San Antonio: Is Bigger Really Better?

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A house under construction in Alamo Ranch. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

A house under construction in Alamo Ranch.

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. 

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San Antonio’s Annexation Debate

24 thoughts on “San Antonio: Is Bigger Really Better?

  1. Seattle and San Francisco are physically limited to outward growth by geography (large bodies of water) and by surrounding incorporated cities. Dallas proper is nearly surrounded by thriving, suburban cities…and has been for decades.

    You are fooling yourself if you don’t think these cities wouldn’t take advantage of some form of annexation to increase their footprint and/or tax base if the path was viable. It isn’t so the comparisons here aren’t apt.

    However, it’s good that additional oversight and inquisitiveness might be forthcoming to San Antonio’s annexation process. I applaud more voices being part of the process.

    • All good points. There are differing views on the true economic gains of taking mostly residential suburban areas. That is one question we hope to answer.

      And to follow your thinking, why not just merge with county and take all territory we can? Isn’t that the end game inevitable with your logic? We should have a real dialog on the broader plan and what we can expect it to accomplish.

      I am pleased the dialog is underway. Thanks for participating.

    • Limestone–just because San Antonio CAN annex, doesn’t mean we should. That’s the point of the article. Lew isn’t saying that Dallas officials don’t want to grow, he’s using Dallas and SF as illustrative examples to show how misleading our “7th largest city” ranking is relative to those perceptively larger cities. While annexation years ago may have been a net economic gain and may have made sense, it has clearly gotten out of control, and our city is now using it as a tool to grow their tax base, instead of improving from within. Communities are going to continue to pop up outside of city limits, and at some point we need to accept that and find a way to address it that does not lead to additional sprawl. Make those denizens pay a toll to drive home if they want to live outside SA’s limits!

      Instead of focusing on suburbia, let’s provide incentives for job growth in the center city and continued multifamily development. Let’s create more bike lanes and transportation options for those committed to our city’s urban core. The future isn’t in Stone Oak–it’s in the heart of the city.

  2. WE LOVE YOU LEW! Thank you so much for your vision and tireless (and often thankless) quest to make our city a better place and for giving a voice to and mobilizing our city’s young population. It might be helpful to post a link where readers can donate to Tech Bloc–I would love to contribute to funding for the report. I have such huge respect for what you all do and am so damn proud to be a San Antonian.

  3. The question should be applied to whether suburban growth is better than interior in-fill growth. San Antonio has LOTS of substandard neighborhoods where redevelopment could provide for growth. And suburban growth is having a negative impact on our water supply.

    Since the article seems to be limited to questioning what is best–big city vs. smaller city surrounded by suburbs, then my feeling is that most cities that are hemmed in by smaller cities have major financial problems and/or eventually develop them. It’s the center city that pays for things such as the airport, the major parks, the transportation routes that the suburbans use regularly for work and/or shopping. As inner cities deteriorate and cannot expand, it becomes very difficult for them to support these expenses. They have to raise taxes, and that causes even more people to leave for the suburbs. It is always better to be like San Antonio with everyone participating in paying the major expenses than to be like Atlanta, Detroit, Denver, etc., where the suburbs are growing and the inner cities are locked in with deteriorating property values and rising expenses.

  4. Another perspective here is that having the City of San Antonio control so much of the area and population in the metropolitan region gives San Antonio something more akin to a regional government than you will find in almost any large metropolitan region in this country — something I would argue is a huge asset in terms of its ability to plan and direct growth at a regional level. Anyone who has spent much time on the East Coast or the Midwest understands how fractious local governments can lead to all sorts of problems, and how this often acts more to promote sprawl than anything else.

    While I’ll grant that having more suburban voters to contend with may present some issues for those with an urbanist agenda, I think the positive strongly outweigh the negatives. If you imagine the City of San Antonio only including the area inside 410 (excluding the Medical Center, Westover Hills, La Cantera, Stone Oak, etc), then you can start to appreciate how fiscally challenged the City would be now if it it not pursued annexation over these past decades. While it is true that downtown itself is a net contributor to the fiscal equation, a City government composed of the areas inside 410 would be saddled with a low tax base and high service demands — the kind of equation that has lead so many central cities in the Midwest and East Coast down the viscous cycle of decline and neglect.

    In sum, I would submit that cities today function economically as regions and there is a large benefit to having them governed as such. While there is certainly a place for more localized governing processes on a lot of issues, having a more regionalized political body is something that can add a lot of value. While I think the political leadership in San Antonio has largely failed to capitalize on these opportunities, that suggests a need for better leadership than anything else. Also, in regards to a the kind of quasi-regional government San Antonio currently has, history has shown that this is something that is nearly impossible to get back once it has been lost.

    • You make a good point. I would just say let’s talk about it explicitly in those terms. What does it mean to city/county relations? Why not annex even more? Let’s just be honest and say we want a regional government. I am not saying I agree with it – but there is clarity in that strategy and we can then develop policies for it and talk openly about how it will work.

  5. If we were to look at area alone, San Antonio is already the size of Los Angeles.

    What I don’t understand is what is the goal and purpose of annexation? And to compliment Lew’s points. What vision does annexation achieve for the city of San Antonio?

  6. The author seems to be under the impression that annexation causes sprawl, when in reality we see that is not at all true. Sprawl, of course, continues in Bexar County, whether it is inside or outside the city limits. (and sometimes being outside the city limits is used a selling point for the development!)

    But for the city’s financial health, it’s critical. To me, a question as important as “what should we do to be more like San Francisco” is “What should we do to avoid being like Detroit?” Detroit, of course, is a city where the lion’s share of the property tax and sales tax base in the county occurs outside of the city limits, leaving the city itself in a negative growth death spiral.

    To be fair, we will never be San Francisco or Detroit. But it would be foolish to adopt a one-size fits all approach in either direction (e.g. “no annexation” or “full annexation”)

    I agree that annexation decisions should be made carefully, as the cost to providing police, fire, libraries, parks, garbage, and other city services to these far flung suburbs may not make sense given the tax base that would come back.

    The partial annexation proposal that was floated to incorporate some commercial corridors may make sense, for both the city and homeowners.

    In any case, I think it’s definitely time for a larger conversation about it, beyond just the homeowners that live in the area.

    • One problem I have with the proposal to annex only the commercial areas (and maybe I understand it wrong) but that would remove a lot of higher value property from the county emergency service districts and fragment their territory. The county areas that need emergency services might have higher tax rates as a result, and the costs to the districts could increase with the need to pass through city areas for service calls.

    • I am not under the impression that annexation causes sprawl. Cheap land does. And it won’t go away. But, to assume endless expansion is the best path to a sustainable revenue base is just wrong. If our downtown was as vibrant as Portland’s it is my opinion we would have a far better revenue stream – and all surrounding areas would benefit. Detroit did not fail because they did not annex – they failed because their core industry failed and they did not adjust as a city. They are figuring out what it takes to compete as a city now…and they are starting downtown. My argument is that we have not made that adjustment. And we are feeling it. If our only asset is cheap land – we will be a great place to retire, but not a great place to build a career and life. I understand those that feel that is just fine…I am just not one of those people.

  7. No offense intended to TechBloc, but the anti-annexation bias in this piece is so strong that it preemptively taints the results of an “independent” study of annexation plans that will help shape CoSA policy.

    “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.”

    Is TechBloc really asking these “hard questions” and looking for an objective recommendation or is it looking for a study that supports a specific conclusion? Will 200,000 angry voters negatively impact public infrastructure investment in the city?

    Maybe, but probably not, because only 10,000 of them will vote anyway @ 5% turnout rates. (Hurray voter apathy!) Our existing voters voted against light rail and for an ordinance that requires voters to approve in the future, so maybe I really DO want 200,000 angry new voters!

    Annexation isn’t bad if it protects the area FROM development via additional regulation and control (Bracken Bat Cave, anyone?) That green space and protected environment can then enhance the inner core. Just because there’s a “City Limits” sign doesn’t mean it’s developed.

    I would respectfully suggest you’re asking the wrong question, though. You’re looking at size and thinking about money. You want money to invest in the City, do you not? You wrote “Money spent growing out can’t also be spent on what already is built.”

    If you believe the City’s analysis, annexation has subsidized inner city investment by adding high-revenue tax areas to fund expenses in low-revenue areas. I’m not sure I believe that, but I’d consider it to potentially be true.

    But if not increased revenue via more property to tax, then from where: increased sales taxes, increased CPS bills, a city-wide income tax, ‘gentrification’ that increases inner city property values (gasp!), more tourism taxes, more fees at the airport?

    Me, personally? I want a better city that has the financial capacity to fund better infrastructure and an informed electorate that supports those things. Getting “bigger” is one potential path to also getting “better.”

  8. Keep San Antonio Lame! Go ahead build the Vista Ridge pipeline that ends just North of San Antonio. The massive amounts of new water piped from Bastrop county is a Chamber of Commerce scheme and dream designed to encourage more suburban sprawl over the Edwards aquifer recharge and contributing zone. This only encourages SA government to want to annex these high income, high growth areas to support it’s tax base, yet compromises it’s ability to build and support needed infrastructure throughout the whole city on an equitable basis.. For the past 25 years the Chamber of commerce has promoted a misguided growth pattern that encourages outward growth rather then focusing on infill and making downtown SA a vibrant,thriving livable place to live,work and play. Downtown isn’t just for tourist Do not encourage suburban sprawl which leads to annexation,let it happen organically. Focus on infill and getting our home grown worker
    base more education so we can attract Apple, Microsoft,etc. They want to fill the majority of there high tech jobs from a home towns local work force so they don’t have to pay to import higher educated workers. They also do not care so much about copious amounts of water to encourage outward growth. Most high tech companies hire millinieal types that want to live downtown or in nearby pockets of vibrancy like the Pearl. SAWS can provide plenty of water for many decades to any large high tech company as long as we don’t encourage suburban sprawl that encourages wasteful habits of planting water guzzling grass with automatic spray sprinkler systems. Otherwise, we will continue to be a city of lameness.

  9. Would be interested in data related to cities that annexed significantly but it didn’t work out too well (Kansas city, mo?) due to underdevelopment.

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