The increasingly overt and bitter fight over VIA’s proposed downtown modern streetcar should have come as no surprise to anyone knowledgeable about San Antonio and its politics. The VIA leadership has ramped up its arguments for streetcar building, taking out full-page ads in the Express-News (and the Current) touting expansive “economic impact”—more on that later—and arguing that the downtown streetcar is just one part of a larger effort to improve transit all across the city, one that would presumably appeal to suburban residents stuck in traffic. But VIA and local streetcar proponents haven’t really recognized that big public projects with grand promises almost invariably provoke loud and often effective opposition. Take the case of the long-venerated Municipal Auditorium, now being refashioned into the Tobin Performing Arts Center.
San Antonio business leaders entered the 20th century seeking to boost tourism. They soon focused on a grand municipal auditorium as the necessary public vehicle. The Chamber of Commerce began promoting the idea of a stadium and convention hall in San Pedro Park—“A great, white, beautiful structure of classic design”—in early 1910. But the fullest statement of civic need came in February 1911, with an extended essay by the Chamber’s John Carrington headed “Why San Antonio Needs a Convention Hall and Something About the Accruing Benefits.” Carrington argued that a convention hall was absolutely necessary for the city “to realize her opportunity as a convention city and to furnish entertainment for the crowds that come to the carnival and other big gatherings.” Carrington and his colleagues sought “to get the big conventions to come here.” And over 100 years ago, he too employed the language of promised economic impact, contending that the average visitor “would spend at least $5 per day … The money thus put into circulation, although it may directly reach certain classes first, indirectly reaches all classes.”
Carrington’s plea and the entreaties of the Chamber leadership did not immediately spur action on the part of the city’s elected officials. It took a change in the structure of city government in 1915 and then public pressure for a memorial to veterans of the World War and a petition campaign before city officials accepted the idea. Even before the July 1919 vote on a $500,000 bond issue for the planned auditorium, civic leaders were pressing to keep the site selection “out of politics.”
Just days after voter approval in late July, the Express-News ran a bold editorial proclaiming “Let the People Choose the Auditorium Site—For Their Convenience,” and arguing the people deserved the best for their money: “The best possible civic planning, the best possible material, the best possible labor, the best possible appearance, the utmost utility, the most durable and attractive results should be the community’s reward….” The E-N then (and through the weeks that followed) invited the community to fill out a “Build the Auditorium” survey with their preferred location, including at the bottom of the form “I am opposed to building the municipal auditorium on Romana Street.”
With the controversy over a site, the $500,000 approved in 1919 proved inadequate for a reasonably sized auditorium. The city administration stalled on the project, until finally, in January 1922, it chose a site at Madison Square Park, north of the downtown core and well away from the danger of flooding. But even that seemingly “final” decision proved anything but. A second bond issue to provide more funds for the auditorium was voted down in September 1922, and the heirs of the park’s donors objected to building on the park site. The city was finally able to construct the new Municipal Auditorium after successful passage of a $200,000 bond issue in late 1925.
The auditorium saga set a pattern that would be followed by a host of other public projects over the next several decades. The city’s business leadership would settle on a grand project that held the promise of economic boon, only to face a whole series of community divisions and elected officials reluctant to ask the public for enough money to realize the assured development boom. Then, even after some degree of public acquiescence, there would be an extended fight over exactly where that new public project would be built, and who would benefit.
There was the abortive effort to land the Texas Centennial celebration and build a host of public improvements in 1935, the mixed success of the expansive city and county postwar improvement program in 1945, the fight over the location of a new jail in the late 1950s, and the battle over the site of the new University of Texas medical school and county hospital that broke out in the mid-1950s and continued well into the 1960s. Over and over, business and civic leaders, city and county elected officials split over who should do what, how much it would cost and where it would go. The streetcar fight is just the latest round in a continuing story, that pits one vision of community growth and “economic impact” against the reality that our community has needed—and continues to need—a host of improvements and basic services.
A round of full-page newspaper ads backed by little substance—though the organization has said it will make the full economic impact study available on its website shortly—might help VIA feel good. But historically, it’s taken much more than a public relations effort and claims of economic salvation to gain the favor of San Antonio citizens.