San Antonio’s best hope for a happier 2021 is to ditch its longtime delusions

click to enlarge San Antonio’s best hope for a happier 2021 is to ditch its longtime delusions
Bryan Rindfuss
Editor’s Note: The following is CityScrapes, a column of opinion and analysis.

It’s been a grim year for San Antonians, much less the world.

The pandemic has cost an enormous number of lives, wreaked economic havoc, isolated families and loved ones, and dramatically shifted how we work and live. While the arrival of vaccines offers us hope for change in the coming months, the devastation from the public health and social dislocations of the coronavirus are likely to linger far beyond, perhaps for years.

Yet, even as our political and civic leaders appear to have only recently discovered that there are real problems of poverty and underemployment in San Antonio — problems that a pandemic made obvious in miles-long lines for the Food Bank’s offerings — there are some eternal verities about the city. There are a whole set of public issues, some real and some delusional, that seems to shape public discourse and government efforts year after year and decade after decade.

So, as we look ahead to a brighter new year, let’s take an opportunity to reflect on our continuing grand hopes and civic delusions:

Washington’s bringing us the goodies: We’ve heard it before: a new military mission, a new Air Force command, the planned Air Force Academy, Camp Stanley and the CIA’s “Midwest Depot,” “they can’t close Kelly,” a new NSA facility — and now, the Space Command headquarters. With the refrain that we’re “Military City, USA” and the Chamber’s annual SA-to-DC trip, local boosters have spent decades claiming that Washington and the Pentagon would be our economic salvation. Indeed, when Mayor Maury Maverick organized a trip by local business leaders in early 1941 to see the wonders of aircraft manufacturing in Wichita, Kansas, the response of the Chamber of Commerce was that it was better to stick with the Army. The continuing belief that there really is a Santa Claus, in the form of the Defense appropriations bill, makes for conservative city leadership that assumes — or perhaps, hopes — someone else will pay for what we truly need.

Cheap sells: For decades, the abundance of Edwards Aquifer water literally right at our feet meant that San Antonio could grow without having to invest in alternative, and far more expensive, water sources. That made it easy to sell growth, growth and more growth as the way to build a great city. And while we’ll be paying more because of the Vista Ridge pipeline — whether we need it or not — our water is still far cheaper than other places. Same thing goes for our power. Microsoft didn’t choose to build its server farms here because of the scenic wonders of far-west Bexar county. It sought cheap power, with tax breaks to boot, and city and county officials quite willingly doled them out. But somebody has to pay for all that western coal that’s brought to SA by train. That would be the rest of us.

It’s only the aquifer: For years, Fay Sinkin tried to warn us about the potential for pollution of our primary water supply, all as rampant growth and new roads spread across the North Side and the aquifer recharge zone. And when Mayor Lila Cockrell and a growth-at-any-cost city council changed the zoning to permit a mega shopping mall at the intersection of U.S. Highway 281 and Loop 1604, Sinkin and the Aquifer Protection Association, together with the COPS organization, took the issue to the voters. San Antonians turned down the mall zoning, only to have the courts rule against them. Mayor Howard Peak saw the imperative to protect our water supply when he proposed a sales tax to purchase land over the recharge zone. And again, San Antonians voted for the aquifer and clean water. Then they voted to extend the tax for aquifer protection and creekways again and again. The preference of the public was just as evident in the fight over PGA Village, now the JW Marriott and TPC golf resort. Yet, despite that long history and lots of city sales tax dollars committed to protecting the aquifer, Mayor Ron Nirenberg waffled, then rolled over for the VIA board, promising that the city would find the aquifer money somewhere else. If only we had known that there was a bunch of spare cash sitting around City Hall this year.

One more San Antonio International Airport improvement: If only we had a newer terminal. If only we had more nonstops. If only we had a consolidated rental car center. If only we had a spiffier Terminal A. If only we had more nonstops. If only we had nonstop service to Canada. If only we had more flights to Seattle and San Jose. If only we had more nonstops. If only we had a longer runway. Then we could have direct flights to Europe, which of course makes a whole lot of sense right now.

We just need to fix up Alamo Plaza: In the ’80s, we were told a pedestrian connection to the Riverwalk would make the monument a bigger draw. And there would need to be a new hotel — the first Hyatt — to bring lots of big spending visitors, and even a contraflow lane for VIA busses. And then a big new shopping mall right by Alamo Plaza would make everything hop. And if only we could get that darned DRT out of the Alamo (and the library next door) things would truly be wonderful. And then a whole new sensitive plan that recognized our multicultural history. And got rid of the ugly entertainment on the west side of the plaza. And a whole bunch of lovely glass walls to boot. Just scoot over the Cenotaph a wee bit. And knock down the old Woolworth’s. That would work for just everybody, surely.

If we can cast aside some long-held delusions, there’s a chance for positive change next year.

Heywood Sanders is a professor of public policy at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

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