Friday, September 5, 2014

New mayor tackles how city grows | Last Word

In her campaign to replace Mayor Julian Castro, Ivy Taylor made two promises to the voters – the voters being her fellow council members.

One was that she would not run to hold onto the office in next May’s election.

The other was that she would not be a caretaker.

There is speculation that she may not keep the first promise, but she’s leaving no doubt about the second.

Her first major act as Mayor was to pull the plug on the controversial streetcar project.

It was a smart political move, calming very choppy political waters that could have capsized any other initiative she wanted City Council to take.

Then last week, with just eight months left in her term, she launched an ambitious initiative that won’t pay off for years, or even decades.

With San Antonio expected to grow by as many as a million people in the next 25 years, Taylor wants to do something that has never been part of San Antonio’s DNA.

She wants to plan for and even to direct that growth in smart ways.

It’s been 40 years since City Hall attempted anything so ambitious.

In the mid-1970s, the city had a planning director who thought – mistakenly it turned out – that his title meant he should do planning.

He and his staff developed a plan that would discourage growth to the north and encourage it to the south.

City Council straightened him out.

At the behest of the politically generous builder/developer community, they informed the planning director that the people he wanted to regulate should be seen as his customers.

Since then, the planning department has been more accurately characterized as the platting department.

The power of the developers is symbolized by the fact that the building where they go to get their permits is named not after any city official, but after one of the most political of the old-line builder/developers – Cliff Morton.

The result has been unrestrained sprawl, including over the sensitive aquifer recharge zone, massive suburban traffic jams, inadequate public transit and a downtown that is reviving residentially but remains commercially anemic, save for the tourism industry.

What Taylor understands is that to address the problem San Antonio needs to develop a culture of planning where almost none exists – on City Council, in various agencies and sectors that impact growth, and among the public.

The issue is not new to Taylor.

She worked on it for two years as a councilman, drawing on two of San Antonio’s top talents for ideas.

Irby Hightower is the highly-respected architect and urban planner who, with Lila Cockrell, co-chaired the committee overseeing the spectacular north and south expansions of the River Walk.

Leilah Powell is a Stanford graduate with an extensive background in urban policy who is now Taylor’s policy chief.

The mayor’s plan sounds mundane, but it is ambitious and necessary.

There are three parts.

She set up a standing council committee to deal with planning issues, so the council is invested in them.

She wanted an energetic and ambitious chairman to give the effort legs after she is gone.

District 8 Councilmen Ron Nirenberg fit the bill.

There are two other parts.

One involves getting agencies such as VIA, SAWS and the Metropolitan Planning Organization as well as other interested groups together to promote more coordination and consensus.

The other will establish programs to educate the public about the costs and benefits of smart planning.

Suburbanites and inner-city citizens may well find common interest in avoiding adding to the northern gridlock while revitalizing other parts of the city.

It will be a long, long process, but Taylor is betting she can get the machinery up and running in eight months.

None of this guarantees success, but not doing something like it guarantees failure.

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