How to plan without a plan

The folks who propose that we need to change the present term limits for San Antonio’s mayor and city councilmembers tend to look back nostalgically on the great days of the 1980s, when there were no pesky term limits. That’s when we had leadership, embodied by then-Mayor Henry Cisneros. We had long-term vision. And above all, we had planning.

So it’s worth looking back a bit, and then we’ll look forward, to how we’re planning to repurpose the “venue tax” dollars that are currently paying for the AT&T Center.

San Antonio was full of promise in the ’80s. The mayor made regular trips to California’s Silicon Valley in search of new high-tech firms and jobs for the city. He traveled to Japan, to cement our relations with our sister city, Kumamoto, with the promise of new investment and job creation by Asian manufacturers. SeaWorld, and later, Fiesta Texas, promised to make us a major tourist destination. And for the inner city, there was the promise of jobs for Westside mothers assembling hard drives and computers in the new Control Data Corporation plants rising in the Vista Verde South area along Frio Street.

But don’t make me tell the story. We can turn to former Albuquerque planning director and city manager Herb Smith, and his 1991 book Planning America’s Communities, published by the American Planning Association. Smith describes at great length four cities “that have made planning work,” including Portland and Minneapolis.  We’re not in that group. Then he notes that “some have tried,” including Baltimore, San Diego, and Denver. No San Antonio there, either.

The next chapter is titled “Then There Are Others.” We’re an “other,” along with New Orleans and Corpus Christi. Smith’s assessment of San Antonio after more than a decade without term limits: “The city is not an example of a place really knowing where it is or what it wants to be.” He notes that Cisneros gave the keynote address at the 1988 national planning conference, held in San Antonio. Our mayor told the assembled planners that his administration was too busy getting things done to do the typical land-use type of planning. His legacy, Smith says, was a “disjointed approach to planning and reactive responses to major proposals and land development.”

What planning there was to be found seemed to come from the state highway department, now the Texas Department of Transportation. “In San Antonio it can be said that this department has been the greatest shaper of urban form,” writes Smith.

Smith’s picture of planning and development decision-making in our city (before term limits) rings remarkably true, and we don’t appear to have progressed very far since then. Take the case of “venue taxes.” With the AT&T Center nearly paid off, County Judge Nelson Wolff seems determined to find a new place to spend the millions in annual hotel and car-rental tax dollars currently dedicated to the AT&T debt. First was the scheme for a new stadium to house the Florida Marlins, then a stadium for any major-league baseball team. A proposal for a convention center and hotel complex at the Freeman Coliseum/AT&T Center site evaporated, so now the talk is of funding improvements for the Spurs, more money for river development, and/or a performing-arts complex.

It’s a great opportunity for broad community input and serious planning, particularly for a performing-arts facility. There are lots of questions about what our community needs, and where it should be built. And lots of need for long-term planning.

Except that Judge Wolff, who doesn’t suffer the burden of term limits, appears to have already done the planning for us. A July 12 Express-News article by Mike Greenberg announced that Wolff wants a performing-arts center in Hemisfair Park. It has to be built there, he said, because state law requires a location “in close proximity” to a convention center. That’s not how I read the relevant law — Chapter 334 of the Local Government Code, available on the web. The language of “vicinity” appears sufficiently broad to cover much of downtown. But the ultimate location decision certainly shouldn’t be Judge Wolff’s alone. That’s what “planning” is all about, and why we need it.


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