After a “decade of downtown,” City Manager Erik Walsh made sure San Antonio City Council members would see more money allocated for bond projects in their own districts. But after he and city staff presented their list of recommended projects Wednesday, council members said they wanted even more for their neighborhoods.
On Wednesday, Walsh and staff presented a whittled-down list of bond projects for inclusion in the proposed $1.2 billion bond program. Of that, $255 million is proposed for projects city staff characterize as having citywide impact, including projects for entities like the San Antonio Zoo and building a new Animal Care Services hospital. Voters will be asked to approve that bond program in the form of multiple propositions ranging from housing to streets and sidewalks.
Wednesday’s council discussion was the first step in the process of determining which of nearly $3 billion worth of projects will make it onto the final list voters will decide on, and it showed most council members favored basic needs like street repair.
Of the $255 million in citywide projects, Councilwoman Teri Castillo (D5) said, “my request is to redesignate approximately $128 million of that funding and divide it among the 10 districts using that equity lens.
“I think it’s great that we’re having a conversation about the ‘decade of the neighborhoods,’ and we need to ensure that we’re meeting those drainage needs within the neighborhoods.”
During the 2017 bond program, district-specific projects ranged from $33 million in investment to $54 million per district. This year, that range is from $62 million to $78 million per district. Still, some council members were hesitant to embrace proposed citywide projects such as $126 million that would go toward expanding the city’s linear greenway trails.
After listening to council members Wednesday, Walsh did not say what, if any, changes would be made, saying that he would review his notes and make sure he followed council members’ direction.
“There are going to be some tweaks based on the feedback,” Walsh said. “I may not make all the changes based on my own professional recommendation. And ultimately, the citizens will go through their process.”
City staff will bring proposed projects to bond committees, who will then meet to make their recommendations. In January, committees will bring those recommendations to City Council, which has the final say on what projects make it onto the ballot.
In the 2017 bond, improvements to Broadway Street and the construction of a land bridge at Hardberger Park were categorized as citywide projects, Walsh said. But now city staff is looking at regions of the city to invest in. City staff is recommending focusing bond projects in certain regional centers, such as the Medical Center, Brooks, Texas A&M University-San Antonio, and downtown, Walsh said. Regional center projects include a new $3.25 million park for the South Texas Medical Center, $10.6 million for roadway improvements at TAMU-SA, and $18 million for Hemisfair’s Civic Park.
But most council members advocated for more basic infrastructure investment instead of giving bond money to entities like the Sunken Garden Theater or the San Antonio Botanical Garden. They challenged the funding for those projects, questioning their true value for all of the city’s residents.
“I have an easy solution,” Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) said. “Councilwoman Castillo said the same thing: cut out half of the citywide projects … and then we can move that $127 million back into the districts where it should be, in the neighborhoods. Better drainage. Better roads.”
A few council members attempted to persuade their colleagues that regional projects had citywide impact. Councilman Mario Bravo (D1) said that “everyone is welcome downtown” and improvements there help the whole city.
“I want to encourage everybody to look at that and not look at, ‘what’s in my pile?’ and eyeing everyone else’s piles, but what is good for our city and how can we work together,” he said.
Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4) agreed that downtown belonged to all San Antonians and acknowledged the importance San Antonio’s regional centers, but argued that some San Antonio neighborhoods have to be prioritized first.
“The reason that I think you saw the councilwomen on the side of the dais get so emotional and passionate about supporting our areas of town is because we’ve been behind for so long that it’s going to take forever to catch up,” she said.
For the first time, the 2022 bond program will include affordable housing projects. But instead of the $250 million figure estimated to be included, city staff recommended $150 million. Walsh said that while staff was reviewing projects, they saw many of the other proposed projects came from council district offices and staff wanted to make sure those were prioritized.
“So my recommendation after talking about what other housing opportunities we have was to propose $150 million to the council and not reduce many of the park programs you guys are talking about,” Walsh said.
City staff anticipates leveraging funding from partners like the San Antonio Housing Authority and the San Antonio Housing Trust to ultimately reach a $1.6 billion budget for affordable housing projects over the next five years, Assistant City Manager Lori Houston said.
“The strategy assumes our annual affordable housing budget remains the same, which is about $28 million a year,” Houston said.
City staff also recommended allocating $150 million of the overall bond program for facility projects such as renovating libraries and relocating the San Antonio Police Department’s impound lot; $450 million for streets, sidewalks, and bridges; $150 million for drainage and flood control; and $300 million for parks and recreation.
Of the parks funding, staff recommended $126 million for the city’s linear greenway trails in order to fulfill the promise that those would be funded after voters chose to divert a one-eighth-cent sales tax that had previously funded the trail system to workforce development, Walsh said.
“The county has $83 million in their capital program over the next 10 years for trails,” Walsh said. “We know that we need another $200 million to finish our original [trails] plan. … The idea would be that we would finish it all in the 2027 bond program, so finish the whole thing over two bond cycles.”
Though no one opposed investing in trails expansion, several council members suggested decreasing the size of the proposed bond funding.
“We’ve been working on this project for what feels like decades,” Councilwoman Phyllis Viagran (D3) said. “We have time. We have money. We can get resources. We do not need to do over $100 million at this time.”
City staff also recommended increasing the bond program’s public art investment from 1% to 1.5% of the overall bond, totaling $15.7 million.