A cold morning in San Antonio, 10 miles from downtown. Iris Dimmick.
About 10 miles north of downtown. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Comprehensive long-term planning is emerging as the hallmark of Mayor Ivy Taylor’s 300 days in office, a good thing given the looming challenges facing San Antonio, one of the nation’s fastest growing cities and one of the most geographically dispersed.

Inside a crowded conference room at City Hall on Thursday, Mayor Taylor sat in on the first meeting of her newly formed City Council Comprehensive Planning Committee, chaired by District 8 Councilmember Ron Nirenberg. Also attending were District 1 Councilmember Diego Bernal, District 4 Councilmember Rey Saldaña, and District 9 Councilmember Joe Krier.

The group listened as two of the City’s top planning experts, John Dugan, director of the City’s Planning and Community Development Departmentand Mike Frisbie, director of the City’s Transportation and Capital Improvements Departmentoffered a fascinating and sobering look into the future and the kind of city, for better or worse, San Antonio will be in the year 2040.

One million people who are not here today are on their way to San Antonio, set to arrive in a steady, unbroken stream of newcomers over the next two and half decades. A city of 1.4 million today will be 2.4 million by 2040 – more if the City annexes outlying areas of Bexar County that are populating at an even faster pace than the outer reaches of the city. The county population, which now stands at 1.8 million, likely will reach 3 million.

Dugan said San Antonio added 430,000 people in the last decade.

Transportation and Capital Improvements Department Director Mike Frisbie
Transportation and Capital Improvements Department Director Mike Frisbie

“The metro areas in Texas are all going to boom, we don’t need to compete for growth, it’s going to happen,” Frisbie said.

Frisbie’s presentation predicted 500,000 new jobs in the metro area created over that arc of time, with 500,000 new housing units needed to meet the growing population. The Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) predicts the creation of  675,000 jobs countywide in the same time frame.

Frisbie will be the key city director guiding officeholders as they work on a Strategic Multi-Modal Transportation Plan that Taylor has promised to bring before voters for their approval, a response to the suburban-driven opposition to the City’s financial participation  in VIA Metropolitan Transit’s streetcar project.

Click here for Frisbie’s presentation.

Where will all these new San Antonians live and work? It depends.

Dugan said San Antonio is unlike many major metropolitan areas that have a concentrated economic center.

“San Antonio is polycentric,” Dugan said, catching everyone’s attention with an unfamiliar word. “That means we have multiple economic centers.”

Thirteen distinct established and emerging economic centers, to be exact, a subject that will be explored in a future article on the Rivard Report. The USAA-Medical Center-Valero-UTSA corridor is one such established economic center, while Brooks City-Base and Port San Antonio is an emerging center.

poly centric economic centers_Dugan COSA

Logic suggests people will want to live near the economic center where they work. Dugan, however, cited the 2013 National Community Preference Survey conducted by the National Association of Realtors that reported that six out of 10 Americans say they want to live in a walkable, mixed-use community.

“Sixty percent of respondents favor a neighborhood with a mix of houses, stores, and other businesses that are within walking distance, rather than neighborhoods requiring driving between home, work, and recreation,” the NAR Survey overview states. “Respondents indicated that while the size of a home or yard does matter, most are willing to compromise size for a preferred neighborhood and less commuting.”

Dugan said San Antonio was building exactly the opposite kind of city, despite all the attention and effort to revitalize the city’s urban core with new residential developments, a better job base and public amenities such as the San Antonio River Improvements and the redevelopment of Hemisfair Park.

“That’s huge,” Dugan said of the survey results. “Very, very few of our neighborhoods are walkable. Fourteen percent to be exact.”

Dugan said comprehensive planning and smart city policies could guide the city’s coming growth bomb and distribute the new arrivals to benefit the entire city. Land studies, he said, show that more than 100,000 of the predicted 500,000 new housing units could be built inside Loop 410, thus infusing 22 percent of the population growth in the urban core. Another 20 percent could be accommodated on the city’s resurgent Southside.

"Located in the Southtown arts district across from the historic King William neighborhood , Big Tex capitalizes on the recently completed San Antonio River ecosystem restoration project and populates almost half a mile of its west bank with apartments and restaurants." Words and renderings from Alamo Architects.
Big Tex in Southtown will capitalize on the recently completed San Antonio River ecosystem restoration project and populates almost half a mile of its west bank with apartments and restaurants. Words and rendering courtesy of Alamo Architects.

Patches of the city outside Loop 410 and inside Loop 1604, the original suburbs developed in the ’60s and ’70s, are now in decline and in need of redevelopment and new investment. Dugan said 23 percent of the population growth could fit there, leaving 35 percent to settle outside Loop 1604.

Bexar County Commissioners reviewing their own 2015 proposed budget, were told by county planners on Tuesday that the biggest challenge they face now and in the coming years is the startling rate of population growth in the far reaches of the county, well beyond the reach of city services with expectations that county government will meet infrastructure, public safety and social needs.

Dugan said the city faces two paths forward. One is allowing unfettered suburban sprawl now underway, which will cause the city to double in geographic size from 500 to 1,000 square miles by 2040, or city leaders can seize the opportunity at hand through comprehensive planning and adopt “smart growth strategies” to contain the sprawl to 600 square miles.

What that comprehensive planning will entail was the subject of considerable discussion among the officeholders and senior staff.

District 2 Councilwoman Ivy Taylor, right before the meeting that confirmed her as mayor of San Antonio. Photo by Scott Ball.
Mayor Ivy Taylor. Photo by Scott Ball.

“I am excited about the opportunity to develop a fabulous plan for this city,” Mayor Taylor said at the outset of the meeting. “A few years ago we took the initiative to establish a vision, SA2020. By no means are we abandoning that.”

Taylor added, “While we are excited by that growth … we’re not completely satisfied with the manner of growth.”

Taylor has initiated an unprecedented effort to organize local government and engage citizens in a range of long-term planning efforts that will guide the city for years to come and build a new level of public confidence and support. It’s an ambitious agenda for a short-term mayor, and success would be more certain if Taylor were going to pursue a longer term in office as mayor or if there were assurances that whoever follows her will embrace the work she is starting.

For Nirenberg, chairman of the committee, and Bernal and Saldaña, two inner city council members with a deep commitment to transforming San Antonio’s urban core, the immensity of the planning challenge will be both a test and opportunity.

Director of Planning and Community Development John Dugan
Director of Planning and Community Development John Dugan

Dugan first led the Council team through a presentation of how Mayor Taylor was directing the Comprehensive Planning Committee to proceed. Click here to review. He later led the committee through his own presentation. Click here to view.

The committee will oversee the formation of a large Comprehensive Plan Advisory Board, which will include a network of other local government entities — the County, CPS Energy, SAWS, VIA, the San Antonio River Authority, the Metropolitical Planning Organization, universities and school districts.

Three members from the City Planning Commission and Nirenberg, as chairman of the Comprehensive Planning Committee, will serve as ex officio members. Each of the 10 City Council members will appoint a constituent to the advisory board.

A Citizens Planning Institute, designed to promote citizen engagement and public confidence that everyday citizens have a voice in the process, also will be formed. How citizens interested in serving can apply remains to be sorted out.

The first task will be to galvanize leaders of all the diverse public organizations and amalgamate data from each one to accurately measure growth trends and patterns and smartly apply shared resources to best guide growth.

Achieving consensus and carrying out all that work in a coherent and transparent fashion that engages citizens all along the way is an equally important but very different kind of challenge. Planners said the effort will cost several million dollars drawn from city and federal funds, the hiring of consultants, and several months of preparatory groundwork.

One task will be to review the 1978 Major Thoroughfare Plan and the 1997 Comprehensive Master Plan, which Dugan said contained more than 500 policy recommendations. Staff will have to determine how much those plans guided city leaders afterwards and how many recommendations never got off the shelf.

“A good comprehensive plan will be implemented, it won’t just sit on a shelf,” Nirenberg told his colleagues.

Only this time, a comprehensive plan likely will not be a document if city leaders expect to engage citizens. In 2014, it will have to be a user-friendly multimedia online portal that invites public engagement and allows citizens to observe and actively participate even if they never attend a single meeting.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.