The first glimpses of the City of San Antonio’s $1.2 billion bond, what City Manager Erik Walsh called “transformational investment,” were unveiled before City Council and the public last week.

Now the real work begins as council members identify individual project priorities in their 10 respective districts and the mayor and council members appoint citizens to chair and serve on one of multiple bond committees. The next three months will be telling, with public hearings leading up to completion of the work by January.

Want to serve on a committee? The jockeying has already begun. Click here to contact the mayor or your council member.

When that record $1.2 billion sum is coupled with $250 million in uncommitted American Rescue Plan Act funding and another $100 million available in city-initiated Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) funds, the city has an unprecedented opportunity to invest smartly and deeply.

Now is the time for city officials to invite creative input from the community and not simply ask committees to review existing proposals. It was that kind of community energy around the transformation of Lower Broadway that led city officials to include the $42 million project in the 2017 bond.

There already are nearly 400 different projects totaling $2.8 billion identified by city staff, neighborhood associations, citizens, and partner agencies on the city’s working list of candidates for the 2022 bond. That compares to city estimates of $6.6 billion that would be needed to address every known infrastructure need in the city.

City staff will return to council on Oct. 13 with a list of requested projects ranked and scored by staff, Walsh said last week. Obviously, many projects will not make the cut, even with as much as $1.5 billion in play. So what is truly transformative about the bond proposals that Walsh and his team have brought before council?

The proposed $250 million in public housing spending, a new area of public investment made possible when voters approved a charter amendment in May, has the potential to be transformative. Yet it’s also a proposal without a real plan at this point. Developers I’ve spoken with said the city has not consulted with them to formulate a plan or public-private partnerships that voters would be likely to approve.

People will be watching closely as the public housing proposal takes shape, knowing city officials have struggled to get the $154 million SA Ready to Work workforce development program up and running after it was approved by voters in November 2020.

It takes a lot of money simply to repair streets, complete drainage projects, and invest in parks, libraries, and public safety facilities. But each five-year bond cycle should include projects designed to make San Antonio a better, more attractive place to live and work.

I define “transformational” in two ways: major projects that help propel the entire city forward, including those driven by the private sector, and individual neighborhood projects that improve the lives of residents.

The continuing redevelopment of Hemisfair (which is the wrong place for a police substation), Weston Urban’s public-private partnership with the city to redevelop acres of western downtown, the county’s redevelopment of San Pedro Creek, and the expansion of UTSA’s Downtown Campus are projects that fit the first definition. Bringing sidewalks, shade tree plantings, and street lighting to a long-neglected inner-city neighborhood exemplifies the latter kind of transformative project.

One truly transformative project would be a city-county-funded initiative to raze the overcrowded Bexar County Adult Detention Center and Annex and move out the row of bail bond businesses that perch nearby. The West Side remains disconnected from downtown and considerable urban core investment because the county jail complex serves as a huge barrier. The Zona Cultural along West Commerce Street only extends to El Mercado before a more grim reality sets in.

The 4,600 inmates currently incarcerated in the county jail would be far better served if they were housed on a secure campus with ample outdoor acreage for recreation, urban farming, and rehabilitation activities.

If planners were designing San Antonio today, there is no way the county jail would occupy the valuable urban space it now takes up. The same land could be used to develop affordable housing for the thousands of downtown workers who cannot afford market-rate housing. Add in complete streets, mobility options like wide sidewalks, bike lanes, and shaded bus stops, and a real community could be developed connecting the West Side with downtown.

Yes, it would be expensive. Transformative change requires real investment, and it provides a long-term return. That’s my transformative proposal. Post your own in the comments or write to me at rivard@sareport.org.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.