The End of Subsidized Sprawl: Why Council Should Support Downtown San Antonio

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Councilwoman Elisa Chan

Moving from the long era of city government-supported sprawl to a new era of tax-supported inner city development could prove to be the issue of our time.

Since the mid-1960s, when San Antonio’s leaders launched an urban renewal initiative that culminated with HemisFair ’68 and the building of downtown’s hotel-dominated skyline, the city’s three-pronged economic development strategy, though never really articulated, has been this:

1. Build and nurture what is now an enviable $13 billion tourism and convention economy.

2. Maintain San Antonio’s status as a military-friendly city. This has helped protect another multi-billion dollar sector of the economy through several cycles of Base Realignment and Closure.

3. Subsidize development of  a new sprawling city largely accessible only by automobile that now extends to the far reaches of north and northwest Bexar County, including the sensitive Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone. This 40-year laissez-faire policy now carries

a “catch up” price tag that has yet to be fully tallied, but could reach hundreds of millions of dollars counting recharge protection investment by SAWS. With state spending severely curtailed, this oft-ignored reality leaves local taxpayers to cover the enormous costs of public investment in roads, watershed protection and other infrastructure. The availability of relatively inexpensive, undeveloped land also led the city to subsidize a growing number of low-wage call centers that attract hourly wage workers who typically cannot afford to live near those workplaces and thus add to commuter congestion.

A study of the Loops 1604 and Tx. 281 linkage project.

The cost of suburban sprawl requires tens of millions of dollars in street and bridge improvements. (photo by Robert Rivard)

By the late 1980s and early 1990s a fourth initiative took shape, the development of a medical and health care industry, followed by a struggling effort to nurture a biosciences sector, and slow but steady investment in higher education. These efforts further diversified the economy, but failed to change the city’s reputation as the place for companies more interested in paying low wages than hiring education workers. The loss of AT&T to Dallas 15 years after it was lured here from St. Louis serves as a reminder that locally nurtured job growth is preferable to incentivized relocation of outside companies.

Energy, technology, telecommunications, and truck manufacturing all helped to further diversify the economy through the 90s and first decade after the millennium, but over the last 50 years San Antonio did little to make its downtown more livable and economically viable for locals. Reform of the city’s Byzantine public school districts has been slow to take root, downtown investment in residential housing lagged, and few projects were undertaken to make San Antonio a more appealing cultural center. The Paseo del Rio was the one healthy artery pumping people and dollars into downtown hotels, the Convention Center and the tourist attractions in an otherwise deteriorating core.

Everything began to change under Mayor Phil Hardberger, who held office from 2004-08 before term limits ended his run. The vision and commitment to invest in our long-ignored downtown has only grown under Mayor Julián Castro, who has declared this The Decade of Downtown and has staked his legacy on the SA2020 plan to guide the city forward. With term limits relaxed and eight years to see his vision implemented, Castro is poised to transform San Antonio into a city that for the first time will staunch a brain drain and become a destination city for college-educated migrants–if a challenge from suburban council members does not undermine that vision.

Castro Won Mandate from Voters, Deserves Unanimous Council Vote

Castro intends to bring SA2020 to City Council for an up or down vote by next month and thus force council members to publicly support or oppose him. Given his broad electoral mandate and wide support from a broad array of business, civic and cultural forces engaged in a collective downtown development effort, Castro holds a strong hand.  But with voters poised to go to the polls on May 12 (early voting is April 30-May 8 when more than half of all votes will be cast) to vote on a $595 million bond package, this is not the time supporters want to see political conflict.

Councilwoman Elisa Chan (Courtesy City of San Antonio)

The first open challenge to Castro’s downtown development strategy came late last month in a newsletter sent via email by Councilwoman Elisa Chan. District Nine encompasses some of the most traffic-choked suburbs from Stone Oak west toward I-10 and Bitters along Loop 1604. You can read the text of that email here.  Chan challenged assumptions presented to the City Council by HR&A Advisors, the urban planning consultants hired to develop a comprehensive Center City Implementation Plan.

District 9 map

District 9 includes Stone Oak and the Loop 1604/Tx. 281 interchange. (Map courtesy City of San Antonio)

The first story reporting Chan’s challenge of the SA2020 initiative and incentivizing downtown residential development as a catalyst for job growth appeared on the Plaza de Armas website. District Ten Councilman Carlton Soules and District Eight Councilman Reed Williams also have raised questions about the downtown reinvestment plan.

All three suburban council members espouse a conservative, pro-business philosophy, but their own districts were built with direct and indirect taxpayer-supported subsidies, with many of the actual costs only now being acknowledged. Just the suburban road and bridge projects alone in the bond election add up to tens of millions of dollars, all made necessary by poor planning and worsening traffic congestion. None of this suburban investment will produce job growth save for temporary construction work. By Chan’s logic, then, those projects should be canceled. Would Stone Oak voters support removal of the Loop 1604/Tx. 281 improvements from the bond package because they will not produce new jobs? Of course not.

Ed Cross, a prominent inner city developer, was one of the people who read Chan’s email. He sent Chan and other Council members copies of “Turning Around Downtown: Twelve Steps to Revitalization,” a 24-page Brookings Institution study,  in an effort to convince her that data exists to support HR&A’s assumptions. “The End of Sprawl?”, an April 5 article by Richard Florida in Atlantic magazine, argues that America’s love affair with suburban sprawl has peaked. A growing majority of people, led by Baby Boomers and Millennials, want to live in urban settings where they can live, work, shop and recreate without commuting in vehicles, Florida writes. A companion piece by Kaid Benfield, another leading voice on urban redevelopment, adds weight to the argument that attractive inner city housing developments are key to downtown revitalization.  Both Benfield and Florida have written widely on these and related topics. The Atlantic excels at producing such data-driven journalism.

Single member council districts make for more representational government, especially for previously disenfranchised minority populations, but they also promote narrow, sometimes selfish thinking. Elected officials face pressure to favor their districts rather than the broader interests of the city, and wealthier districts can ignore the needs of less prosperous districts. It will be interesting to see if suburban council members acknowledge the history of taxpayer-supported development in their own districts and the growing body of evidence that now supports Mayor Castro’s agenda and accelerated downtown public investment.

The Rivard Report has invited Mayor Castro and all 10 Council members to write their own pieces addressing these issue. The Mayor has accepted the invitation. We hope to hear from Council members. Developers and others on both sides of the debate also are welcome to submit articles to

Highway construction photo by Robert Rivard.

16 thoughts on “The End of Subsidized Sprawl: Why Council Should Support Downtown San Antonio

  1. That is an interesting take on how downtown should develop.  I believe a downtown should develop here in San Antonio, however I have not seen the momentum needed until recently.  Being one of the people the article refers to (young, educated (PhD) and part of the “creative class”), I have had a hard time settling in here in San Antonio.  However, places such as Geekdom, Central Market, Hog Wild (the only place you can buy records (from a locally owned shop, for example there are 10 record stores in Austin) and Mad Hatters, are and have been making way.   But we need more then just that.  We need large creative think tanks here.  More then DoD and Data Centers, we need truly creative companies that can help foster a “creative space”.  So that it is normal to go to a bar or coffee shop and talk about cognitive science, entrepreneurship, political activism (conservative or liberal, aka I am not a Democrat or Republican) and innovation in general. 
    However, my solution is different then leveraging big business and the “city”.  Yes they are needed, but what is really needed is more intellectual community out reach.  Such as the Open Coffee Forum (, Social Media Breakfast (, these two are just examples of the type of intellectual spaces currently active, they are not “professional” organizations, they have little structure, just enough to have people show up and the creativity and intellectual exchange flow.  Lawrence Lessig gave a talk at TEDx San Antonio two years ago about “The Citizen”, we need more citizens, more participatory, collaborative individuals who are not concerned about making a name or establishing a scene, but more about learning from each other and creating an Awesome Space for San Antonio to grow into.
    joey phd 

  2. I thought I was the only one who thought sprawl and cars-only planning — or really the complete lack of it — was a main deteriorating thing for San Antonio. 
    If one were compare San Antonio to an actual city, one would find elsewhere a vibrant downtown and culture. One would find public transit and dense, mixed-use urban development. The development on Broadway (although I miss some of the buildings that were demolished) is a good start. Imagine if it had trolleys running down the center? Or separated bike lanes? 
    What about the area around Main Plaza? How about some development there? Bring in cafes and reopen the book store. Why is there no grocery store or barber shop or laundromat downtown? Why is the ground level of the magnificent (from the outside at least) Robert E. Lee Hotel empty? Who cares if it was named after a terrorist, its a nice building in a good location and should be used. I can walk around and find something on every block that can do much better. 
    I have to go to San Antonio occasionally and I despise every moment I’m there. The sad part is, I can see all of the potential it has to be a real city. The recent planning for real downtown public transit is matching up with what Austin is finally doing. The streets are wide and easy to walk or ride down, there are plenty of unused or under used buildings downtown.
    San Antonio should take some cues from prosperous cities and close some streets to car traffic, making them walkable. Getting people out of cars has a measurable and immediate gain for local business, the health of the people and overall livability of the city. Besides, traffic and parking are abysmal anyway (because San Antonio, like most cities, wasn’t designed for cars.) 
    Joey makes valid points. There is nowhere one can walk in to discus the connections of quantum mechanics and cultural anthropology or how transportation and urban planning affect our lives more than anything else. San Antonio may have some culture (like its huge and thriving metal scene) but it’s spread out all over the place. 
    The cheap, unplanned and expensive (factoring in all of the costs, including car costs, roads, environmental and health issues … ) suburban sprawl may have appeal to my parents, who were indoctrinated to think cities are good, but maybe people 40 and younger see this as hogwash. Especially if their houses are worth less than what they owe and the lending institutions are still making record profits.I don’t know how else to say this, but the unchecked sprawl is stupid. It’s very expensive and is destroying what used to be a great country.
    San Antonio has potential, especially when linked up with the “I-35 corridor” from Dallas to the coast. If done right, this area can rival that of the east and west coast or any western European country. San Antonio doesn’t need to be a soulless, isolated suburban wasteland. It can redevelop itself into an actual city.

    The plan to refocus muli-family opportunities into our downtown is timely, valid and consistent with growth strategies other successful cities have implemented; however, what concerns me is the directional economic development policies our city has adopted to force industry into downtown San Antonio. Let’s be clear to distinguish between residential and commercial “sprawl”.

  4. Nice write-up. Agree with Joey, the city is in need of Think Tanks, Social Media & New Media groups, Intelligent exchange centers like Geekdom and now Trader Joes (there is only so much Central Market & Whole Paycheck that one can take) you gotta feed the mind with choices.
    Between the escaping youth leaving the West Coast & East Coast  (many of which friends of mine have turn me on to), this group is looking for the central life and they are moving here quietly. They seek Bike, talk, think, food, music and creative space with a Global connection is what they strive on. It helps greatly when the city & business can recognize that marketing intelligence &  creating new businesses from Culinary, Arts (all forms), Digital Entertainment is beyond the narrow focus of San Antonio past business models, the world is the economy, not the corner store inside Loop 1604.
    Don’t forget that 15 million plus visitors come from around the Word & U.S. and they expect something more than a dated part of history like the Alamo. People look for people and experience in real social media….person to person, not 4-Square to 4 Square.
    The World is the consumer of collaborations, development of Caring on all fronts and new business thinking, just read
    Sir Richard Branson’s “Screw Business as Usual”, maybe the city council & Mayor can take a quick read at how it really works in the 21st Century.  The citizens  & business operators of the city should consider a reading this book as well.
    Mayor Castro is slowly finding a adjusted path for our community, let’s all participate by reaching out and centralizing our commitment on making SA a new place to grow for the future.
    This write-up is strictly a POV

  5. Robert, you are confusing issues here. Sprawl and subsidies for developers are two different topics. The reason development hasn’t occured in the CBD is that land prices don’t support the proper uses. Ed Cross is lobbying the crap out of the City becasue he and his partners paid above market prices for their downtown holdings and now want the City to bail them out of their bad deals.
    Development in the core needs to occur in an organic manner, with small pioneering projects that satisfy existing demand. Once a market is established and a rents can be determined with reliability, then we will see economically viable develoment.
    There is a huge difference between providing streets and roads for an existing population and providing “Feasibility Gap” funding for developers. If there is a “Feasibility Gap” (by definition meaning the projects are not feasible), then why force the tax paying public in to funding them? 
    Ms. Chan is correct in this aspect. The “Feasibility Gap” is just a think tank phrase for “Developer Profit Margin”.

    •  @judyz Feasibility Gap…. is this the same “Gap” that nudged Allstate, Petco, and other companies that moved here with a few million in incentives? Or is it a Job Creation Profit Margin?

    • Michelle

      There has been opposition from the three suburban council districts, 8, 9, and 10, although that opposition has softened. You’d have to get real time reporting at City Hall to really gauge the status quo. Good luck,


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  8. Pingback: Developing downtown San Antonio « Mike Kueber's Blog

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