Hundreds in San Antonio’s tech community, along with an array of elected officials, swarmed the Pearl Stable Tuesday night for a program featuring Robert Hammond, a celebrated San Antonio native who helped transform New York as an early advocate of building the High Line, an elevated linear park on the city’s lower Westside.
Mayor Ivy Taylor took to the stage first in a scene-stealing announcement to the highly energized crowd that roared approval when she said Uber had sent the City a proposal just days before a City Council vote Thursday on an arrangement that will reintroduce Lyft to San Antonio.
San Antonio’s newly formed tech advocacy nonprofit Tech Bloc demonstrated growing support and voice Tuesday as the Pearl Stable doors were shut and hundreds of others had to settle for an outside audio feed of the evening program.
Mayor Taylor, who was not on the program, took to the stage at Tech Bloc’s Summer Rally to announce that Uber and the City are close to finalizing a deal that would allow the ride-booking platform to operate in San Antonio.
“We received a proposal from Uber today,” Taylor said as the crowd erupted with applause.
Taylor reminded the audience that a signed operating agreement with Lyft will go before city council for a vote on Thursday that would allow the company to operate in San Antonio after both California-based rideshare companies ceased operations in April. Taylor told the Rivard Report she had not read Uber’s proposal, but was confident an agreement will be reached.
She urged the audience to reach out to their City Council representative and voice their support for the operating agreement and Thursday’s affirmative vote, which many expect will be preceded by City Council chambers filling with vocal representatives of the taxi lobby and, on the other side, Tech Bloc members and others supporting rideshare.
If approved, the operating agreement that Lyft signed could be amended to incorporate Uber’s proposed revisions. If the language of Uber’s proposal is as close as it appears, sources say, it’s also possible that an amendments could be made on Thursday. It all depends on the City’s review of both Lyft and Uber proposals.
The agreement stipulates that users will be able to look at the driver’s profile and see if they’ve gone through an additional City background check that uses 10-fingerprint identification. From there, the passenger can choose whether to cancel the ride and wait to find a driver that has taken the additional steps. All drivers are required to go through Lyft’s third-party background check before picking up fares, which includes local and state databases.
Basically, the City’s so-called 10-print check will be optional and users will have to click on their driver’s profile information in order to see if they’ve been through the City’s background check process.
During negotiations last month, Uber indicated that it would not support such a requirement, but it has apparently reviewed its position.
TNCs called the regulations previously passed by City Council and the mayor “onerous,” mostly due to the requirement and cost of the 10-print check.
After the Tuesday evening event, Brad Parscale, one of Tech Bloc’s founding members who has worked closely with the rideshare companies and the City, said that Uber representatives wanted to change some of the technical language in the operating agreement before it signs on.
“It’s one or two sentences away from allowing Uber to operate (within the bounds) of the agreement,” Parscale said. “They just can’t (sign it now) because of their technology … but they’re willing to provide an alternative.”
While Lyft has a “profile” feature that allows drivers to indicate their favorite food, music, and (coming soon) whether they’ve taken the 10-print background check, drivers using the Uber platform do not have a profile that can be accessed by potential passengers.
“(Uber’s) app doesn’t support the same features,” Parscale said, who is also president of local design and web marketing firm Giles-Parscale.
The return of Uber is essential, said Tech Bloc Executive Director Marina Gavito.
When a new hire steps off the plane from San Francisco or New York, they are going to pull up one app to call a car, and it’s likely going to be Uber, she said during an interview. Until that’s done, Tech Bloc won’t move on to regional issues like Lone Star Rail and other modes of intracity transport.
“Lyft is nice to have, but it’s not a victory just yet,” she said.
Taylor acknowledged that the city has some distance to cover laying down infrastructure, but she drew a round of applause by pointing to Google Fiber‘s recent announcement to bring ultra-fast Internet service to San Antonio. She exerted the crowd to keep the suggestions and requests coming.
“We have a few more things to do, and together we can do it,” said Taylor.
Parscale praised Taylor and Councilmember Roberto Treviño (D1) for their “openness” and “great resolve” throughout the negotiating process.
More than 2,000 emails will be sent to people connected to Tech Bloc urging them to contact Councilmembers Rebecca Viagran (D3), Shirley Gonzales (D5), Cris Medina (D7), Joe Krier (D9), and Mike Gallagher (D10) – all of whom emphasized the importance of a 10-print background check when approving the current regulations.
Summer Rally Success
A tech industry town needs a certain kind of infrastructure, largely based on collaboration and connectivity. After three months and lot of input, Tech Bloc has narrowed their focus down to three action items. Three key arenas to attract and retain the kind of workers that yield a high return on investment.
They announced their latest goals at the Tech Bloc Summer Rally, a “techie networking event” that drew more than 700 attendees in and around the Pearl Stables on Tuesday evening. While there were arrangements for additional guests outside, the summer heat likely kept hundreds at bay. Organizers had more than 1,000 ticket requests and a long waitlist.
Alongside exhibitor and Tech Bloc sponsor Geekdom, local government and other public entities, including the San Antonio River Authority, San Pedro Creek Improvements Project and Hemisfair set up displays under the thumping beat of DJ Phr0. The event, like everything about the tech industry and creative economy, was a blend of nerdy and hip, the delicate balance at the heart of cities that attract the young, smart, and talented.
The diverse crowd included young creative San Antonians, partners at leading local architecture firms, and elected officials. Mayor Taylor and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff were joined by state representatives and San Antonio City Council members, demonstrating the rapidly established profile of Tech Bloc as a force for change.
The grassroots collaboration of tech industry and urban culture leaders has been hard at work analyzing some of San Antonio’s most persistent shortcomings and greatest opportunities. They want a satisfying and actionable answer to this questions: How can San Antonio build and maintain a vibrant tech economy?
To this diverse and energized crowd Tech Bloc chairman Lew Moorman presented the three-pronged approach to “getting sh*t done,” as his presentation put it, ever so clearly.
How do they plan to do it? Advocacy, ecosystem, and events.
Moorman cast a brief vision for advocacy beyond rideshare, moving into regional connectivity. Tech Bloc believes the Austin-San Antonio corridor could become the next Silicon Valley.
“We really believe that Austin is our greatest asset,” Moorman said.
LSTAR, the proposed multi-billion dollar commuter rail between San Antonio and Austin, is the best chance San Antonio has of capitalizing on that asset, he said.
Gavito said Tech Bloc first will need to study the project, which has been around in one form or another for decades.
To build its own ecosystem, Tech Bloc is busy on various fronts: Building its paid membership, launching a new website and newsletter, and studying how best to invest a $50,000 Bexar County grant to design and hold a startup competition that aims to foster new companies and tech jobs.
Future Tech Bloc events will be varied, too, with small monthly events and a couple of annual events on the scale of Summer Rally at which, Moorman said, Tech Bloc would host “incredible speakers.”
Guest speaker Robert Hammond of the High Line fame fit that description. The line outside the Pearl Stable resembled one you might find outside a popular club or music venue. Energy for progressive change is reaching fever pitch in San Antonio.
Hammond won the crowd over by reprising his 2011 TedTalks, and then taking a seat on stage to talk with Robert Rivard, this website’s director, about a range of potentially transformative places and projects in San Antonio, ranging from the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project to Hemisfair to Brackenridge Park. Hammond urged City and County leaders in his hometown to embrace urban density, discourage further suburban sprawl, and work to build a City that can compete for new companies and talented young professionals.
Managing Editor Iris Dimmick contributed to this article.
*Featured/top image: Rivard Report Director Robert Rivard (left) has a conversation with Friends of The High Line co-founder and Executive Director Robert Hammond on stage at the Pearl Stable. Photo by Scott Ball.