Ron Nirenberg, completing his first term as mayor of San Antonio and in the midst of a tough race against Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) for a second term, represented District 8 for four years and launched major planning and policy initiatives during his two years as mayor.
Nirenberg, 42, often cites his family – his wife, Erika Prosper, an executive in H-E-B’s communications department and former chair of the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and his 10-year-old son, Jonah – as the core motivation for wanting to deliver on his campaign promise and slogan to make San Antonio “the city you deserve.”
“In a little over 6 years, when I hopefully serve my last term as mayor, my son Jonah will be graduating from high school,” Nirenberg said during his recent State of the City address. “He’ll have his whole life ahead of him and will have to decide where he wants to pursue his future. My challenge, our collective work, is to build a city that he can be proud of, a place that enables everyone to discover what makes them happy.”
Nirenberg, born in Boston, originally came to San Antonio to attend Trinity University. He represented District 8 for four years before unseating incumbent Mayor Ivy Taylor in 2017.
Here’s a look at some of Nirenberg’s accomplishments as mayor and issues on which he has drawn criticism over the past two years.
The ‘Equity Lens’
Though he often credits Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) for pushing the City to apply its first “equity lens” to its budget, it was Nirenberg who led Council to approve the budget – which prioritized historically neglected street repair – for fiscal year 2018.
The money was divided among districts with the lowest average street condition. Meanwhile, Brockhouse pointed out, other districts with failing streets, including his, received the baseline amount. The fiscal year 2019 budget used a different methodology and each district received extra money.
The 2019 budget also included and emphasis on affordable housing program funding, another application of the equity lens.
Housing Policy Task Force
Nirenberg formed a five member Housing Policy Task Force in 2017, which ultimately had five “technical working groups,” each with 20-30 members, to formulate the City’s first-ever comprehensive affordable housing policy.
Five action items emerged in the task force’s report: develop a coordinated housing system; increase City investment in housing; increase affordable housing production, rehabilitation, and preservation; protect and promote neighborhoods; and ensure accountability to the public.
City Council adopted the 10-year, nearly $4 billion plan, funded through private and public sources, in 2018. Nirenberg struck a compromise with advocacy coalition COPS Metro Alliance, which wanted a more aggressive implementation plan. The city is one year into a three-year work plan.
“One in three San Antonio families is burdened by housing costs, and it’s even worse for renters,” Nirenberg said. “This challenge not only affects individual families but our entire economy, and this challenge can quickly become an insurmountable crisis like it has in so many other cities if we don’t act. So when I became mayor, we took action.”
Brockhouse criticized the plan as an “overreach” of City government interfering with the housing market but supported pieces that would remove some red tape for housing developers. He was absent from the dais as the vote was happening but said afterward that he would not have voted for the plan to subsidize housing.
During his first State of the City address in 2017, Nirenberg announced ConnectSA, a nonprofit formed to develop a comprehensive multimodal transportation plan – complete with tangible projects that would go to voters in 2020. ConnectSA revealed its 21-year draft framework in December. It calls for an estimated $1.3 billion in additional funding for projects and initiatives through 2025 and an additional $1.4 billion through 2030.
The plan is expected to include nearly all types of transportation save for rail and toll roads, which have proved unpopular with San Antonians. Nirenberg recently asked ConnectSA to prioritized separated bike lanes in the wake of several cyclist deaths.
“Our ConnectSA mobility plan will be data-informed, results-focused, and citizen-driven,” Nirenberg said.
During a recent debate, Brockhouse said the City shouldn’t wait for an election or another bond cycle before investing in transportation, especially when it comes to bike and pedestrian infrastructure.
He has criticized the ConnectSA plan as he has other planning efforts launched by Nirenberg – that the City has enough plans and task forces already, now it’s a matter of doing.
“Politics tends to go toward the instant gratification, the short-term solutions that end up being long-term mistakes.” Nirenberg said after his State of the City address. “And we don’t want to do that. We want to put our city in a position for long-term, sustained success.”
Housing Developer Incentives
Nirenberg and City Council put the brakes on downtown housing incentives in early 2018 over concerns that the City’s tax breaks were incentivizing luxury and commercial interests in already flourishing parts of town instead of more affordable housing downtown and in other areas.
After a year of review and another round of tweaks, Council approved a new policy to incentivize development outside of the urban core.
Community groups said the new policy didn’t go far enough to encourage affordable housing development and should have involved more public input.
Amazon, RNC, and Chick-fil-A
Different circumstances surround decisions to not pursue Amazon’s second headquarters, host the Republican National Convention (RNC), and include Chick-fil-A in an airport contract, but each upset business leaders.
Amazon was asking cities across the country to come up with incentive packages to host its next headquarters, but Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff sent a letter to its CEO explaining that it will not be offering such a package. Instead, Nirenberg argued, the City is investing in its housing problems, transportation systems, and educating its future workforce.
“That’s why Amazon should invest in us – not because we’ll give away all your tax dollars but because they should recognize the investments we’re making in ourselves,” he said during a recent debate.
The final decision to not pursue the 2020 RNC was made by City Council in an executive session, which is closed to the public as they consult with attorneys or discuss certain matters.
The costs of hosting any political convention of that scale, Nirenberg said, were too unknown – including traffic, police, protests, and infrastructure – and may outweigh the benefits.
Nirenberg says both were purely fiscal decisions. Amazon ultimately chose the Arlington, Virginia, area. But Nashville, a city often compared to San Antonio, received a 5,000, high-wage job commitment from Amazon and Austin got 800. Both had submitted incentive packages.
As for Chick-fil-A, which Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) and others opposed because of its ties to anti-LGBTQIA groups, Nirenberg said the religious beliefs of a company’s officials or what organizations they donate to don’t concern him. He just wanted a local option that’s open seven days a week.
Fire Union Propositions
In November, voters approved two charter amendments backed by the firefighters union. Proposition B capped tenure and compensation for future San Antonio city managers, and Prop C opened a door to arbitration for the union’s labor contract. Voters were firmly against Proposition A, which would have redefined referenda rules.
The latter was the focus of much of the Go Vote No campaign against the three union-backed measures that were largely seen as a gauge of the public’s trust of City Hall.
City Manager Sheryl Sculley soon resigned but said it had nothing to do with Prop B. City Council hired Erik Walsh, who served as her deputy, as the new top executive.
Since the election, one of the three bond rating agencies downgraded San Antonio from its AAA rating. A result of Proposition C, officials said.
The Climate Action and Adaptation Plan was started before Nirenberg took office as mayor, but he worked to get it back in City Council’s spotlight and a draft plan was presented to City Council this year. But after backlash from the business community, it’s slated to be considered after the May 4 election.
Some see that as a stalling tactic to remove the issue from the ballot, but Nirenberg has said he simply wants the community on board.
The plan calls for San Antonio to be carbon-neutral by 2050, meaning the city would stop using processes that produce greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.
But the plan, if approved by Council, is merely a set of policy goals, not actual policy. Some environmental groups have criticized the plan’s seeming lack of implementation teeth.
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