Rivard: A Bond and a Vision for San Antonio

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Studio8's design, "Broadway Pass: An Urban Community Hub," won the BYOBroadway's People's Choice Award and received a $2,000 prize.

Studio8's design, "Broadway Pass: An Urban Community Hub," won the People's Choice Award and received a $2,000 prize. (Designers: Richard Garrod, Anna Delisle, Stephanie Briseno, Ryan Squyres, Megan Moshier, Miles VanDeWalle, Richard Garrod)

The news from Las Vegas that Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis is committed to moving his NFL team there if local officials will commit $750 million in visitor tax revenues to a new $1.4 billion stadium reminds me that many more people in San Antonio would support a downtown baseball team for a Triple A team if the owners paid half and local leaders did not siphon off bond money for the project.

This time around, Davis is saying publicly that he will put $300 million of his money and a $200 million loan from the NFL into the deal, with a casino owner adding another $150 million. I don’t recall hearing those numbers from him during his San Antonio visit and I have not yet heard San Antonio Missions owner David Elmore publicly commit to paying half the costs of acquiring land and building a ballpark.

San Antonio Missions owner Dave Elmore said he will bring a Triple-A team to San Antonio if the City builds a downtown stadium. Photo by Iris Dimmick

San Antonio Missions owner Dave Elmore said he will bring a Triple-A team to San Antonio if the City builds a downtown stadium. Photo by Iris Dimmick

Third party assurances from officeholders about what is said in private meetings do not persuade me. On the record statements made in front of the cameras are more believable.

The minor league baseball drama has distracted officeholders, City staff, and the public from a much more important conversation: How much of the 2017 bond is going to be spent revitalizing San Antonio’s urban core, and how much is going to be spent trying to keep up with the high cost of sprawl?

It’s the most important question we can ask right now as we await the drafts of Mayor Ivy Taylor’s SA Tomorrow report. Will the report merely predict the coming growth of one million people to the metro area and the challenges that come with that growth, or will it offer specific courses of action and the necessary investment to smartly meet those challenges?

Right now, I am told, the three draft reports – the Comprehensive Plan, the Sustainability Plan, and the Multimodal Transportation Plan – do not contain that degree of specificity, and perhaps it is unrealistic to expect it at this juncture.

Yet such plans are destined for the shelves at City Hall unless they contain actionable items to bring before the voters. Take the Multimodal Transportation Plan as one example: What good does it do to draw a road map for future sprawl and traffic congestion without a specific mass transit action plan to prevent the otherwise inevitable? Yet I am not hearing any serious discussion from Mayor Taylor, City staff or VIA Metropolitan Transit officials about such a plan.

If there is one, or if choices are being discussed, why wouldn’t leadership share that with the public and seek input before arriving at a conclusion? Why wait until a public hearing is just an exercise in checking a box and has no significance in the decision-making process?

My fear: There is no long-term comprehensive multimodal transit option on the horizon. People remain divided over the modern streetcar debacle, and no one can or will break the impasse.

I grew up playing baseball and following Major League Baseball. I’d love to walk to a Missions home game after work from our downtown office, but I don’t want to have that experience because City leaders diverted money from much more ambitious projects.

San Antonio is poised to become a big-hearted city, if we complement the river with destination streets that do not now exist. We are nearly there on the San Antonio River from its headwaters near Brackenridge Park to Mission Espada, one of the nation’s great linear parks. The Park Segment remains to be finished, and the natural creek meander and banks with native plantings need to replace the Catalpa-Pershing Channel, an unsightly concrete drainage ditch.

What is truly missing is a parallel path along a sequence of destination streets and parks that will parallel that river from start to finish. Imagine a redesigned Broadway and a redesigned Brackenridge Park forming the northern end of that panorama.

North End History and Walking Area. Courtesy of Brackenridge Park Conservancy.

Rendering of the North End History and Walking Area, proposed by the Brackenridge Park Master Plan. Courtesy of Brackenridge Park Conservancy.

New gateways would connect the street and the park and to the east, connect Broadway to the San Antonio Botanical Gardens and Mahncke Park neighborhood, and farther south, into the Dignowity Hill Historic District and redesigned Dignowity and Lockwood twin parks.

Proceeding down Broadway and the bustling River North section, Broadway would take locals and visitors to Hemisfair with its Civic Park, enlivened for the first time in more than 50 years by people who live, work and play there. Travelers heading west would take Commerce and Houston streets into the newly-designated Zona Cultural and into the near-Westside.

Within the western quadrant of downtown, the city will be redefined by the San Pedro Creek Improvement Project and everything that springs alive alongside it and in the surrounding blocks. We will see an unprecedented wave of new development over the next five years as the new Frost Bank Tower takes its place on the skyline, and around it we see new apartments, condos, retail, green space and street life.

The possibilities for the Mercado area suddenly become much more, and the prospect, someday, of an authentic Mexican market with genuine, handcrafted goods and folk art attracting the kind of visitors to the city who do not shop for trinkets and souvenirs. They shop for authentic experiences.

Such investment will set the stage for the eventual revitalization of the entire Westside, now walled off from downtown by the Bexar County jail, bail bond row, I-10, and the underutilized warehouse district.

Those who continue south from Hemisfair will find themselves in Southtown along South Alamo Street to South St. Mary’s Street, the gateway to the city with its heart. Lone Star is the next big building block in terms of private investment. The opportunity for the City in the 2017 bond is the transformation of a three-mile stretch of Roosevelt Avenue from Roosevelt Park to Mission San José and the creation of a true Mission District that beckons from the Mission Reach and the streetscape.

The Lone Star Brewery. Photo by Scott Ball.

The Lone Star Brewery. Photo by Scott Ball.

Some months ago, City Council allocated $600,000, if memory serves, from the Tree Canopy Preservation and Mitigation Fund for the purchase and planting of trees on municipal golf courses. Imagine if those trees instead were being planted on the Southside to beautify what we call the Mission District. Imagine the goodwill it would engender among residents worried about the incursion of unwelcome development.

That’s not bond money, of course, but it does suggest a new way of thinking about how we spend our scarce resources in concert with larger, long-term development goals. The golf course superintendents can afford to share for a few years.

All of what I described is within reach in the 2017 bond if the urban core wins its fair share of investment. It’s tempting to call for $300 million for the 300-year anniversary that San Antonio will celebrate in May 2018. It might not cost so much.

We should be publicly discussing ideas like mine right now as City staff debates the size of the bond, prioritizes projects and negotiates with Mayor Taylor and the 10 districts over individual district projects and citywide projects. Most of what I have described would be citywide projects, smartly considered as a whole and not piecemeal.

Eventually, citizens will be offered the opportunity to join the discussion, but it will not happen until the fall when the Community Bond Committee chairs are selected and citizens are chosen to serve on those committees. I am not saying the committees are only there for show, but they are not going to be a significant player in the high level decision-making process.

The decisions will already be made by then, the allocations set. Tweaks will be made by the committees, citizens will be heard, but there will not be conversations like the one I am asking the City to have with its citizens now. That conversation starts with how much debt the City can afford to carry, and the pros and cons of settling for, say, a conservative $750 million bond, or reaching higher and making it an aggressive $1 billion bond.

Imagine the San Antonio as I pictured it above, north to south, east to west. Wouldn’t that be a destination city for talented workers and their families and the kind of visitors we want to attract to our World Heritage city? Imagine the private sector investment such public investment would spark?

For the average engaged citizen with no special access to elected officials or senior City staff, no official forum exists to voice our concerns. On the other hand, at the recent Build Your Own Broadway event we helped organize and sponsor at Pearl Stable offers clear evidence people do want a forum, even if it isn’t an official one, to make themselves heard. Voting in a bond election is not the same as having a say in a bond election.

The Rivard Report invites your own ideas for investing bond dollars in the city. What projects do you want to see funded? What’s your vision? It could be something as simple as a sidewalk on a street unsafe for walking, or it could be something more complex. We would like to invite your ideas and then share them with our audience.



 This story was originally published on Sunday, May 1.

Top image: Studio8’s design, “Broadway Pass: An Urban Community Hub,”  won the People’s Choice Award and received a $2,000 prize. (Designers: Richard Garrod, Anna Delisle, Stephanie Briseno, Ryan Squyres, Megan Moshier, Miles VanDeWalle, Richard Garrod)

Related Stories:

Rivard: Mayor Taylor’s $75 Million Swing and a Miss

Nirenberg Calls For Light Rail Debate, Inclusion in 2017 Bond

San Pedro Creek Project Pitched for 2017 City Bond

City Council: Let’s Focus on the Basics with $750 Million Bond

Urban Literacy: What is a Municipal Bond?

11 thoughts on “Rivard: A Bond and a Vision for San Antonio

  1. Love this piece! I couldn’t agree with you more. Currently living downtown at Peanut Factory, I wholeheartedly agree that we need better and smarter development in the urban core of this city.

    With a million or more people moving into SA, we should have smarter living options downtown instead of spending the money to expand the city. Expanding the city will only make things worse such as traffic, my god look how bad Austin is already.

    I grew up on the Southside all my life and can’t wait to see the day where the Mission District is truly world class. My home district deserves it! If we wanted to, we could truly make this city much more walkable. In doing so, adding smarter transportation will only encourage more people to walk as well once they get to their destination.

    I am loving all the new apartments being built and renovated downtown. We need to keep this up instead of discouraging it or slowing down its progress. Downtown will be the place to work, so why not the place to live as well?

  2. Bob, as you can imagine I agree with your push to go big – and the places you want to prioritize. We have a chance to set SA on a new vibrant path and we need to seize it.

    However, you, nor Mayor Castro, nor anyone in the “downtown” lobby has done to date is make the clear case of why this is good for all of SA. Why it is urgent and critical to our future. You assume it is a given that a vibrant core matters. While self evident to you, the case needs to be made before pushing for the core actions – in fact, this is why we have underinvested. We just don’t have broad agreement on a strategy.

    Here are the elements of the argument I think you should blow out in the coming months:

    1. Cities are in a war for talent. Companies go where the talent is regardless of cost. The next generation of talent clearly wants to be in dense vibrant urban centers. There is tons of data to prove this fact.

    2. The investments in the core have HUGE upside. You should blow out the returns to the city on river extension. The upside on central property is unlimited…for the simple reason that it is limited. So the city can spend money and generate more revenue forever.

    3. The spillover effects are incredible. Look at how Pearl is changing the eastside! Imagine what San Pedro creek will do for the west side. Want to revitalize the south side – move the center of the economy to the center of the city (it is N Loop 410 today). Just look at South Austin.

    4. In the long run the property values of the current suburbs will rely on the power of our economy and city center. There is always cheaper land and newer houses farther out of town. The power of location will drive values. And the current suburbs will be closer to the center…so they need a strong downtown too.

    5. Finally, anyone who loves SA and would like to see their children find robust opportunity here must go back to point 1. We educate our kids, ship them to college station or lubbock or wherever…and where do they go after? Not here often enough.

    This argument has to be made first. We need to agree on a strategy. We can’t assume the tactics you describe add up to a strategy to anyone. Other cities have made the argument of building their core and are investing like mad – and realizing vibrant growth. Let’s make the case. If successful, the investments will come much easier.

    SA has as much potential as any city in the US. Thanks for pushing a dialog on how to achieve it!

  3. Brilliant article — there is so much potential for central SA, but it needs funding to have any chance at being realized. Money for sprawl needs to stop in Texas…

  4. In order for citizens to be involved, we have to be educated in how the city tax and bond system works. In how projects become reality and how we the average citizen, who are busy with their work and their family, can become a voice. Many citizens would like to make an input but we don’t know the overall process. And when people don’t know what they are getting involved with, they “run the other way”. Perhaps an article/guide on how all this works is the first step. The second step would be on how they can get involved. And I don’t mean showing up to a meeting and “listening.” I mean showing up to a meeting knowing the issues and ready to make their suggestion. Feeling confident about understanding the overall process from voicing their/our concerns to the ribbon cutting ceremony is the first step in making our city a great place to live. Citizens will feel that they have something do with the building, efficiency and construction of the community. Thank you for this opportunity to be heard.

  5. My fear: There is no long-term comprehensive multimodal transit option on the horizon. People remain divided over the modern streetcar debacle, and no one can or will break the impasse.

    Honestly, I hope comprehensive transportation is looked at last—sure, keep up your major arteries for mixed vehicular use, do beautification, etc., but a comprehensive plan needs to await driverless or autonomous cars. They are just on the horizon and they are going to change *everything* from how we own automobiles to how we use them. That is going to affect so, so much in cities like ours that were built for the car.

    So while we need to have parks and CBD updates, like, yesterday, we really shouldn’t go sinking hundreds of millions into these cute-sy or stereotypical transportation projects like light rail and trolleys. Not until we know how’ll they’ll fit with autonomous cars.

  6. This is not a relevant comment, but I have grown frustrated with the city/county’s continued tax abatements for apartment buildings without any requirements for ground floor retail. Almost all of the new apartments have a negligible amount of retail, if any, and instead just leech off the community that others have built. How are we supposed to create a thriving Broadway corridor or Downtown when giant apartments take up prime Broadway-fronting or River-fronting property yet contribute nothing to the surrounding area other than bodies? I understand that in the beginning our goal was simply to add bodies, but we should be able to be more selective now if we’re going to give away millions of dollars. Examples of include the River House and Rivera apartments, as well as the planned Encore Riverwalk and recently completed Agave. Glad to have more people in the area, but there are still very few places for everyone to go.

  7. I agree with Lew. While many of us downtown cheerleaders assume everyone understands the benefits, there are a lot of people outside the Loop that do not. We need to make the case that everyone benefits from downtown investments, not just people that live downtown. For example, how does downtown investment directly benefit a Northside voter? THAT is the story we should be telling (not only Northside, but all sides). More jobs, higher tax revenues that pay for city services, HOT dollars that fund local projects, etc.

  8. I couldn’t agree with “ahs” enough! I am very displeased at the idea of not having any retail on ground level spaces. WHY?!?!? Dense, urban cores have walkable places to go and bar-hop, shop-hop and simply travel by foot with ease, constantly being stimulated by the activity at eye level. you can have a million people downtown but if there is no street level retail, it can STILL look and feel dead, (take Houstons downtown for example).

  9. Hear hear! I’d like to see the San Pedro Creek project extended north all the way to San Pedro Springs park, one of the oldest municipal parks in the country. If instead of a VIA bus depot and corporate office sitting on top of the creek just below its headwaters we had an extension of the park and a linear creek trail extending into downtown, this amazing but neglected attraction could become San Antonio’s Central Park.

    In the same general vicinity, improvements to Fredricksburg Road for bicycling and walking would be very welcome. The commercial corridor is extremely underutilized, and needs to be bolstered by street design that serves the needs of those going to Fredricksburg over those using it to get to somewhere else. From Hildebrand to Flores, lets reimagine Fredricksburg Rd as a place we want to be out walking with our families, shopping, dining, or getting to the soon to be opened Martinez Creek trail.

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