The news from Las Vegas that Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis is committed to moving his NFL team there if local officials will commit $750 million in visitor tax revenues to a new $1.4 billion stadium reminds me that many more people in San Antonio would support a downtown baseball team for a Triple A team if the owners paid half and local leaders did not siphon off bond money for the project.
This time around, Davis is saying publicly that he will put $300 million of his money and a $200 million loan from the NFL into the deal, with a casino owner adding another $150 million. I don’t recall hearing those numbers from him during his San Antonio visit and I have not yet heard San Antonio Missions owner David Elmore publicly commit to paying half the costs of acquiring land and building a ballpark.
Third party assurances from officeholders about what is said in private meetings do not persuade me. On the record statements made in front of the cameras are more believable.
The minor league baseball drama has distracted officeholders, City staff, and the public from a much more important conversation: How much of the 2017 bond is going to be spent revitalizing San Antonio’s urban core, and how much is going to be spent trying to keep up with the high cost of sprawl?
It’s the most important question we can ask right now as we await the drafts of Mayor Ivy Taylor’s SA Tomorrow report. Will the report merely predict the coming growth of one million people to the metro area and the challenges that come with that growth, or will it offer specific courses of action and the necessary investment to smartly meet those challenges?
Right now, I am told, the three draft reports – the Comprehensive Plan, the Sustainability Plan, and the Multimodal Transportation Plan – do not contain that degree of specificity, and perhaps it is unrealistic to expect it at this juncture.
Yet such plans are destined for the shelves at City Hall unless they contain actionable items to bring before the voters. Take the Multimodal Transportation Plan as one example: What good does it do to draw a road map for future sprawl and traffic congestion without a specific mass transit action plan to prevent the otherwise inevitable? Yet I am not hearing any serious discussion from Mayor Taylor, City staff or VIA Metropolitan Transit officials about such a plan.
If there is one, or if choices are being discussed, why wouldn’t leadership share that with the public and seek input before arriving at a conclusion? Why wait until a public hearing is just an exercise in checking a box and has no significance in the decision-making process?
My fear: There is no long-term comprehensive multimodal transit option on the horizon. People remain divided over the modern streetcar debacle, and no one can or will break the impasse.
I grew up playing baseball and following Major League Baseball. I’d love to walk to a Missions home game after work from our downtown office, but I don’t want to have that experience because City leaders diverted money from much more ambitious projects.
San Antonio is poised to become a big-hearted city, if we complement the river with destination streets that do not now exist. We are nearly there on the San Antonio River from its headwaters near Brackenridge Park to Mission Espada, one of the nation’s great linear parks. The Park Segment remains to be finished, and the natural creek meander and banks with native plantings need to replace the Catalpa-Pershing Channel, an unsightly concrete drainage ditch.
What is truly missing is a parallel path along a sequence of destination streets and parks that will parallel that river from start to finish. Imagine a redesigned Broadway and a redesigned Brackenridge Park forming the northern end of that panorama.
New gateways would connect the street and the park and to the east, connect Broadway to the San Antonio Botanical Gardens and Mahncke Park neighborhood, and farther south, into the Dignowity Hill Historic District and redesigned Dignowity and Lockwood twin parks.
Proceeding down Broadway and the bustling River North section, Broadway would take locals and visitors to Hemisfair with its Civic Park, enlivened for the first time in more than 50 years by people who live, work and play there. Travelers heading west would take Commerce and Houston streets into the newly-designated Zona Cultural and into the near-Westside.
Within the western quadrant of downtown, the city will be redefined by the San Pedro Creek Improvement Project and everything that springs alive alongside it and in the surrounding blocks. We will see an unprecedented wave of new development over the next five years as the new Frost Bank Tower takes its place on the skyline, and around it we see new apartments, condos, retail, green space and street life.
The possibilities for the Mercado area suddenly become much more, and the prospect, someday, of an authentic Mexican market with genuine, handcrafted goods and folk art attracting the kind of visitors to the city who do not shop for trinkets and souvenirs. They shop for authentic experiences.
Such investment will set the stage for the eventual revitalization of the entire Westside, now walled off from downtown by the Bexar County jail, bail bond row, I-10, and the underutilized warehouse district.
Those who continue south from Hemisfair will find themselves in Southtown along South Alamo Street to South St. Mary’s Street, the gateway to the city with its heart. Lone Star is the next big building block in terms of private investment. The opportunity for the City in the 2017 bond is the transformation of a three-mile stretch of Roosevelt Avenue from Roosevelt Park to Mission San José and the creation of a true Mission District that beckons from the Mission Reach and the streetscape.
Some months ago, City Council allocated $600,000, if memory serves, from the Tree Canopy Preservation and Mitigation Fund for the purchase and planting of trees on municipal golf courses. Imagine if those trees instead were being planted on the Southside to beautify what we call the Mission District. Imagine the goodwill it would engender among residents worried about the incursion of unwelcome development.
That’s not bond money, of course, but it does suggest a new way of thinking about how we spend our scarce resources in concert with larger, long-term development goals. The golf course superintendents can afford to share for a few years.
All of what I described is within reach in the 2017 bond if the urban core wins its fair share of investment. It’s tempting to call for $300 million for the 300-year anniversary that San Antonio will celebrate in May 2018. It might not cost so much.
We should be publicly discussing ideas like mine right now as City staff debates the size of the bond, prioritizes projects and negotiates with Mayor Taylor and the 10 districts over individual district projects and citywide projects. Most of what I have described would be citywide projects, smartly considered as a whole and not piecemeal.
Eventually, citizens will be offered the opportunity to join the discussion, but it will not happen until the fall when the Community Bond Committee chairs are selected and citizens are chosen to serve on those committees. I am not saying the committees are only there for show, but they are not going to be a significant player in the high level decision-making process.
The decisions will already be made by then, the allocations set. Tweaks will be made by the committees, citizens will be heard, but there will not be conversations like the one I am asking the City to have with its citizens now. That conversation starts with how much debt the City can afford to carry, and the pros and cons of settling for, say, a conservative $750 million bond, or reaching higher and making it an aggressive $1 billion bond.
Imagine the San Antonio as I pictured it above, north to south, east to west. Wouldn’t that be a destination city for talented workers and their families and the kind of visitors we want to attract to our World Heritage city? Imagine the private sector investment such public investment would spark?
For the average engaged citizen with no special access to elected officials or senior City staff, no official forum exists to voice our concerns. On the other hand, at the recent Build Your Own Broadway event we helped organize and sponsor at Pearl Stable offers clear evidence people do want a forum, even if it isn’t an official one, to make themselves heard. Voting in a bond election is not the same as having a say in a bond election.
The Rivard Report invites your own ideas for investing bond dollars in the city. What projects do you want to see funded? What’s your vision? It could be something as simple as a sidewalk on a street unsafe for walking, or it could be something more complex. We would like to invite your ideas and then share them with our audience.
This story was originally published on Sunday, May 1.
Top image: Studio8’s design, “Broadway Pass: An Urban Community Hub,” won the People’s Choice Award and received a $2,000 prize. (Designers: Richard Garrod, Anna Delisle, Stephanie Briseno, Ryan Squyres, Megan Moshier, Miles VanDeWalle, Richard Garrod)