Last year, District 4 Councilman Rey Saldaña was invited to attend the enlisted airmen graduation ceremony held every Friday morning at Lackland Air Force Base. It's a tradition unknown to most San Antonians, but 35,000 enlistees pass through Lackland each year and nearly 700 graduate each week, ready to embark on their first service assignment. Parents, brothers and sisters, boyfriends and girlfriends travel here from all over the country for the occasion.
The base once had four entrance and exit gates along S.W. Military Drive, but after Sept. 11, 2001, that number shrunk to a single entrance and exit. Saldaña found himself in a bumper-to-bumper traffic that Friday morning as the families of 700 graduates queued up to enter the base. That's when he realized how unattractive that part of his district looked in the eyes of first-time visitors.
"There I was, sitting in backed-up traffic with all these parents from all over the country who were getting their first look at San Antonio, and I realized that we weren't making the best impression," Saldaña said. "If you visit Pensacola, you know you are in a Navy town. It's evident everywhere you go, in the signage and the landscaping, it's very attractive there. San Antonio is the 'Gateway to the Air Force,' but we don't look like it."
That's about to change, thanks to Saldaña's experience one year ago. The 2015 Proposed Annual and Capital Budget includes the initial $1.6 million in funds for the Lackland AFB Corridor Master Plan, which will serve as a blueprint for beautifying the 3.5 mile stretch of S.W. Military Drive between Highway 90 and Old Pearsall Road.
"We owe our military members and their families a great deal for their service,” Saldaña said. “Providing them with a welcoming and safe entry to their base will not only show them our appreciation, but also present them with a positive image of San Antonio.”
For a city that celebrates its military history and its long relationship with the armed forces and the military installations here, it's a long overdue investment and one that will contribute to the continuing makeover of the Southside and its eastern and western edges, evident from the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River, the restoration of the Missions, the building of Texas A&M University-San Antonio, and the development of Port San Antonio and Brooks City-Base.
People from all corners of the city came together in the 1990s to fight the eventual closure of Kelly Air Force Base. Afterwards, they showed far less interest in supporting base redevelopment. In 2001, voters rejected a ballot initiative to devote a 1/8 cent sales tax to the redevelopment and beautification of the former Kelly AFB adjacent to Lackland.
It was a short-sighted decision on the part of voters. Even today, Port San Antonio looks like a former Air Force base rather than a 21st century industrial and manufacturing complex and one of the city's most important jobs centers.
The Lackland Master Plan could prove to be the first step in rectifying that oversight with investment in District 4's military-industrial complex, which has been home to so much San Antonio history and economic development. The project is one piece in the City's 2015 $664.5 million Proposed Capital Budget, which in turn, is part of the overall proposed budget presented to City Council on Thursday.
(Read more: City's Proposed Budget: No Tax Increase, No Frills)
The City's fiscal year runs from October through September, and a number of work sessions and public hearings are scheduled for later this month and early September before the formal budget vote on Sept. 18.
The Lackland Master Plan is one of the more notable projects. Saldaña said the project was born after the graduation ceremony in conversations with his fellow Council members, who quickly agreed military families from around the country deserved a more memorable introduction to San Antonio and the city's military presence. Initial funding was secured and RVK Architects were hired to conduct a study and produce a preliminary plan.
"I took the study to the Infrastructure and Growth Committee, which I now chair, and it was an easy sale with our city's military history and the importance of Lackland," Saldaña said. "That's how we came to get the $1.6 million in next year's budget. I don't know how long it will take to do everything, but I'm excited about construction of the monument."
The $1.6 million will fund the design and construction of Gateway Monument at U.S. Highway 90 at the base entrance. The centerpiece of the design will be a 75-foot-tall stainless steel spire symbolizing "the United States and its citizens." A coiled bronze band encircling the spire will "symbolize all branches of the military embracing and protecting our country," according to budget documents.
A circular green space with planted trees will set off Gateway Monument from the roadway and give arriving guests a sense of place, a realization they are entering a historic Air Force base to attend an important rite of passage.
S.W. Military Drive between Hwy. 90 and Old Pearsall Road will undergo a road diet makeover, making it compatible for multimodal transportation, including pedestrian walkways and bike lanes, with extensive median landscaping and other beautification work.
The Lackland Master Plan also will include a new Southside connection to the Howard W. Peak Greenway Trails, likely paid for with Proposition Two funds. Once built, the cycle track and sidewalks along S.W. Military Drive will connect the northern trail head of the Leon Creek Greenway Trail to the southern trail head at Pearsall Park, giving area residents another recreational option and amenity to encourage a healthier, more active lifestyle.
“The City of San Antonio strongly supports our military community. I applaud Councilman Saldaña’s efforts to enhance this important corridor for our servicemen and women, visitors and nearby residents, and I look forward to working with him to realize the vision that community members and stakeholders have set forth,” said Mayor Ivy Taylor.
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