The year 2015 started with uncertainty for San Antonio, but by mid-year the city had reason to celebrate: The Alamo and four Spanish colonial missions were added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites, the first in Texas and one of only 1,031 cultural treasures to receive the rare international recognition. Of the 23 World Heritage sites in the U.S., only two others are found in cities: Philadelphia with Independence Hall and New York with the Statue of Liberty.
A parallel decision by the Texas Legislature to fund an unprecedented investment in preservation of the Alamo and state funding for a new master plan for redevelopment of the Alamo Plaza added even greater momentum as San Antonio’s civic, business and cultural leaders began to plan for the city’s 300th anniversary in May 2018.
The UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee voted unanimously on July 5 in Bonn, Germany to place San Antonio’s Missions on the World Heritage list. What a different year it would be, in retrospect, had the United States and San Antonio delegations come home without such affirmation.
San Antonio’s World Heritage Committee was made up of members who spent years, even decades, devoted to the cause of Mission and cultural preservation.
The Race for Mayor
The year started with the City’s political leadership in transition. Julián Castro had vacated the mayor’s office for a Cabinet post in the Obama administration six months earlier. Interim Mayor Ivy Taylor was halfway through one year of substitute service, a position she had won after assuring fellow City Council members she would not seek election for a full term as mayor.
There is, of course, no such thing as a promise in politics. Two veteran state legislators, former state Rep. Mike Villarreal and state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, already were seeking the job. Van de Putte has assured voters months earlier that she had no interest in serving as San Antonio mayor. If she lost her lieutenant governor’s race to fellow state Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston), she would serve out her unexpired Senate term. Then she lost the race by a landslide and quickly changed her mind, deciding that San Antonio’s next Hispanic mayor should be her rather than Villarreal.
If Van de Putte could change her mind, so could Taylor. Days before the filing deadline at the end of February, the former Eastside council representative threw her hat in the ring. Winning would make her only the second women to win popular election as mayor and the first African-American to hold the office in one of the most Hispanic cities in the country.
Van de Putte narrowly finished first among the three top candidates in a crowded, some would say ridiculous, field of 14 candidates, many of the others lacking credibility as campaigners or potential officeholders. Taylor prevailed in the second round, carried into office by Northside voters who turned out in far greater numbers than eligible voters in inner city precincts.
The World Heritage Vote
The victory gave Taylor a leadership position along with Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff in the San Antonio delegation that traveled to Bonn for the UNESCO meeting. Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3), a friend and political ally of Taylor and the representative for the Mission district, also was in the delegation. The vote ultimately would usher in a new era of cultural heritage and economic development for the long-neglected Southside that Viagran represents.
Mayoral politics led police union leaders to walk away from the table with the City as collective bargaining talks that began in the Spring 2014 extended into 2015, with no agreement in sight. Union leaders endorsed Van de Putte and saw a sweeter deal in the event of her victory, and police union President Mike Helle hoped, the demise of his nemesis, City Manager Sheryl Sculley. The negotiations were nearing the one-year mark, almost as long since the beginning of the police union and its allies spent heavily on ads attacking the city manager and calling for her ouster.
Firefighter union leaders were nowhere to be seen; both the police and firefighter contracts had expired on Sept. 30, 2014, but the firefighters had yet to come to the table. City officials, determined to bring runaway union health care costs down, stood their ground. Taylor issued a strong vote of confidence in Sculley, a gesture that ended any speculation that a change in city managers was a possibility. Taylor was less successful in calling on the unions to end the personal attacks.
The City’s pending lawsuit challenges current union evergreen clauses, which maintain salary, benefits, or other perks up to 10 years after a contract expires.
Rideshare and the Birth of Tech Bloc
The local taxi industry, a virtual monopoly in San Antonio with a reputation for indifferent service, also was flexing its muscle in a continuing battle to convince City Council to prohibit or tightly regulate rideshare companies Uber and Lyft. The show of force rallies at City Council meetings worked in 2014 when the City passed its first rideshare regulations, considered some of the strictest in the nation.
That ordinance backfired, however, when Uber and Lyft threatened to leave San Antonio, provoking a late but effective outpouring of protest from urban dwellers, millennials and leaders in the local tech industry and at the downtown co-working space and startup incubator Geekdom. A compromise amended ordinance passed by City Council proved insufficient, and Uber led the pullout on March 1, as promised or as threatened, depending on your position on the issue.
The loss of rideshare led local tech leaders, already unhappy with the City’s inability to win a commitment from Google to bring Google Fiber here, to form Tech Bloc. Hundreds of new members crowded into the Pearl Stable for the group’s inaugural event, and organizers quickly arranged for outdoor tents and loudspeakers so hundreds more could participate outside. Afterwards, Southerleigh Brewery was overwhelmed by after-party Tech Bloc participants who rubbed shoulders with officeholders and political candidates and listened to tech investor and former Rackspace President Lew Moorman’s call to arms to join in the local political process, to get active and to start voting.
Tech Bloc played a significant behind-the-scenes role in winning Uber’s return to San Antonio in 2015, and later became active in the debate over annexation and the San Pedro Creek Improvement Project.
By year’s end, Uber was back in business in San Antonio and Lyft was not far behind in returning. The national headlines about a city warring with rideshare companies now focused on neighboring Austin as that city’s leadership passed a restrictive ordinance that appeared to repeat the San Antonio experience.
A New Superintendent for San Antonio’s Inner City Public Schools
San Antonio Independent School District, the inner city’s largest district, hired Pedro Martinez, a Mexican immigrant turned big city education reformer, as its new superintendent. At the same time, Board President Ed Garza, a former San Antonio mayor, stepped down to serve as a trustee, allowing Patti Radle to assume the role as chairwoman.
The leadership changes signaled newfound school board unity to bring in a leader with a mandate to improve public education outcomes and compete with the growing charter school movement. Public education outcomes remain the weak link in San Antonio’s drive to build a downtown that attracts more residents and workers.
After a years-long cycle of severe drought, 2015 brought heavy rains and floods over the Memorial Day weekend. In Central Texas, 12 people died and two others remain missing after being washed away in floodwaters.
LGBTQ Community Wins the Right to Marry
A deeply divided Supreme Court handed down a landmark ruling declaring same-sex marriage legal in late June, forcing Texas and 13 other holdout states to finally recognize the rights of gay and lesbian couples to legally marry in any state and have their marriages recognized throughout the land.
The Spurs Exit Playoffs, then Add Talent
Basketball seasons don’t track calendar years. The Spurs lost their momentum in a seven game series with the Los Angeles Clippers after taking a 3-2 lead. A significant off-season rebuilding effort led to the signing of coveted free agent LeMarcus Aldridge in July, and the franchise was off to one of its best seasons in history as the year ended.
The Weston Urban/Frost Bank P3 Project
City Council gave final approval in June to the biggest downtown real estate play since Hemisfair in the 1960s when it unanimously passed a landmark public-private partnership with Weston Urban and Frost Bank that will add the first new tower to the city’s skyline in 25 years and give Frost Bank a new corporate headquarters. Weston Urban selected the New Haven, Conn. architects Pelli Clarke Pelli to design the tower.
The City of San Antonio will acquire the existing Frost Bank tower in the deal and use it to centralize hundreds more city workers. A number of other buildings and land parcels are part of the deal and associated deals, and hundreds of new residential units will be added to the surrounding blocks as the project develops in concert with the San Pedro Creek Improvement Project.
San Pedro Creek Improvement Project
Promoted as “a River Walk for locals” by Bexar County Commissioners, the $175 million flood control and urban placemaking project aims to restore the heavily channeled San Pedro Creek through the west side of downtown and eventually all the way to its confluence with the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River.
Early design concepts by Muñoz & Co., the architecture firm headed by Henry Muñoz, were the subject of serious criticism on the Rivard Report and at a Tech Bloc-hosted event at the Pearl Stable that featured High Line Park founder Robert Hammond, a San Antonio native who earlier in the year critically reviewed the design concepts at the invitation of Muñoz and went on to recommend the hiring of a nationally recognized landscape architect for the project. Bexar County Commissioners, principal funders of the project, and the San Antonio River Authority, the project manager, went on to hire Mexico City landscape architect Mario Schjetnan, who worked to reduce the manmade architectural features planned by Muñoz, and instead infuse the linear park with more native landscaping, pedestrian pathways, wetlands and other natural features.
The final designs are expected to be completed in early 2016 with construction starting shortly afterwards with a goal of finishing the downtown reach of the creek in time for the city’s 300th anniversary celebrations in May 2018. Funding the balance of the project, which has risen to more than $200 million, remains under discussion with City officials as they review projects for inclusion on the 2017 City Bond.
The name change from Hemisfair Park to Hemisfair was the least of the developments at the former site of the 1968 World’s Fair. The October opening of Yanaguana Garden exceeded all expectations for the four-acre urban playscape and park, and by December more than 100,000 visitors had come to play. Hemisfair officials also announced the selection of developer David Adelman’s AREA Real Estate, as their choice to build a multi-story residential building and adjacent parking garage next to Yanaguana Garden. Officials also predicted they will select a sole finalist for redevelopment of the northwestern corner of the park by early 2016.
A deeply polarized Congress finally passed a 2016 budget in December after lengthy negotiations with Obama administration officials, which included $130 million for the new federal courthouse on West Nueva Street, a major project which had been delayed for five years. The funding opens the way for future redevelopment of the federal courthouse complex on Hemisfair’s southern flank,which will become City property once the new courthouse is constructed on a square block the City has swapped with the federal government.
CPS Energy to Hire New CEO
Praised as a highly-effective leader of CPS Energy, then-outgoing President and CEO Doyle Beneby was offered an eleventh-hour compensation package by the public utility to try to lure him to stay in October. Ultimately, he declined the confidential offer and left to work with the Chicago-based New Generation Power International (NGPI), which named him as its new CEO in September.
SAWS Customers Get a Rate Increase, Vista Ridge Project Continues
After a controversial water report reignited the debate over the Vista Ridge water pipeline, SAWS officials found themselves again defending the public utility and City Council’s decision to move forward with funding the project through incremental rate increases. The project was unanimously approved by Council in October 2014 and the 2016-2017 rate increases approved in November 2015 will, in part, start to pay for the 142-mile pipeline as well as fund sewer infrastructure improvements and the first phase of SAWS’ brackish water desalination project.
Rates are projected to increase 7.5% in 2016 and 7.9% in 2017. The new rates, along with a hotly debated new rate structure aimed at promoting conservation, will take effect on Jan. 1. Opponents to the rate structure and increase protested the vote, saying it disproportionately effected low-income customers.
Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8), among others, vowed to keep tabs on the Vista Ridge project’s progress and finances as Abengoa Sociedad Anónima (SA), the Spanish renewable energy and engineering conglomerate, filed for protection from its creditors in Madrid.
“We made sure through last year’s negotiations that financial protections were built into the Vista Ridge project to insulate SAWS customers from risk,” stated SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente. “The Abengoa Vista Ridge (company) is financially independent and legally separate from the holding company in Spain. That means the San Antonio Vista Ridge project will continue to move forward.”
A Downtown Grocery Store
The H-E-B South Flores Market opened in early December, and the line to get in on day one extended around the block as customers vied for one of the 500 shopping bags that showcased the work of late San Antonio artist and former H-E-B graphics artist Chuck Rodriguez. The grocery store was a major goal for former Mayor Castro and City Manager Sculley, and represents the most prominent name in a growing retail economy developing as more and more people move downtown and to the surrounding neighborhoods.
Hundreds of additional residential units were added to San Antonio’s downtown in 2015 and hundreds more were under construction and on the drawing board as the city continues to outpace its SA2020 goal of adding 7,500 new downtown residents over the decade.
The Broadway Cultural Corridor
The DoSeum, San Antonio’s national caliber children’s museum, opened in June, fueled in no small part by a lead gift of $20 million from H-E-B Chairman and CEO Charles Butt. Farther north, the Witte Museum’s major expansion continued with phase one, the opening of the Mays Family Center on track for 2016.
The Year in Philanthropy
Butt’s gift of $20 million to the DoSeum was the largest single act of philanthropy, but the arrival of the $605 million Santikos Foundation in December promises to help redefine giving to charities and nonprofits in the city and surrounding counties. Other major foundations, notably the Kronkosky Foundation, the Mays Foundation, the Greehey Foundation and the Najim Foundation, continued to play increasingly important roles in the city.
A Military Court Martial at Fort Sam Houston
A senior military commander ruled in mid-December that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl will face a court-martial on charges of desertion and endangering troops to be held at Fort Sam Houston next year.
The decision goes against an earlier recommendation by a military officer charged with reviewing the case not to subject Bergdahl to court-martial and a possible conviction and life sentence after he endured five years of harsh captivity at the hands of the Taliban in Afghanistan. His case has become fodder for Republican presidential primary candidates. Frontrunner Donald Trump has called Bergdahl a “traitor.”
Bergdahl walked away from his remote outpost in 2009 and was almost immediately captured by the Taliban. He was released in a prisoner exchange in 2014. Bergdahl has been held at Fort Sam Houston for the last year and has not had any media contact or public comment since his return, but he has spoken with a Hollywood screenwriter who has recorded hours of their telephone conversations, which are being excerpted in a hugely popular Serial podcast.
*Top image: Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff (left) and Mayor Ivy Taylor hold up their hands to celebrate the official World Heritage designation of San Antonio’s missions. Photo by Scott Ball.