The Call to Public Service: A Millennial Joins the Planning Commission

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Railroad crossing on Ellis Bean Road.

Railroad crossing on Ellis Bean Road. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Zac Harris, Core ContiniumWhen my wife Brooke and I moved to San Antonio in 2006, we both had a genuine interest in the challenges San Antonio faced. We made a commitment to be proactive and engaged citizens. Part of how we define engaged citizenship is to recognize the city’s needs and help our city and county leaders create a vision with input from the community to offer a higher quality of life for San Antonio and give our city the world-class status it deserves.

San Antonio is very open to newcomers. If you want to get involved, want to volunteer your time, want to make a difference, this city will put you to work. Step by step, I’ve found myself deepening my own commitment, resulting in a remarkable range of opportunities to serve in different ways. Having now lived here for several years, I’ve had the honor of serving on a variety of boards, including San Antonio Parks Foundation, 2012 Parks Bond Committee and other boards and committees through the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, City of San Antonio and Associated General Contractors.  I am a member of Leadership San Antonio (LSA) class XXXVI.  Through LSA I had the opportunity to meet with city and county leaders and learn in great detail about our economic development, quality of life and other great things emerging in our community.  I am also a founding board member of LOOP (Leadership Organization of Professionals), a group dedicated to engage, lead and transform San Antonio into a premiere location for innovative and talented young professionals.

The Pearl

The Pearl, where city planning meets innovative urban development. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Having served San Antonio by volunteering my time and with a background in project management and business development, I decided the time was right for me to apply for the City of San Antonio Planning Commission.  Through the Planning Commission I could potentially have a greater impact and voice for my generation and the future of San Antonio.

“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” – JFK

I immediately completed the application and went through the interview process and was appointed by our City Council on October 4th. I was enthusiastic to finally attend my first planning commission meeting. This time it wasn’t as a citizen to be heard or to stand before the commission to answer questions about a project.  I attended my first board meeting as one of three newly elected Planning Commissioners to oversee San Antonio’s master plan for development.

The board’s responsibility is to ensure we maintain the integrity of the city by making recommendations for the growth, development and beautification within the San Antonio city limits and the ETJ (Extraterritorial Jurisdiction).  The Planning Commission is different from most boards in that it was created through the city charter.  Being part of the city charter gives the nine board members oversight on capital improvement projects and the physical development of the city.  The board’s recommendations are then taken to city council for vote to become part of the city’s master plan for development over a five-year time frame.  We sometimes forget and take for granted all the steps it takes to see a project come to life, the Planning Commission plays a major role in the government process.

I was pleasantly surprised upon entering the meeting room to see more than 60 people sitting in the audience. Having read the board packet the prior weekend, I knew citizens would be in attendance to speak on Agenda Item 18, a decision to close and barricade vehicular traffic at Ellis Bean railroad crossing located close to Blue Star. The closing was being sought to allow for a full quiet zone in which the trains that use the tracks cannot blow their horn while advancing through the designated area.

Railroad crossing on Ellis Bean Road.

Railroad crossing on Ellis Bean Road. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

More than a dozen citizens, all business owners and local residents, stood and spoke with passion for or against the closure.  Any time citizens take valuable time out of their day to engage with government is a win.  I listened carefully and took notes of what each citizen said.  I would base this particular vote on the fact that it was a quality of life issue.

Ordinary thinking and ordinary effort are almost never enough to generate leadership.” – Seth Godin

My first meeting didn’t change my perspective about the public service process; rather it reminded me how important the Planning Commission is to progressive development in San Antonio.  It also reminded me how important community engagement is and why there is a need for engaged citizens to have a two-way conversation with policy makers.  The Ellis Bean agenda item went to a roll call vote and passed 8 to 1 in favor of closure.

In my opinion the Ellis Bean vote is one of many more important votes to come that will impact San Antonio’s growth and how newcomers and natives perceive our city. Both groups’ perceptions are relevant and important.

Taco Land Construction Nov 2012

Construction at Taco Land, 103 W. Grayson St., continues. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Progressive growth is key to realizing San Antonio’s potential as a fully developed city.  Our city should have the power to retain and attract new citizens and talent through a built environment with a human element.  Visitors, newcomers, and my generation, the Millennials, want to see high quality infrastructure, transportation, walkable communities, and urban core development.  We need to continue investing in downtown, the “soul” of the city, and maintain the human element around it like Southtown and other surrounding upcoming neighborhoods like the near Eastside.

As a new board member on the Planning Commission I want to bring a balance and apply creative solutions to our city’s problems and future challenges.

We must plan for and design for the type of talent and businesses we want to attract to San Antonio. Designing and planning also involve knowing when to let go of a piece of history to create a bolder and brighter future.  Who do we want to see living and working in San Antonio 10, 20 or 30 years from now?  With that in mind, we also have to understand how important it is to retain talent and businesses for continued growth and sustainable economic development. 

I believe anyone at any age can have an impact on society.  I want the challenge of being on the Planning Commission and the opportunity to offer my generational input in bringing new ideas to the table.  I want to have a different conversation by finding the common goals and serving with the best interest of protecting and advancing our community’s quality of life.  There will be other Ellis Bean votes – these types of votes are about understating the huge impact we can make together. The day we see San Antonio attracting developers from around the world, without leaders recruiting and competing for their attention, is a measure of success.  It’s because in San Antonio we’re taking control and planning our future.

Planning Commission meetings are held twice a month and open to the public.  I highly encourage anyone who has an interest in the government process to attend. I look forward to serving on the board with my fellow Planning Commissioners and working with staff members to continue making San Antonio the top quality city we know it already is and can be.  Together we can help our city earn the world-class status it deserves.

To learn more about the planning commission visit its website.

Zac Harris is a local entrepreneur, business owner, social innovator and foodie.  He is a graduate of Leadership San Antonio Class XXXVI and named a “40 under 40” Rising Star by the San Antonio Business Journal.  Zac graduated from Texas A&M University and is married to Brooke, a small business owner at Fresh Urban Flowers located in downtown. Find Zac on Twitter @zacharrisofsatx and LinkedIn, or his offices at Geekdom.

 

 

13 thoughts on “The Call to Public Service: A Millennial Joins the Planning Commission

  1. Congratulations! More young people should step up and be a part of the development of San Antonio however the Planning Commission is not where you should be investing your talents.

  2. @David,
    I am curious as to why you take issue as to where anyones talents should be invested? As a volunteer public servant my talents are being utilized as I best see fit to help our city. I would be happy to discuss any opportunities you may know of where my talents would be better invested. Lets talk over coffee. I office at Geekdom on daily basis.
    Cheers,
    Zac

    • Hey Zac, You are on a Commission that has a huge impact on our our city goes and how it grows.

      I’m glad to you made the cut. It takes time, dedication and consideration of all sides on a variety of issues.

      BJC

  3. Congratulations Zac. I could tell when I first met you that you would get involved in causes that were important to you. I am not surprised that you chose to work towards the betterment of San Antonio. Living here makes one realize how lucky we are to be a part of such a unique city with a tremendous potential for greatness. It’s because of people like you who realize why it’s so important to get involved in community planning when it comes to the growth of our home and enhancing the quality of life for those lucky enough to reside here. Although we should never allow our history to impede our progress we must always be aware of the city’s uniqueness and provide a quality environment for living and enjoying the multiple-cultural heritage of its downtown; past, present and future.

  4. Zac,
    Way to go! Very proud of you, and honored to be a part of your young professional peer group that is changing this city for the better! #foundingLOOPboardmembers

  5. It’s great to see your talents and time evolve in so many forward directions for our city. One point: “Designing and planning also involve knowing when to let go of a piece of history to create a bolder and brighter future.” With the exception of this sentence, I wholeheartedly agree with your piece and find it brilliantly written and eloquently stated. Beginning in 1924, women artists who had traveled and studied fine arts here and abroad, founded the San Antonio Conservation Society. Without their vision in 1927, along with the Beautiful Cities Act, we would have a profoundly different urban landscape and built (or unbuilt) environment. http://utsapreservation.net/resources-2/. We are fortunate to have so many resources available to people like you willing to step up and make that 2-way (or 6-way) dialogue happen more smoothly and more effectively.

    Finding that perfect balance of pragmatism, progressive ideas and preservation has always been a delicate dance for us, but one we continue to participate in year after year resulting in a city truly like no other on earth. Cheers to making all of downtown work more organically. Heck, you are young enough to bring about a Rio Madrid-type project and sink IH37 from 35 to 90. That is transformational thinking on a grand scale.

    Thanks for stepping up for the Planning Commission and thank you for a great article.

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