Councilman Nirenberg: SA Tomorrow and the Road Ahead

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Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) shows his son, Jonah, a map of San Antonio in City Hall. Photo by Jonathan Alonzo.

Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) shows his son, Jonah, a map of San Antonio in City Hall. Photo by Jonathan Alonzo.

In 2016, Erika and I will celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary. At 24, I found myself head-over-heels, married, and dreaming of the life we wanted to build together: a home in San Antonio, raising a family, and in careers we loved. It would have been nice to have a roadmap to that bright future, some guidance about career changes, parenting in the 21st century, or how to be the kind of husband that your wife falls in love with every year. But most of us tend to think about the big picture first, focusing on outcomes rather than planning for them. It’s what gives us vision, inspiration, and what makes us optimistic about our futures. We work hard every day for those grand outcomes.

And so it is with San Antonio, our beloved city. We think of it as a celebration of diversity, and a city rich in history and world heritage on the verge of its 300th anniversary. We have a vision – one shaped by our entire community, SA2020 – with one glorious outcome: to be the safest big city in America, growing sustainably and equitably, and investing in its human capital.

Erika Prosper (left), holds her son, Jonah, with her husband Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8). Photo by Jonathan Alonzo.

Erika Prosper (left), holds her son, Jonah, with her husband Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8). Photo by Jonathan Alonzo.

But much like it takes planning, deliberate action and, sometimes, painstaking attention to details to build a life together, so will it take to make our city’s vision a reality. In 2016, we will deliver a roadmap – SA Tomorrow – for our collective outcome, and my hope for San Antonio is that, together, we follow it.

What We Need to Plan For

The challenges facing our city are real, and they are here. The Austin-San Antonio corridor is among the fastest growing regions in the country, and conservative projections show the Bexar County population doubling over the next 35 years. By 2040, we expect over one million new San Antonio residents who will demand 500,000 new jobs and road capacity for an additional 500,000 vehicles.

Meanwhile, the region’s economy, which has for decades been grounded in the military, medicine, and tourism, faces increasing pressure from competition locally and globally. The need to re-equip the city’s workforce has never been more critical, as San Antonio’s new pillar industries – from cybersecurity to biosciences to advanced manufacturing – require a workforce that we are not importing nor creating in sufficient quantities.

And our natural environment, so long a strategic advantage, has begun to require more stewardship than our public policy has historically been willing to give it.We can no longer take for granted that water will be available and affordable forever, and we have to face that federal air pollution regulations will begin costing us a lot of money.

These are challenges we must plan to act on in 2016.

Taking Deliberate Action

By the time the first draft of the SA Tomorrow comprehensive plan is released in mid-2016, the 2017 Bond Program process will be well underway, with citizens, civic and business leaders, and City Council identifying our major capital improvement priorities. Scheduled for a May 2017 vote, the bond program will be our first and best effort to “put our money where our mouth is” when it comes to achieving the community’s vision for San Antonio. It should be focused on long term solutions, durable infrastructure projects, and SA Tomorrow should be the blueprint for all of that spending.

Emily Bowe (middle) listens in during a creative brainstorming session. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

80/20 Foundation Operations Manager Emily Bowe (center) and TechBloc Executive Director Marina Gavito (right) listen in during an SA Tomorrow creative brainstorming session on sustainability. Photo by Scott Ball.

Two critical priorities already made clear during the SA Tomorrow planning process are improving community health and providing new, multimodal transportation solutions. The bond program should make significant progress on both, and in 2016, we must deliver a comprehensive and achievable multimodal transportation plan, one that connects our suburban communities with the urban core, leverages a better transit system, relives traffic down the growing North/South corridor and truly transforms the way we do transportation in the nation’s seventh largest city. We shouldn’t be afraid to talk about, ask the public about, or invest in any mode of transportation if it is comprehensive and addresses real mobility challenges.

Similarly, work to connect the Howard W. Peak Greenway Trails should not only continue, it should accelerate and expand. Voters in May 2015 approved the largest ever allocation to the linear creekways – a model project nationwide – and we should begin leveraging the network as one element of multimodal transportation system, not simply as a recreational amenity, connected to B-Cycle stations, community centers, neighborhoods, and commercial areas.

It is also vital that 2016 be the year we fully implement an early action air quality plan. While it is a virtual certainty that we will lose our attainment status in 2017 because we have exceeded the old standard since 2012, the further out of compliance San Antonio is, the costlier it becomes. The Austin region recently conducted an analysis that showed economic losses of up to $40 Billion over a 30-year period if it was designated nonattainment. We can’t afford what ignoring air quality would mean to public health nor our economy.

This kind of action, however, is not sustainable without finding harmony among countless – often duplicative or conflicting – economic development efforts in the region. We need to overhaul our priorities, tools, and rules for economic development agreements, so that while we attract jobs at all levels, we use every opportunity to seed growth of higher wage, emerging industries.

Adam Arroyo works on a Jet Engine. Photo courtesy of Alamo Colleges.

Student Adam Arroyo works on a Jet Engine. Lockheed Martin’s Kelly Aviation Center specializes in support of aircraft engines that power both military and commercial aircraft. Photo courtesy Kelly Aviation Center.

That’s because nothing we do will be as important as cultivating a workforce that is ready for 21st century careers. In 2016, we need to unite the disparate partners in education – school districts to universities to community colleges to charters – on the goals of literacy, college and career readiness, and bridging the gap between the skills our workforce has and the skills they will soon need. Revitalization of the urban core and development of the south, west, and east sides – particularly housing construction – should be informed by what families and those schools need to succeed: a focus on housing that is safe, equitable, and affordable, with access to technology, child care, and public transportation.

Details We Can’t Overlook

SA2020 is a bold vision, and to be achieved through SA Tomorrow, it will require laser focus on the elements of a healthy community with healthy governance.

We can’t overlook the fact that there is a large – and growing – portion of our community that is living on the outside of a great city and looking in. Nearly 20% of San Antoniansand roughly a quarter of all children – live at or below the federal poverty level. Parents are forced to spend more time away from their kids just to make ends meet, a leading indicator for low achievement and dropping out of high school. As the cost of living increases – from utility bills to rent in once-affordable neighborhoods – the challenges to those families and the community-at-large get too large for public policy to ignore. The building blocks to a healthy city must acknowledge that reality, and in 2016, they must also be dedicated to reversing it.

After working with local governments in over 20 cities across the country during my years at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, it is undeniable that a resilient city is also a civically engaged one. Our greatest, most precious resource in a democratic society – and one that has grown alarmingly scarce – is an active and informed citizen. Public participation was the fundamental upon which SA2020 was based, and the same is true for SA Tomorrow. What it reveals is that, like our dismal local election turnout, for myriad reasons, we have a crisis of public participation. That’s why I started the discussion about moving municipal elections to November of even years, when we know participation is three to four times better. In 2016, we need to get serious about increasing civic engagement.

Rachel McDevitt holds her bike up just before voting. Photo by Scott Ball.

Rachel McDevitt holds her bike up just before casting her vote in the June 2015 election. Photo by Scott Ball.

What is also undeniable across our country is that there is a crisis of public trust that we should do everything we can to resolve. That’s why I’ve repeatedly called for increasing transparency in our processes – from broadcasting Council B Sessions and SAWS board meetings to more public hearings on critical issues to open town halls at schools, restaurants, community centers, and online. I’m very pleased that city management will further lift the veil of city decision-making by placing audio transcripts of all council committee meetings online starting this month and that we will receive proposals for an open data platform for online access to detailed budget information in time for fiscal year 2017.

“Have you made the world better?

That’s what my son Jonah asks me every day, his version of a performance evaluation.

In 30 years, Jonah will be my age, and he and his peers will have inherited a city that is markedly different than it is today. Whether we exert our influence to ensure that the intervening years are beneficial or destructive for that future, rests on our ability to make difficult choices now. While municipal government is structured around the short term, limited impact of district boundaries and two-year terms, we need to think big, act with purpose on the plan we establish, and govern for our children and grandchildren.

That’s the road ahead as I see it. In 2016, will you join us?

*Top image: Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) shows his son, Jonah, a map of San Antonio in City Hall. Photo by Jonathan Alonzo.

Related Stories:

An Annexation Conversation With Councilman Ron Nirenberg

SA Tomorrow: Virtual Town Hall Shows Future of Civic Engagement

SA Tomorrow: It’s Your Turn to Plan San Antonio’s Future

A&M Study Ranks Worst Traffic Congestion in Texas

SA Tomorrow Survey to Inform Future of Bike Infrastructure, Culture

7 thoughts on “Councilman Nirenberg: SA Tomorrow and the Road Ahead

  1. Very good summation of the priorities on San Antonio’s “to do” list, Ron. Thanks for your indefatigable service to our community.

  2. Instead of planning for 500,000 more cars, why shouldn’t we plan for viable mass transit options and smart infill development? Wouldn’t that result in much better outcomes?

  3. I plan to see light rail in San Antonio in my life time. I was amazed to see light rail in the Canary Islands this fall, while on travel. These are islands in the Atlantic that were created by volcanos millions of years ago. They belong to Spain. They have a good economy, great housing and great downtowns. In the past campaigns the focus was to connect work centers and that still could be a target as well as our outlying towns.
    I commend you on your vision for the future. We need to be progressive, I fear that the more we lose young persons to other cities and gain more retirees that are fiscal conservatives the efforts to move forward will be stymied.

  4. I love your vision. We do need some sort of rail system to ease congestion. We still need more parks and hike and bike trails. Harberger linear park is a start!

  5. Councilman Nirenberg,

    I like the way you think and think you’d be a formidable candidate for mayor if you choose. But one topic I’d like to hear your opinion on is public health, specifically your plan to combat the relatively high rate compared to the rest of the nation. While there have been public health initiatives such as b cycle, more bike paths, and various parks improvements, none have seemed to result in moving the needle much. Thanks so much for your efforts to make SA a better place.

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