San Antonio’s 2017 $850 million municipal bond program, the largest bond program in city history, brings with it an opportunity to invest in capital projects across the city. But how much of that should be spent on so-called “transformative” projects and how much should be spent on the growing basic infrastructure needs of the city?
“We can’t adequately go for the future without looking back to the past,” Mayor Ivy Taylor said during the free Build Your Own Bond event Thursday night at the Pearl Stable. Taylor referred to the multi-million dollar backlog of street, sidewalk, and drainage projects that have been long-deferred. “When your neighbors are still walking in mud everyday, there’s no way you can get them to listen to you talk about catalytic projects and a big future.”
There are hundreds, if not thousands of projects in San Antonio that citizens would deem worthy of investment. More than 150 residents, City leaders, and stakeholders discussed some of these ideas and more on Thursday. The gathering was hosted by Centro San Antonio, in partnership with Overland Partners and the Rivard Report, to inform citizens about the City’s 2017 municipal bond process, so that their voices can be heard by City and community leaders when the time comes to determine which projects – big or small – will receive funding come the bond election in May 2017. The City uses bond funds to pay for improvement projects that require large amounts of up-front capital.
A panel made up of civically engaged “city builders” – as the night’s moderator Robert Rivard, director of the Rivard Report, referred to them – shared their ideas about what sort of projects or areas of necessity the City should address with the funds.
“We’ve had bonds that are predominantly for maintenance because we have (a need for it). The question is: How are we going break that cycle? We have to make opportunity for people, and the truth of the matter is there are a set of projects that I think will transform the city and create opportunities,” said Lew Moorman, Tech Bloc co-founder and Rivard Report board member, who recently announced a collaboration with H-E-B and San Antonio Independent School District to bring a new tech-high school to the inner city.
“We have to find lots of urban projects, and if we find them we should fund them and move because now’s the time,” he said. “We’re in a war for talent, we’re in a war for companies, and we’ve got to find those projects.”
Panelist and Overland Partners Designer Siboney Díaz-Sánchez urged City leaders to invest in the communities that are “responsible for that wealth” of heritage and culture in San Antonio by considering diverse community leaders in their appointments for the Citizen Bond Committees. Each committee will advise their respective City Council member on projects their districts would like included in the bond package.
“We need to acknowledge where communities draw from, what brings people to San Antonio. People often use the word ‘authenticity’ but how are you supporting that?” said Díaz-Sánchez, who also serves as the District 1 representative on the City’s Zoning Commission.
In other words, integrating San Antonio’s authentic culture and history will require concrete, action items – beyond political lip service.
“I had an issue with the fact that the new VIA route, the Culture route – VIVA – goes to the McNay, it goes to SAMA, it goes to the Witte, but it doesn’t go to Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center and the Carver (Community Cultural Center). At what point are we investing in these communities that bring the life to San Antonio?”
Public transportation projects should be emphasized in the bond, she added.
Panelist and landscape architect Mario Schjetnan Garduño, who is leading aesthetic design efforts of the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project, believes projects like the San Pedro Creek project and the Alamo Plaza Master Plan, which will use archaeology to uncover and portray the site’s history, are ways to acknowledge and celebrate those communities.
“There’s a beautiful quote form Octavio Paz, a Mexican poet laureate: ‘In every corner of Mexico City, always Cortez and Montezuma clash.’
“It’s a beautiful concept because everywhere you go (that collision of history and culture) is always present. It’s fascinating that you’re digging back (at the Alamo) because yes, it is the pride of Texas Independence, but it takes you back more to the origins of the city which is the connection of two cultures – the culture of Spain and the indigenous culture.”
Such projects are valuable because they do more than improve San Antonio’s live, work, play, Schjetnan said. They create areas of “live, work, play, recreate, cultivate, and educate.”
Taylor, who is undertaking her first municipal bond process as mayor, said San Antonio has a “historic opportunity” to determine the city’s future through the coming bond investments.
“I know we throw around that word ‘historic’ a lot, but when you put it into context what we’re discussing tonight it’s kind of a once in a lifetime chance for (some) of us,” she said. “But there are a lot of questions we should be asking ourselves as we go through this process – are we basing those project investment decisions on years of community-based planning? Do those investments provide multiple benefits?”
Certainly there are many more questions to be asked, Taylor said, and civic leaders and residents alike should continuously ask them until the bond projects are voted on in May 2017.
The City’s SA Tomorrow plan – which has Comprehensive, Sustainability, and Transportation components – is meant to be the blueprint for the unprecedented growth San Antonio will see over the next 25 years. It is a mechanism that will allow the City and community to make “strategic investments instead of using the peanut butter approach” in bond and yearly budget allocations, Taylor said.
“(SA Tomorrow) is not a plan created by bureaucrats. This is a community citizen-directed plan,” said Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8), who serves as a tri-chair of the planning effort. “The points and vision you see in SA Tomorrow are what the public in San Antonio now and in the future wants to see from us. …We have a generational opportunity this year to pass a bond program of $850 million to be a public catalyst of what we want our city to be.”
It’s our civic duty to take initiative and get more of the community involved in the bond process, said Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1).
San Antonio unfortunately doesn’t have a history of such open, civic engagement leading up to the bond process as it does today, Rivard said. Before City Manager Sheryl Sculley came into the picture in 2005, the bond cycle was on an irregular schedule and the largest bond program was only $100 million. In the 2007 bond program, there were still some unfinished projects from 1984.
Now, the bond program runs about once every five years and San Antonio has continuously been awarded the highest possible credit rating by major bond rating agencies. Projects from the 2012 bond are largely on track for timely completion. The City doesn’t anticipate raising property taxes for this year’s $850 million bond program, which is a more than 40% increase from the $596 million 2012 bond.
“We wouldn’t be talking about transformative projects like Broadway or Hemisfair or San Pedro Creek or the Zona Cultural if we didn’t have that kind of fiscal management,” Rivard said.
City leaders aren’t the only ones with vision and power to accomplish such projects, the panelists noted. All citizens should play a role in the city’s trajectory, especially during the bond process.
Centro San Antonio CEO Pat DiGiovanni announced another opportunity for the community to get inspired and involved in the bond planning process on a smaller scale. The organization committed to fund one or more city projects submitted by anyone, based on the recommendations of a community panel. Project budgets can range from $500 to $20,000 and must be focused in one of the three geographic development regions of downtown identified by Centro’s ad-hoc bond committee. Centro will act as project manager and ensure that the chosen project(s) are completed.
To participate, email Britain Garza at BGarza@DowntownSA.org and put “BYOBond” in the subject line. More details will be released soon.
“A lot of times we depend on our elected official (to enact change), and it’s just one person,” said panelist and Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association President Brian Dillard. “We all have to be community leaders. You can’t depend on someone like MLK or Cesar Chavez to come out of left field. You have to be that person, we all have to be that person.”
Top image: From left: San Pedro Creek landscape architect Mario Schjetnan Garduño, Overland Partners designer Siboney Díaz-Sánchez, Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association President Brian Dillard, and Tech Bloc co-founder Lew Moorman discuss the 2017 municipal bond. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.