The comprehensive planning process set in motion by Mayor Ivy Taylor in August and chaired by District 8 Councilmember Ron Nirenberg is already giving pause to participating fellow City Council members.
Take the complexity of long-term management of urban development in literally all its facets, add the haze of mayoral politics on the horizon, and what you have is something that looks and feels more like a Rubik's Cube than a road map.
What happens come May, I wondered, if the next mayor does not want to see this enormous, complex initiative continue?
There were fewer than two dozen people at the monthly meeting of the Comprehensive Planning Committee on Thursday as John Dugan, the City's director of planning, laid out what could be a one to two-year process to complete a sequence of comprehensive development, transportation, and sustainability master plans.
The aforementioned Committee is compact: Nirenberg is chair, with Council members Joe Krier (D9), Diego Bernal (D1), and Rey Saldaña (D4) as members. Three City departments are working with the Committee: Dugan's Department of Planning and Community Development, Transportation and Capital Improvements, and the Office of Sustainability.
Stay with me.
Then comes the still-to-be-named Citizen Planning Institute, the Group of 11 Consultants, and the Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee, which will be overseen by tri-chairs: SA2020 CEO Darryl Byrd, Councilmember Nirenberg, and Dr. Afamia Elnakat, an associate professor of research at the UTSA Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute and a faculty member of the College of Environmental Science and Engineering at UTSA.
Under the latter Committee (shouldn't it be a sub-committee of the main Committee?), there will be a Comprehensive Plan Advisory Group that as of Thursday will consist of 50 other entities, including local and regional governments, utilities, institutions of higher education, nonprofits, the military, chambers of commerce, and more.
The tri-chairs will lead the Comprehensive Plan Steering Group and Comprehensive Plan Advisory Group in "establishing and overseeing a community-based process to assist with delivery and implementation of the Comprehensive Plan, Strategic MultiModal Transportation Plan, and Sustainability Plan."
Please see the chart to determine if you are on the list of 50 entities.
The Consultants will form the Plan Element Working Groups, overseeing 11 specialized working groups assigned to produce individual reports with the stated purpose to "provide technical assistance for preparation of Policy Papers." The working groups will be divided into focus areas:
Growth & Urban Form; Transportation & Connectivity; Housing; Green and Healthy Neighborhoods & Communities; Public Facilities & Community Safety; Historic Preservation; Military; Natural Resources & the Environment; Jobs & Economic Competitiveness: Sustainability; and Implementation/Codification Actions.
"Mr. Chairman, one of the things we all have to keep our eye on is that policy papers often are based on the assumptions made going in, so what comes out is what goes in," Councilman Krier wryly observed at one point.
The Citizen Planning Institute will be assembled from a list of individuals nominated by the Mayor and 10 Council members and will serve to "educate residents to create capacity for true partners in the planning process and leaders in implementation."
“One of the challenges in this process is that we’re trying to create the universe in a finite period of time,” Nirenberg told his fellow officeholders. "It’s going to be a bit of a birthing process."
I won't lie: You can't count on me for a completely accurate account of the entire meeting. As I listened to Councilman Krier ask Dugan how this effort would differ from the nonprofit SA2020 community initiative launched by then-Mayor Julián Castro in 2010, I found my mind wandering while squinting to make sense of the tiny print on the City Council flat screens. I wondered what it had been like to attend an early meeting of the Encyclopedia Britannica working group when it began its work.
I took some solace in Krier's continued questioning to clarify the nature of the respective committees and reporting tasks. I wasn't alone. Councilman Bernal joked – I think it was a joke – that it felt like the Committee was creating a "shadow government." I heard Councilman Saldaña make a quip about Dugan's Ph.D. as he clarified that City Council would still be the decision-making body guiding the city through the next one to two years while the comprehensive planning initiative was underway.
"It's a lot of planning, a lot of public participation," Dugan acknowledged at one point. "It’s complex and it’s doubly complex because we’re trying to do four plans at once."
Chairman Nirenberg runs a well-organized meeting, but the challenge is a daunting one. The next-to-last screen of Dugan's presentation, also presented on white boards mounted on easels, was the Combined Planning Efforts Schedule (see top image). I was unable to read any of the type on paper, despite what I am told is my 20/20 vision, and soon realized I couldn't read it on the big screen, either, even sitting less than two feet away.
Please see the image reproduced here for details of the various timelines, which runs from November 2014 to April 2016.
"I think the problem is that we have to make decisions between now and January 2016," said Councilman Saldaña.
The Comprehensive Planning Committee will meet again sometime in November before the Thanksgiving holiday. City staff will be organizing all the materials on a website for public review, which the Rivard Report will share as soon as it is available. In the meantime, you can download Dugan's presentation here.
"This is a slow process and an uncomfortable process to get off the ground," Councilman Nirenberg said at the close of the meeting. "We could go along and not have a process as we continue to grow in San Antonio, but that ended with the SA2020 process in 2010, and the community agreed. I’m optimistic that we can get it done."
*Featured/top image: Just...wow. The Combined Planning Efforts Schedule of concurrent planning efforts.