Architect David Lake sounds frustrated. "It's not clear when we're going to get a final document out of the Mayor's office," says Lake. He's a spokesperson for the Smart Growth Coalition, a loose umbrella organization of neighborhood, professional, religious, labor, and environmental groups. What these groups have in common is that they have come together to oppose the PGA Village project, the upscale hotels-and-golf fiefdom that proponents want city taxpayers to subsidize over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone.
Contrary to the spin you may have picked up from the Express-News, the Smart Growth Coalition isn't on board with Mayor Ed Garza's mysterious "compromise" plan to tweak the PGA project into acceptability. A City Council vote on the revised plan is scheduled for Thursday, April 4.
PGA supporters and their media fellow-travelers have been quick to praise Garza's shape-shifter plan, which few mortal eyes have seen in its final form. Banker Tom Frost recently weighed in with a cheerful op-ed piece that invokes the developers' crude threat to build 9,000 little Marvin-Gardens-style houses on the same land if they don't get their fairways, roughs, and sand traps. To preserve the aquifer, Frost concludes without apparent irony, we need to build the PGA Village. "We had to destroy the village," a young U.S. Army captain said of Ben Tre during the Tet Offensive in 1968, "to save it."
As the Current goes to press, Garza's team is reportedly working on a second draft of his plan — one that eliminates little glitches like the shell corporation that Lumbermen's Investment, PGA's parent, apparently planned to use to slough off all legal liability when things turn bad. For their part, the Smart Growth Coalition's designated spokespersons are currently drafting a letter to the Mayor spelling out their concerns. (At press time, this letter was unavailable.) Coalition members are also preparing to take the whole issue to the public via a referendum.
Although Lake credits Garza for having scruples about the original PGA proposal, the Smart Growth Coalition's criticisms of PGA still stand. Economically, the PGA plan would create a special tax district in which PGA's developers would collect an estimated $80 million in sales, property, and hotel occupancy taxes for 20 years. Such giveaways are unfortunately all too familiar in San Antonio, but this one is on a different order of magnitude, more than 20 times greater than the money the city ponied up for the La Cantera and Hill Country Resort. The city has a terrible record of policing such big-ticket contracts. Furthermore, most PGA jobs would be low-wage, go-nowhere jobs, despite Garza's commitment to the principle of a "living wage."
Environmentally, PGA would be the nightmare of your darkest presentiments. One of the many strange things about the whole PGA opera is the apparent casualness and vagueness with which PGA representatives have addressed (or, rather, failed to address) issues of water quality and quantity. Hydrologists and other scientists in the Smart Growth Coalition could produce a book-length critique of the blue-sky figures and smiley-face projections coming from the PGA side. It isn't just the pesticides and the herbicides. There is also a credible threat of water restrictions for San Antonians when the PGA pumps water, as it would be entitled to do, to keep its greens moist.
Individual citizen members of the Smart Growth Coalition, speaking only for themselves, frame the many issues surrounding PGA in their own words, and the first issue each mentions isn't always the water.
For concerned citizen Juliana Murphy, it's a question of good faith. Murphy attended the March 25 "stakeholders' meeting" at City Hall, and reluctantly concluded that, "Lumbermen's and the Mayor were only out to get as much information from us as they could, so as to be better able to sell this deal to the public." Other attendees at the stakeholders' meeting complain about the presence of city staff, laughing and joking with the PGA guys in their golf shirts, while ignoring citizen testimony, and about the characteristic inability of SAWS representatives to get their own numbers straight.
For Jon Thompson, UTSA architecture professor and a member of the Tobin Hill Residents Association, it's the proposed PGA special taxing district that has him fighting mad. "Have you seen the movie Robocop?" asks Thompson, referring to the 1987 trash masterpiece with its populist subtext. In Robocop, you may remember, an evil corporation is about to destroy most of downtown Detroit to make way for a profitable new city center. For Thompson, turning over public governance to a private entity is what PGA is all about.
"It's un-American," says Thompson, who asks where we're headed in this country when private entities can actually collect taxes, as well as running schools and jails and everything else under the sun. Thompson knows about special taxing districts. For Thompson, the PGA special district would be a massive black hole dropping out of the democratic polity, a bad thing in itself and a worse precedent.
For labor activist Bob Comeaux, it's the parks. Mayor Garza says he's worried that the increasingly bitter PGA fight may "polarize" the city and undercut Garza's political agenda. But the sad truth — to belabor the obvious — is that this city is polarized already. At one pole, there is the San Antonio where you can't find a Barnes & Noble — or even, far too often, sidewalks. At the other is a spiffier San Antonio of gated communities with private security and $14,000 chandeliers, sort of like suburban Colorado, only with an occasional Lone Star flag.
On the face of it, it might seem counterintuitive that anyone should ask the first San Antonio to subsidize the second. But that's what's happening. Comeaux points out that city parks now often close at 7 pm, and aren't open after Labor Day. But if PGA goes through, Bob and Bitsy from Minneapolis may soon be doing the backstroke in a PGA-hotel luxury pool, under a Comanche moon, courtesy of San Antonians who can't use their own neighborhood parks, or PGA facilities either. It's a surreal vision, verdad? To come up to speed on PGA issues, try the unofficial website www.nopga.com.