Councilwoman Elisa Chan

Moving from the long era of city government-supported sprawl to a new era of tax-supported inner city development could prove to be the issue of our time.

Since the mid-1960s, when San Antonio’s leaders launched an urban renewal initiative that culminated with HemisFair ’68 and the building of downtown’s hotel-dominated skyline, the city’s three-pronged economic development strategy, though never really articulated, has been this:

1. Build and nurture what is now an enviable $13 billion tourism and convention economy.

2. Maintain San Antonio’s status as a military-friendly city. This has helped protect another multi-billion dollar sector of the economy through several cycles of Base Realignment and Closure.

3. Subsidize development of  a new sprawling city largely accessible only by automobile that now extends to the far reaches of north and northwest Bexar County, including the sensitive Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone. This 40-year laissez-faire policy now carries

a “catch up” price tag that has yet to be fully tallied, but could reach hundreds of millions of dollars counting recharge protection investment by SAWS. With state spending severely curtailed, this oft-ignored reality leaves local taxpayers to cover the enormous costs of public investment in roads, watershed protection and other infrastructure. The availability of relatively inexpensive, undeveloped land also led the city to subsidize a growing number of low-wage call centers that attract hourly wage workers who typically cannot afford to live near those workplaces and thus add to commuter congestion.

A study of the Loops 1604 and Tx. 281 linkage project.
The cost of suburban sprawl requires tens of millions of dollars in street and bridge improvements. (photo by Robert Rivard)

By the late 1980s and early 1990s a fourth initiative took shape, the development of a medical and health care industry, followed by a struggling effort to nurture a biosciences sector, and slow but steady investment in higher education. These efforts further diversified the economy, but failed to change the city’s reputation as the place for companies more interested in paying low wages than hiring education workers. The loss of AT&T to Dallas 15 years after it was lured here from St. Louis serves as a reminder that locally nurtured job growth is preferable to incentivized relocation of outside companies.

Energy, technology, telecommunications, and truck manufacturing all helped to further diversify the economy through the 90s and first decade after the millennium, but over the last 50 years San Antonio did little to make its downtown more livable and economically viable for locals. Reform of the city’s Byzantine public school districts has been slow to take root, downtown investment in residential housing lagged, and few projects were undertaken to make San Antonio a more appealing cultural center. The Paseo del Rio was the one healthy artery pumping people and dollars into downtown hotels, the Convention Center and the tourist attractions in an otherwise deteriorating core.

Everything began to change under Mayor Phil Hardberger, who held office from 2004-08 before term limits ended his run. The vision and commitment to invest in our long-ignored downtown has only grown under Mayor Julián Castro, who has declared this The Decade of Downtown and has staked his legacy on the SA2020 plan to guide the city forward. With term limits relaxed and eight years to see his vision implemented, Castro is poised to transform San Antonio into a city that for the first time will staunch a brain drain and become a destination city for college-educated migrants–if a challenge from suburban council members does not undermine that vision.

Castro Won Mandate from Voters, Deserves Unanimous Council Vote

Castro intends to bring SA2020 to City Council for an up or down vote by next month and thus force council members to publicly support or oppose him. Given his broad electoral mandate and wide support from a broad array of business, civic and cultural forces engaged in a collective downtown development effort, Castro holds a strong hand.  But with voters poised to go to the polls on May 12 (early voting is April 30-May 8 when more than half of all votes will be cast) to vote on a $595 million bond package, this is not the time supporters want to see political conflict.

Councilwoman Elisa Chan (Courtesy City of San Antonio)

The first open challenge to Castro’s downtown development strategy came late last month in a newsletter sent via email by Councilwoman Elisa Chan. District Nine encompasses some of the most traffic-choked suburbs from Stone Oak west toward I-10 and Bitters along Loop 1604. You can read the text of that email here.  Chan challenged assumptions presented to the City Council by HR&A Advisors, the urban planning consultants hired to develop a comprehensive Center City Implementation Plan.

District 9 map
District 9 includes Stone Oak and the Loop 1604/Tx. 281 interchange. (Map courtesy City of San Antonio)

The first story reporting Chan’s challenge of the SA2020 initiative and incentivizing downtown residential development as a catalyst for job growth appeared on the Plaza de Armas website. District Ten Councilman Carlton Soules and District Eight Councilman Reed Williams also have raised questions about the downtown reinvestment plan.

All three suburban council members espouse a conservative, pro-business philosophy, but their own districts were built with direct and indirect taxpayer-supported subsidies, with many of the actual costs only now being acknowledged. Just the suburban road and bridge projects alone in the bond election add up to tens of millions of dollars, all made necessary by poor planning and worsening traffic congestion. None of this suburban investment will produce job growth save for temporary construction work. By Chan’s logic, then, those projects should be canceled. Would Stone Oak voters support removal of the Loop 1604/Tx. 281 improvements from the bond package because they will not produce new jobs? Of course not.

Ed Cross, a prominent inner city developer, was one of the people who read Chan’s email. He sent Chan and other Council members copies of “Turning Around Downtown: Twelve Steps to Revitalization,” a 24-page Brookings Institution study,  in an effort to convince her that data exists to support HR&A’s assumptions. “The End of Sprawl?”, an April 5 article by Richard Florida in Atlantic magazine, argues that America’s love affair with suburban sprawl has peaked. A growing majority of people, led by Baby Boomers and Millennials, want to live in urban settings where they can live, work, shop and recreate without commuting in vehicles, Florida writes. A companion piece by Kaid Benfield, another leading voice on urban redevelopment, adds weight to the argument that attractive inner city housing developments are key to downtown revitalization.  Both Benfield and Florida have written widely on these and related topics. The Atlantic excels at producing such data-driven journalism.

Single member council districts make for more representational government, especially for previously disenfranchised minority populations, but they also promote narrow, sometimes selfish thinking. Elected officials face pressure to favor their districts rather than the broader interests of the city, and wealthier districts can ignore the needs of less prosperous districts. It will be interesting to see if suburban council members acknowledge the history of taxpayer-supported development in their own districts and the growing body of evidence that now supports Mayor Castro’s agenda and accelerated downtown public investment.

The Rivard Report has invited Mayor Castro and all 10 Council members to write their own pieces addressing these issue. The Mayor has accepted the invitation. We hope to hear from Council members. Developers and others on both sides of the debate also are welcome to submit articles to hello@therivardreport.com.

Highway construction photo by Robert Rivard.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.