San Antonio is the second most populous city in Texas, with almost 1.5 million people. By 2050, that number could reach three million. In the face of this growth, a band of political and planning mavericks has launched San Antonio Tomorrow, a comprehensive plan that seeks to promote strategically located dense, walkable development without displacing existing populations.
Nationally, San Antonio is ranked as the seventh largest city. Its operating budget is $2.7 billion, and it is aiming to disburse these funds through an “equity lens” that will allocate funds, not equally among the 10 districts, but where the needs are greater and have been historically ignored. Bexar County commissioners also approved a $1.78 billion fiscal year 2018 budget earmarked for public safety, roads, and technology upgrades.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg, elected into office June 2017 and a former District Eight councilman, has been criticized and lauded for being overly ambitious, bold, progressive, and a change agent for the city, as celebrations for its tricentennial are underway and leaders prepare for imminent development and population growth amidst: aging infrastructure, urban sprawl, flooding preparedness, gentrification woes, affordable housing needs, socioeconomic disparities from redlining, racially motivated unrest, gender politics, and turbulent state and national politics. He was a tri-chair of the city’s SA Tomorrow Steering Committee and was key in the development of this citizen-driven blueprint.
“A democracy must never fear or obstruct the participation of its citizens,” he wrote via email. “Local governments must continue to answer the bell for residents throughout America. As the politics in state houses and in D.C. continue to turn away from the needs of an increasing number of citizens, it is up to local communities to keep our country strong while demanding better leadership at the polls.”
This first year will be an easier swing; it’s the years following, when local leaders will have to prove their mettle as federal and state legislation and budget cuts trickle down. They will face harder challenges to shore up city programs and budgets in light of financial gaps affecting daily quality of life and implementation of long-range planning. What leaders want to avoid is a decrease in quality of life with increased costs of living and housing, increased commutes, and more traffic congestion — problems endemic to many postwar American motor cities.
The initial SA Tomorrow effort resulted in three concurrent and complementary plans — Comprehensive, Sustainability and Multimodal Transportation — focused on land use, urban design, and city policies. The plans frame various economic and environmental matters as a roadmap to coordinate resources and programs as leaders make decisions impacting investment and services. It builds upon priorities from the SA2020 visioning, which has morphed into a nonprofit measuring community indicators.
Since the approval of the draft plans by City Council in 2016, MIG, a national planning and design firm headquartered in California, has completed an online version of the comprehensive plan and is developing the first phase of 30 sub-area plans with the city’s planning department.
Bridgett White, the city’s planning director, and Rudy Niño, assistant director and project manager, spoke about the planning process and components of the comprehensive plan, including two development types (building blocks and place types) and nine plan elements: the growth/form of the city; transportation and connectivity; housing; jobs; community health; public safety; natural resources; historic preservation; and military community.
White and Niño discussed the process of this initiative as a healthy debate comprised of many perspectives from various stakeholders as the city navigates how to capitalize on the growth and infrastructure investments.
“We know there is going to be growth,” White says. “The question is, How can we focus that growth with the regional centers, the premium corridors, housing, amenities — and protect and preserve existing neighborhoods? It’s about finding the balance.”
Jay Renkens, a principal at MIG, describes the firm’s approach to understanding San Antonio’s growth characteristics: “We love the history and culture of San Antonio, as well as the polycentric nature of its employment centers. San Antonio is a leader in trail-oriented development and a perfect location for innovation and creativity.”
The comprehensive plan is an umbrella effort with a big picture vision for regional centers, corridors, and neighborhoods. It has yielded a “series of documents that will guide future city planning decisions and ensure that they reflect the character, needs, values, and desires of the San Antonio community and, once implemented, will result in a more vibrant, healthy, inclusive, and sustainable city,” Renkens says.
Some of these identified centers of gravity where density and life is happening extend from downtown and inside Loop 410 (including midtown, the former Brooks Air Force Base, and Port San Antonio, where Lackland Air Force Base is located) to areas between loops 410 and 1604 (medical center, airport, UTSA, and Texas A&M San Antonio). Extraterritorial jurisdictions were also scrutinized in the growth patterns.
Working groups were established to focus on goals and strategies for components of the comprehensive plan, and a community engagement campaign was activated through neighborhood workshops, open houses, online surveys, social media, and press releases. MIG also guided the city to develop sacommplan.com. First-phase sub-plan reveals have rolled out in 2018 and will continue in 2019. How these plans will be implemented is another complex matter city council needs to hash out.
“The future growth of San Antonio is intended to build on the polycentric nature of its existing employment centers,” Renkens says. “The intent is to make those existing centers more vibrant places to live, work, and play that are highly walkable and bikable, as well as connected by transit.”
As part of these centers, building blocks are intended to organize and guide San Antonio’s future investments through neighborhoods, corridors, urban centers, and regional centers. Place types are amenity-based developments in three classifications: multimodal mixed use; trails/open space; and adaptive reuse.
Renkens further elaborated: “All place types were defined with an eye toward how they transition appropriately to existing single-family neighborhoods that may be nearby. The city considered land use, scale, and massing to ensure that each of the place types will be developed in a manner that is harmonious and complementary with existing and future neighborhoods.”
By studying these community building-blocks, patterns of growth, and connective infrastructure paths, planners and leaders can evaluate the economic drivers acting upon the urban and suburban, while also recognizing the strong social forces acting upon the city — including divisive immigration and sanctuary city laws — that are simultaneously beneficial, parasitic, and mutualistic. Because of these laws, Texas is ground zero for the nation’s immigration debate.
Council member Roberto Treviño, AIA, whose District 1 includes downtown and the River Walk, is an architect, businessman, and policymaker. He is focused on how to build upon existing programs, rebuilding trust between the community with local governance, and on how to garner collaboration within city departments and the community to convey complex messages about what San Antonio could be amid complex rezoning issues in the central business district.
“The city is shaped by each person and parcel that creates it,” he says. “Here in District 1, we experience a wide diversity of both of these things, and as a council office we look to build on this. It is critical that we are able to adapt and grow. Throughout District 1, we have seen that history has caused layers of issues in regards to zoning that impede this. We have initiated five large area rezonings to correct the zoning parcel by parcel and help set a foundation for moving forward.”
The rezoning to reclassify residential, commercial, and industrial parcels will allow for the appropriate growth of nodes, corridors, transit, appraisals, and taxes.
“It’s all tied together with the issues of planning,” Treviño says. “Peel it back, and you see the heart of this and why cities need to embrace a plan. Cities are built and made. They don’t happen by accident. You must start with a good design and demand strategies of thoughtful design that are layered and connecting.”
Florence Tang, Assoc. AIA, is a journalist and project manager in Houston.