Two very different conversations surrounding the City of San Antonio's SA Tomorrow comprehensive master planning process took place at the Municipal Plaza building on Wednesday.
One had some Council members cracking jokes about the sleep-inducing length of the proposed guidelines for dealing with the unprecedented growth expected to challenge the City's infrastructure and public services over the next 25 years. The three-pronged document with Sustainability and Multimodal Transportation plans under the umbrella of a Comprehensive Plan are of "biblical proportions," Mayor Ivy Taylor said with a smile. But her smile disappeared as the later conversation devolved into bouts of shouting as defiant community members challenged the rules of decorum.
"We will abide by the rules so that everyone can have an opportunity to speak," Taylor said in a raised, but level voice. "Or we will conclude this meeting."
A hush fell over the Council chambers.
Earlier in the day, City Council quietly listened to summaries of the three plans and questioned department heads leading the planning efforts. Language regarding dark skies and impervious cover regulations that had been taken out of the plan by a 5-4 vote by the Planning Commission last week are now on track to be put back in the plan when it's voted on by Council next Thursday, Aug. 11. Overall, City Council seemed pleased with City staff's recommended revisions. The meeting will start at 9 a.m.
(Read More: City Council to Vote on SA Tomorrow Amid Concerns)
The removal of these items – which call for an analysis of light pollution and water quality/flood control mitigation tactics – was supported by many in the development community, including the Real Estate Council of San Antonio. City Council is likely to disregard the Planning Commission's recommendation next Thursday.
The second conversation, a 3.5-hour public hearing with 101 citizens signed up to speak on the SA Tomorrow plan, was dominated by a local hotel union's opposition to an already-approved plan to build a hotel and housing units in the emerging Hemisfair District. The hotel workers, many members of Unite Here, claimed that the very creation of the Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation (HPARC), the nonprofit government organization in charge of redevelopment, maintenance, and programming of the park, was a "loophole" to avoid letting citizens have a say in what the land is used for. They went on to say that because the SA Tomorrow plan used Hemisfair as an example of "transformational development sites" that the City should support to "catalyze employment growth," the entire plan should be scrapped.
Some representatives from environmental groups including the local chapters of the Sierra Club, International Dark-Sky Association (IDA Texas), and the Environmental Defense Fund stayed on-topic and spoke in favor of keeping the original language of the dark sky and impervious cover items. Other residents expressed concerns about the effect the SA Tomorrow plan will have on established neighborhood plans.
The "Hands Off Our Park" crowd, some of which were not affiliated with the hotel union, objected to the mixed-use developments, especially the boutique hotel, planned to surround Civic Park and Yanaguana Garden.
"Is every single frickin' park going to be privatized?" asked Unite Here organizer Christine Miller. "My SA Tomorrow has to have truly civic parks, not reckless giveaways."
The speakers repeatedly accused City Council of selling off public land to wealthy developers and ignoring the public will. Several vowed to make sure City Council members that voted for the SA Tomorrow plan don't get re-elected in May 2017.
But none of the "parkland" is being developed, Hemisfair CEO Andres Andujar told the Rivard Report after the meeting which he attended.
"I (too) would sign a petition that asked (too keep) hotels off public land," Andujar said. "That's not what we're doing."
Before construction began, there were about 6.2 acres of designated park land, he said. "We re-designated (almost) 19 acres as parkland. Triple the size."
The Texas Legislature allowed the re-designation of some park land in 2013 because HPARC is a facilities corporation – so it doesn't require a public vote – and because, ultimately, its master plan triples the amount of green space in Hemisfair, Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) explained after the meeting.
"I respect what this (hotel union) group is about," Treviño said, "but their information is not factually correct."
Leases and fees paid by developers and other tenants will go directly to park operations, maintenance, accessibility, and programming. Hemisfair will essentially fund itself, without taking money from the City's already strained general fund.
The hotels and housing projects will ultimately generate millions in tax revenues for our school systems and infrastructure, he added. "I feel good about it."
Nothing in the SA Tomorrow plan calls for any specific site plan or funding structure for public land, said Bridgett White, interim director of Planning and Community Development. She presented the Comprehensive Plan at the first meeting and listened to the second. The plan is not meant to "get down to that level of specificity."
This isn't the first time in recent months the hotel union has spoken against a downtown hotel project. They lobbied against a $7.4 million incentive package awarded by the City in July to local developer Chris Hill for his plans for an 18-story downtown hotel with four adjacent housing units on the River Walk.
As part of the package, Hill is required to ensure the hotel management company, White Lodging, pays hourly employees top-quartile wages and allows employees the right to unionize. Unite Here vehemently opposed the deal, calling into question White Lodging's ownership ties to now-Vice Presidential candidate Mike Pence several years ago. Pence is actively opposed to LGBTQIA equality. They attributed the same attitudes to Hill, the property owner and developer who owns the Esquire and various restaurants and residential projects downtown.
Hill described any implication that he would condone discrimination of any kind as "ridiculous."
The union may be using the public meeting process to pressure City Council into developing more strict terms for employee benefits at future hotels that receive City funding. The average annual wage for a hotel, motel, or resort clerk in the U.S. is $22,610, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's above the federal poverty level for a single person, but barely above the $20,160 line for a family of three. Unionization helps members earn "professional-level wages, benefits, and job security," according to Unite Here. The hospitality industry – clerks and service workers – has a more than $13.4 million economic impact in San Antonio.
Several speakers exceeded their two-minute time limits to demonstrate the unjust time limits placed on them.
When dozens of people show up to speak on an agenda item during a Council meeting, the three-minute limit is reduced to two. Groups and organizations get five minutes. One speaker in particular tried Taylor's patience.
"We're being realistic," she explained after quieting the room with a stern call to order. "Half the people would have to leave before the meetings over" if everyone was allowed a longer speaking time.
After the meeting, she commented on her frustrations.
"There was a lot of misinformation about Hemisfair and this fight happened, what, four years ago at the Legislature? That's when these folks should have been fighting," Taylor said. "I don't know that people understand that there will be a park at Hemisfair. I just think it was off-topic."
I asked her if she thought any part of the SA Tomorrow plan called for the City to start selling public park land – as implied by some of the speakers.
"No. Not at all. That's a false narrative that's being constructed," Taylor said. "We need to do a better job in communicating and engaging folks.
"Anyone looking at the history of our city can see that our land development patterns have contributed to our economic segregation," she added in regards to the hotel union members. "For them to come out against a plan that tries to rectify that is inexplicable to me."
Top image: Hotel union members hold signs that indicate the district in which they live and "Hands Off Our Park." Photo by Iris Dimmick.