Ever wonder why San Antonio is ranked as the seventh largest city in America, ahead of massive metropolitan areas such as San Francisco, Seattle, and Dallas, even though everyone knows our community is substantially smaller than these and other cities? Annexation is why.
Annexation is the act of a city expanding its mass and boundaries by exercising its authority to absorb and integrate surrounding land and suburban communities. Geographically, this typically involves the city growing outward. Across the spectrum of approaches that leading U.S. cities have taken on annexation over the past 40 years, San Antonio ranks as one of the most aggressive. Our physical size is 10 times that of San Francisco and almost five times that of Seattle. This policy means more and more of Bexar County is now inside San Antonio’s sprawling city limits.
City leaders are currently considering a nearly 15% additional increase to our already very large (nearly 500 sq. miles) footprint. Is this sound community growth policy? Perhaps. The historical rationale rests on expansion driving a large revenue base and giving City officials greater control over fast-developing, unincorporated pockets of the county. One annexation proceedings are initiated, the City can introduce zoning and other sensible planning policies. Historically, this argument has won the day and annexation votes have passed with little dissent.
The question now is this: Should the past guide our future, or is it time for San Antonio’s leaders to redefine what it means to grow? Given the desire of all cities to attract better jobs and more people to the urban core, isn’t it time we focus on growing from within instead of without?
Despite some compelling pro-annexation arguments, past expansions raise some real questions. Yes, our city has grown, and successful communities have emerged around our perimeter. But the overall economic growth of San Antonio has trailed our Texas peers. Our downtown continues to stagnate as Austin, Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth build out urban centers attracting the next generation of jobs and talent.
The initial economic analysis attached to the current annexation proposal rests on many complex assumptions, and includes items deserving deeper review, such as timing of financial outlays vs. gains, the inclusion of CPS Energy revenue gains that likely will exist regardless of annexation, and other growth assumptions and issues.
Finally, there has been too little real discussion of the soft considerations and larger strategic questions that should factor into the annexation decision. One of these is simply to focus around a fundamental question: What is the best holistic approach and balance to an annexation policy that fosters the most economic and social value for current city residents and those living in surrounding communities? Sprawling outward will make us a bigger city, but not necessarily a better city. What unintended consequences will result from aggressively adding so much new territory and population?
Will adding almost 200,000 people, including many voters who strongly oppose annexation, negatively impact the citywide support needed for investment in a more vibrant and healthy urban core, as well as infrastructure connecting our existing communities together? These are hard questions we must ask now, not later. Public support for innovation is essential to building a more livable and economically robust San Antonio. An angry electorate that says no to public investment could render absolute growth of no value.
Given the importance of these fundamental questions, we at Tech Bloc endorse and fully support the efforts by Mayor Ivy Taylor and City Manager Sheryl Sculley to delay a decision on annexation and to launch a process to more deeply analyze this current annexation proposal, which could also lead to a revised global annexation policy moving forward. To that end, the City is establishing an Annexation Technical Working Group to independently review key financial and growth assumptions as part of the proposed plan. I have agreed to represent Tech Bloc on the working group.
Tech Bloc has stepped forward and volunteered to commission an independent study to examine the annexation issues. We have hired HR&A Advisors, a well-known urban planning firm, to examine the current best thinking on this topic and to review the assumptions of the current San Antonio plan. Our goal is to help build a city that can compete for the jobs of the next century. While annexation is far from a “tech-only” issue, we know that how we define city growth will have long term implications for the San Antonio of tomorrow.
We will publish this report and work with the City to ensure the right decision is made. We applaud the City’s leadership for slowing down this process to ensure the best outcome. San Antonio’s potential is unlimited, but our capacity to grow geographically should have limits. Money spent growing out can’t also be spent on what already is built.
Is a bigger San Antonio a better San Antonio? We at Tech Bloc are open-minded, but today we have real questions and concerns that we believe need to be addressed. Let’s work together now to answer the question once and for all.
This story was originally published on Tuesday, Nov. 3.
*Top image: A new home under construction in Alamo Ranch. Photo by Scott Ball.