Water and money don’t always mix well in San Antonio. We built a city based on abundant, cheap water from the Edwards Aquifer. We’ve also never been willing to pay the full cost of managing too much water — which leaves us grappling with flood control and drainage.
Now the mix of money and water involves our great urban gem, the San Antonio River. As work begins in earnest on expanding the River Walk and improving the river to the north and south, San Antonians will likely face a vote next year on using a portion of the county hotel and car-rental taxes to pay for it. Where there’s “river improvement” and public money, there’s also lots of private dollars to be made. So there should be lots of public concern.
The outgoing City Council just created a new “River Commission.” Its formal charge is to “help protect the experience and ambience” of our river. And the report of the advisory commission that urged the creation of the new body was filled with earnest language about the “successes of the former River Walk Commission,” eliminated in 1993 in the name of efficiency, and the importance of the “heritage, charm, and uniqueness of the River.” Who could object to a new set of well-intentioned river guardians?
But this new River Commission will be different from lots of other city advisory groups. For one thing, its seven members will all be “at-large” appointees — there’s no system for making sure that every part of the city, and each council district, has a voice. It won’t even be just city residents. In a search for “high-caliber and well-respected individuals,” all residents of Bexar County will be eligible.
The River Commission will also have a very specific charge. It “shall function to support a business-friendly, simplified, and timely process for those who are developing along the river.”
WHOA! Is this supposed to mean no dallying around reviewing the details of new development, making sure that they’ll actually fit a long-term vision of the river and the larger community? Does “business friendly” mean “Do whatever the developers want?”
That’s a real problem. As the “Museum Reach” section of the river to the north is improved and begins to develop, we need — and the whole community deserves — a serious public discussion about what kind of a river we want. We’ve already built up a tourist-attraction river, lined with hotels, clubs, and restaurants. That “river” has been very good to folks who got in early with old buildings and new development. The question is, what’s next?
We have had a City Hall all too easily seduced by images and promises of “DEVELOPMENT.” Sea World and then Fiesta Texas were going to make us into a new Orlando. Fiesta Plaza (the pink elephant) on the edge of downtown was going to remake the West Side. Houston Street would emerge as an urban retail mecca if we add stairs to the river. And of course, the Lumbermen’s/PGA/TPC development will surely make us a golf-resort city on a par with Phoenix.
We already have one vision of the future of the new, expanded, and improved river, provided by consulting firm TXP Inc. in its February 2007 report to the San Antonio River Foundation. The TXP report promises the creation of “almost a billion dollars of output and hundreds of millions in earnings annually, while supporting almost 10,000 permanent jobs at buildout,” boosting the tax base and city revenues. All that wonderful development — almost 6,000 new residential units, hundreds of thousands of square feet of new office and retail space with 7,500 parking spaces, and at least one new hotel — will create a new city within the city. Assuming it all works.
The TXP report also contains an appendix with the visitor industry’s vision of the future river. It calls for the development of “specific attractions,” such as an indoor-outdoor plaza where San Antonio visitors could experience the “family entertainment” of “authentic craft and music demonstrations.” Then our visitors could ride pedicabs or Segways along the river to Brackenridge Park and the Zoo “to give the visitor a unique and authentic San Antonio experience along and near the river lasting for several days.”
That’s a “business friendly” vision of the future of our river designed to fill hotel rooms. It’s certainly not mine. But will it be the new Commission’s?
Effective November 1, the HDRC will shrink from 15 to 11 members. Conversely, The River Commission is currently seeking members.