beyond downtown, there is no bigger problem than congestion spurred by sprawl, with few near-term transportation options set to address the problem in a truly fundamental way. There is $27.6 million to improve Prue Road, $20 million for the Bulverde Phase One project, and $15.5 million for continuing De Zavala improvements along I-10. Tens of millions more will be spent on streets, bridges, and drainage in Districts 8, 9, and 10 alone.

I’ll have the opportunity to delve more deeply into the process on Tuesday, Jan. 24 when I moderate a conversation with City Manager Sculley and citizen committee tri-chair Eddie Aldrete, vice president at IBC Bank, at a luncheon hosted by the Family Service Association of San Antonio at the Plaza Club. Some tickets, which are $75, still remain.

A more affordable option for voters comes on Tuesday, Feb. 7 when the Rivard Report will sponsor a Mayoral Election Town Hall meeting at the Pearl Stable, with Mayor Ivy Taylor, Councilman Ron Nirenberg, and Bexar County Democratic Party Chairman Manuel Medina all confirmed to participate. Various civic groups will have representatives helping pose questions to the candidates. The specifics of the 2017 Bond surely will be among the topics discussed that evening. We will publish ticket information for the event later this week.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.