Scott Ball / Rivard Report
San Antonio City Council unanimously approved Thursday the sale of about 4.6 acres of vacant land and parking lots to the University of Texas at San Antonio as part of the university’s $200 million, 10-year plan to bring more than 10,000 additional students and faculty to its downtown campus by 2028.
The $7,367,000 sale was approved along with the initiation of negotiations for a development agreement between the City and the University of Texas System’s Board of Regents.
It’s the first official City action of many in the two-phase process that will bring UTSA’s College of Business downtown and establish the new School of Data Science and a National Security Collaboration Center. UTSA has plans to build a residential tower at Cattleman’s Square and is seeking private partners to develop and manage a workforce housing project with the City at the historic Continental Hotel building. Bexar County is also contributing property to UTSA as part of the plan.
Most Council members called UTSA’s plan a transformational effort for the historically neglected near West Side.
“It’s hard to imagine a higher and better use of the public land than in partnership with a public university,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said. “UTSA’s expansion will accelerate San Antonio’s ongoing central city resurgence and provide a transformative boost that enhances economic opportunity for generations to come.”
Council members Shirley Gonzales (D5), Rey Saldaña (D4), Rebecca Viagran (D3), and Ana Sandoval (D7) also praised the plan, but said they were concerned that such a large investment could change the cultural fabric of the surrounding neighborhoods and contribute to gentrification.
Before the second phase of the plan begins, which involves the City contributing more land to UTSA on Frio Street, an economic and socioeconomic study will be performed, said Assistant City Manager Lori Houston.
UTSA President Taylor Eighmy said he was aware of possible unintended consequences from the school’s expansion and will continue to coordinate with the City to follow affordable housing policy guidelines outlined in the Mayor’s Housing Policy Task Force recommendations that were recently approved by Council.
Councilman John Courage (D9) said he was wary of approving the land sale without knowing the full amount that the City will have to invest in the project in the future.
“We’ll be making additional contributions, but we don’t know what those are,” Courage said.
As part of the plan, City Council will likely include money from its 2020 capital budget to support the project, but it’s unclear how much that commitment will be.
While Council members Greg Brockhouse (D6) and Clayton Perry (D10) said they are excited to support the plan, they also said they were disappointed that they weren’t privy to details of the development plan earlier in the process.
Eighmy said he intentionally kept the plan confidential in order to honor agreements with various entities involved.
“I was in lockdown mode,” Eighmy said. “I’d like to own that.”
Brockhouse, a longtime critic of City Manager Sheryl Sculley and future challenger of Nirenberg for the mayoral office, said his concern had nothing to do with the plan, rather the lack of communication from the city manager’s office. He said he found at least one developer that was aware of the project before Council members were informed.
“There’s lot of people falling on their sword around here,” he said after City Attorney Andy Segovia offered an apology for not following up on Brockhouse’s request for information. “It’s not your fault either, Andy.”
City Council was briefed in mid-September during a private, executive session before the plan was made public, Sculley said. “I know that you did not attend that meeting,” she said.
Brockhouse said he doesn’t attend executive sessions because he doesn’t think the Council should be engaging in “backroom deals.”
This development plan, like other economic development deals, required confidentiality to protect sensitive information about the different investors, Sculley said.