I’ve sat through a number of City of San Antonio master planning meetings and workshops, including some of the many, well-attended brainstorming events for the Mayor’s SA2020 initiative. These sessions are long, often tedious “labors of love” for me and thousand of other citizens, who are honored to serve our community and take the responsibility seriously.
Master plans are developed by cities, with input from its citizens – especially those in the affected neighborhoods – as guidelines for future development. City councils can address a variety of development issues, by adopting plans that range from a bike master plan, a neighborhood plan, community plan, historic preservation plan, or an entire city master plan. A city is obligated to not just follow the tenets of these adopted master plans, but to involve the stakeholders who provided input for the plans if deviations from the adopted plans are contemplated.
Above all, a city is obligated to make decisions that affect neighborhoods through an open, transparent process. Unfortunately, this has not been the case with the recent request by the City of San Antonio to permanently close a section of South Main Avenue for the exclusive benefit of the H-E-B Corporation.
It is common knowledge that special interests may receive special privileges from governments that ordinary interests – the citizens in general – do not receive. The local supermarket chain H-E-B, which has been a model corporate citizen in San Antonio for many years, is important to the economy of our city. The citizens of San Antonio are well served by their local H-E-B supermarket, and the benevolence of the corporation is distributed through numerous charitable causes.
However, H-E-B seems to be using its influence to circumvent the normal public planning process in an effort to expand its headquarters campus at the historic Arsenal at South Main and César Chávez, behind the closed doors of city hall. And the process is being expedited so that those who legitimately oppose the closing of the street are left to scramble to demonstrate how the city is not following its own adopted policies.
According to a 2011 San Antonio Express-News article, long before the City of San Antonio issued an RFI to solicit interest in building a grocery store downtown, the City had been in discussions with H-E-B to not just expand its property, but to take over part of South Main Avenue. And now, H-E-B is using the leverage of the grocery store to obtain the street. The grocery chain has not been forthcoming about its specific plans, releasing only some of them after pressure was applied by local neighborhood groups, which generated a flurry of bad publicity in the media. Nevertheless, a formal process involving the public to assess the impact of the street closure or changes to existing City-developed plans and other initiatives, was not conducted.
What started out as a much desired request for a downtown grocery store has evolved into an abuse of political influence to support a blatant ‘land grab’ of a public street that is over six times the size of the proposed grocery store. H-E-B’s additional demand that gasoline pumps be located on an important downtown corner further violates common urban infill precepts. The public has been asked to entirely bless a mere concept of a proposal at a very incomplete level of analysis.
The agenda for Wednesday’s Planning Commission states, “The disapproval of this request would prevent Petitioner from implementing its current master plan to accommodate necessary growth for additional employees and from providing adequate space for the development of downtown grocery store at this site.” This is not the case at all. The Incentives section of H-E-B’s proposal dated June 2, 2013 reads:
1. South Main Street
A. Intent. In order to accommodate existing uses and to develop the Downtown Store, H-E-B requires that the City permanently close and vacate the portion of South Main Street between Cesar E. Chavez and East Arsenal Street (The “ROW”) prior to the commencement of construction.
However, the conceptual site plan, labeled “Small Urban Store,” which was attached to the H-E-B proposal, shows the grocery store at the northwest corner of the site and South Main Avenue kept as a public street. The fact is that if H-E-B does not acquire South Main Avenue, it still will have “adequate space for the development of downtown grocery store at this site,” and its own drawing proves it.
It also proves that H-E-B officials have been disingenuous in many their claims, including their statement that they want to restore the Arsenal to its original configuration. The proposal to build a 10,000 square foot – much smaller than requested grocery store (the original incentive RTP called for a 15-20,000 square feet) – is a thinly veiled excuse for city leaders to convey ownership of the public right-of-way for corporate encroachment.
In fact, in its original proposal, H-E-B commits to keeping the grocery store in operation for only five years; whereas, they will be able to keep the right-of-way of South Main in perpetuity – forever. This is clearly a win-lose proposition – with H-E-B the winner and the citizens of San Antonio the losers.
It also must be understood that H-E-B has no ‘plan’ for the actual South Main Avenue right-of-way, other than using it as a public park and parking spaces, and the company apparently didn’t thoroughly consider any other options besides closing the street.
As a starting point, imagineSanAntonio applied some common urban planning ‘best practices’ techniques to study ways that H-E-B could expand in the future and provide the grocery store it intends to build. We prepared 3-D models of the existing site and H-E-B’s proposed master plan concept, as well as several options.
We concluded that H-E-B can achieve the desired growth of its Arsenal complex without closing a section of South Main Avenue. Our proposed solutions show the some of the schemes that we developed:
Solution #1 would place all of H-E-B’s corporate facilities on their current campus – without closing South Main Avenue. Instead of building the corporate buildings along South Flores Street, as they indicate in their conceptual master plan, the new headquarters buildings could be constructed at the northeast corner of their property, with a much more pleasant view overlooking the San Antonio River.
A parking garage could then be built at the northwest corner of their property to accommodate the lost surface parking and the increased number of employees. Solution #1 would consolidate their facilities in a more compact arrangement, which would increase convenience and security. This solution would be far less expensive to build than the $100 million pledged to invest in their proposed development, and it would give them space and money to perhaps construct a mixed-use complex on the east side of South Flores.
Solution #2 proposes that South Main Avenue be converted into what is called a ‘complete street.’ “Complete streets are defined as roadways that take into account all users, including people driving cars, using transit, riding bikes, walking, and using wheelchairs,” according to the City’s Complete Streets Policy adopted in 2011.
By converting the street into a ‘complete street’ the speed of the traffic would be reduced by narrowing the roadway to two traffic lanes with separate bike lanes and sidewalks with abundant street trees, as shown in the Cross Section of South Main Avenue.
Solution #2 also would allow H-E-B to construct a mixed-use complex on the east side of South Flores, which would benefit the community and help meet one of the mayor’s primary SA2020 goals of building more housing downtown.
The point of our exercise is to show that there are many solutions available to H-E-B to expand its facilities besides acquiring the South Main Avenue right-of-way. H-E-B should exercise a minimum level of due diligence by exploring the several other available options.
imagineSanAntonio supports the right of H-E-B to expand its headquarters, but not unless there is an inclusive and transparent planning process.
We support walkable neighborhoods that are connected to the rest of the city. We support a process whereby H-E-B would engage its neighbors and the City in investigating alternative solutions to the company’s expansion issues and methodically develop a win-win solution.
To date, the only solution that H-E-B has offered is one that would benefit only H-E-B: closing South Main Avenue. Closing streets – the "taking" of public property – at the request of a private entity without the due process of the involvement of the public who developed the City master plans and other guidelines sets a bad precedent. Ignoring master plan and guideline documents that were developed through extensive public meetings and adopted by the City Council is an insult to the hard-working civic-minded people who volunteered their time to participate in the meetings and work sessions – at the request of their elected leaders.
We oppose the privatization of the section of South Main Avenue as contrary to the goals of many recently adopted City initiatives including the Mayor’s SA2020, the Downtown Neighborhood Plan (1999), the City Center Strategic Neighborhood Plan (2011), Bicycle Master Plan (2011) and the Lone Star Community Plan (2013), all of which involved substantial input from citizens within the adjacent community and the city at large. This is undemocratic and unacceptable.
Where was the H-E-B participation in the many public planning efforts when South Main Avenue was specifically identified as an arterial street and bike lane? Now they want to override decisions made in good faith by citizens in those many public input meetings? These applicant-added, self-imposed demands are contrary to commonly understood principles of good urban planning, the precepts of which are found in most of the City-adopted plans.
imagineSanAntonio respectfully requests that members of the Zoning and Planning Commissions and elected City Council members table the City request to vacate and abandon the public South Main Avenue for H-E-B’s use as a private park for its employees and parking spaces. In addition, we request the rezoning request for the corner parcel be tabled, until a full analysis of feasible mitigation solutions is provided. The City of San Antonio and its citizens should not be held to the low standard of development that is being proposed in the ever-changing set of very conceptual drawings. The needs of a great corporate citizen can be met without taking a public street. H-E-B and Charles Butt can win. The community can win. Our elected officials can win. Everyone can win, leaving South Main Avenue open, and without the vehicle-centric, anti-pedestrian land use of a gas station. Our Decade of Downtown deserves better.
Bob Wise is president of imagineSanAntonio, a multi-disciplinary, non-profit organization that focuses on sustainable urban environments and improving the quality of life in San Antonio.