Cityscrapes: A historic argument for a streetcar vote

Cityscrapes: A historic argument for a streetcar vote
Courtesy photo

Here in San Antonio, we’re really, really good at remembering some things: Travis, Barrett, Crockett, the defenders of the Alamo and the story of the creation of the Republic of Texas. We also show off the heritage of the Missions and the triumph of HemisFair.

We’re equally good at forgetting other things. Recent weeks have seen stirring commentaries in the Express-News from local leaders such as former Mayor Henry Cisneros and Pat DiGiovanni of the Centro Partnership. Both endorse the proposed downtown streetcar, describing it as the first step in a far grander scheme of rail-based, multimodal transportation improvements. Both point to a host of benefits from investment in the streetcar plan, including acting “as a catalyst for building strong urban communities” and “fueling the kind of economic growth and vibrancy that will truly make this the ‘Decade of Downtown.’”

And despite vocal criticism from some, Cisneros points specifically to other public projects, originally mired in controversy, that (he argues) demonstrate the wisdom and vision of our community’s leadership.

Cisneros cites the Alamodome, HemisFair ’68, aquifer protection and water fluoridation as examples of the “important decisions [that] are the most difficult to make because of the debate they engender.” Yet he fails to mention that in each of those cases, and many others, the public was able to vote on the investment or decision. And ultimately things like fluoride, the Dome, and the Tower of the Americas and convention center that were part of HemisFair won majority support at the polls. There will apparently be no public vote on the streetcar project and its millions in public dollars. So while many of those “important decisions” cited by Cisneros were indeed difficult and conflicted, they eventually carried the legitimacy of voter approval.

Both the Alamodome and HemisFair point to another dimension of our “forgetfulness,” one not acknowledged by DiGiovanni or Cisneros. They were originally sold on a wave of promises and forecasts—seemingly expert and authoritative—that never quite happened. As former Express-News columnist Roddy Stinson documented so well after the Dome’s opening, beyond the implicit promise that the Dome would house San Antonio’s new NFL team, backers regularly promised that it would serve to help the city land more and larger conventions and tradeshows. Indeed, Mayor Cisneros forecast in 1989 that “for every sports event there will be 20 others, such as conventions and trade shows.”

The Alamodome has never really fulfilled the promise of serving as a convention venue. Since opening, it has been followed by two successive expansions of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.

What about HemisFair ’68, the event that ostensibly placed San Antonio on the world stage? There were expansive promises and precise forecasts made for the fair as well. Speaking to the City’s urban renewal commissioners in December 1963, Bill Sinkin, the “father” of HemisFair, said that beyond the planned new convention and exhibition center, the fair would ultimately yield a new permanent “trade center … built by private enterprise.” He added, “Somewhere in San Antonio or Texas will have to be found the man, or the corporation, with enough imagination and courage, and of course, money.”

The fair would also produce a “Latin-American Institute,” with the hope that the Federal government would build it. And there would be a “military training facility for our neighbors to the South.”

The Fair did indeed succeed in producing (after public votes) a convention center, a since-demolished arena and the Tower of the Americas. But it never yielded quite the crossroads of the Americas that Sinkin initially envisioned. And without the revenue to manage the transition from fair site to a full part of the city, it has seen repeated public efforts to reshape the fair grounds into a vital and functional space.

We need to remember that promises don’t always work out. Our political and civic leaders need to understand that controversy and public debate can be functional and necessary, so that the sales pitches and the promises are subject to serious scrutiny and a healthy dose of realism. And if we can’t find the people willing to put their own money and effort into a project, we ought to ask how good a deal it really is.

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