Commentary: SA Tomorrow Replaces Neighborhood Plans and the Democratic Process

By Cynthia Spielman and Cosima Colvin

Neighborhood Plans are civic engagement and grassroots democracy at its most local level.

They were created by ordinary people who care about their community and were willing to work, to participate and to engage with their neighbors in a real partnership with the city under the 1998 Community Building and Neighborhood Planning Program.  

We spent hundreds of hours planning, facilitating and attending meetings. We talked to one another, and sometimes struggled with ideas until we finally came to a consensus.

As a result, for the first time in San Antonio’s long history, residents in neighborhoods were able to define what was valuable about their community’s past, and articulate their dream for the future. Fifty-five plans were adopted by San Antonio City Council as ordinance and incorporated into the Comprehensive Master Plan. (see a complete list here)  

We celebrated not only our plans, but a process that we trusted.

The City told us to own our plans, to advocate, and to work for their realization. We did. We do.

But now it seems the engaged citizenry of people who care about the future of their neighborhoods has become an inconvenient impediment to the City’s new vision for our community.

If the SA Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan has its way, our neighborhoods, instead of being of unique identities, will simply be part of a larger Sub-Area Plan, subject to the development vision of others.

We formed Tier One Neighborhood Coalition because, from the outset, the SA Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan has not included meaningful representation from neighborhoods and has repeatedly vowed to eliminate existing Neighborhood Plans.

When the SA Tomorrow planning process began in 2015, city staffers selected 200 people to serve on the Plan Element Working Groups. Not one person was chosen to represent and be an advocate for neighborhoods in any of the working groups.

Planning staff did not incorporate neighborhood concerns from public meetings even though neighborhood stakeholders asked specific questions and shared concerns regarding the status of their plans within the Comprehensive Plan.

Planning staff insisted at these public meetings, during which consultants took copious notes and placed feedback on wall-mounted white butcher paper, that Neighborhood and Community Plans would be reviewed and included in the new plan.

Instead, language in the May 2, 2016 draft of the SA Tomorrow Plan stated that existing Neighborhood Plans would be eliminated, and contained very few protections for neighborhoods while promoting focused infill growth in the urban core.

The newly formed Tier One Neighborhood Coalition scrambled to come up with revised language to keep our Neighborhood Plans intact, add provisions that would prioritize and protect neighborhood stability and sustainability, and assure that neighborhoods would be included in the implementation process.

As a result, the July 20,  2016  “final” draft SA Tomorrow Plan addressed concerns regarding incompatible development and inclusion in the decision-making process during the implementation stage, but there was no assurance that the neighborhood and community plans would remain intact.

Responding to our concerns, Councilman Roberto Treviño intervened and offered an amendment from the dais as City Council was about to pass the plan on Aug. 11, 2016.  

His amendment: 1) “On page 17.10, include “Neighborhood and community plans should be respected, as appropriate, as they are integrated into the Sub-Area Plans.” 2) On page 17.14, include additional language related to neighborhood plans that strikes “replace” and adds “incorporate” so that the whole text reads, “The Community Plans should integrate and will eventually incorporate.” 

Section 1.3: of the adopted Comprehensive Plan states: “While the Comprehensive Plan is an umbrella policy and planning document with city wide implications, it does not alter or negate our existing neighborhood plans, community plans, sector plans or any other land use plans.

Then-Councilman Ron Nirenberg underscored that later in 2016 by telling neighborhood leaders: “Existing neighborhood plans will be respected and built upon, not replaced.”

Unfortunately, despite the assurances of Treviño and Nirenberg and the plan’s own directive, the SA Tomorrow Sub-Area Plan process is about to eliminate and replace our existing Neighborhood and Community plans.

The explanation given by the Planning Department when challenged on the status of neighborhood plans is a lot like when a loved one dies, and people tell you that they aren’t really dead as long as you keep them alive in another form in your heart.

Comforting, perhaps for consoling a family member, but less so when we hear it from City government regarding our neighborhoods and the democratic process.

As originally published, this article contained an error. The article said just five people were chosen to represent neighborhoods in tne initial SA Tomorrow Process. Not one person was chosen by the city to represent neighborhoods.