This is a column of analysis.
Since I began covering City Hall in 2008, it’s often been difficult for me to determine who was orchestrating certain agendas and policies: the mayor and City Council, or City Manager Sheryl Sculley.
In many ways, and for different reasons, Sculley often seemed more powerful than any elected official.
And so to whom would you attribute the roughly $265 million for downtown capital projects and upgrades over three voter-approved bond programs? Or, what is probably the downtown area’s largest development boom, symbolized by the glass-covered, 23-story Frost tower currently under construction, since the late 1920s?
In the 13 years Sculley has served as San Antonio’s city manager, Hemisfair also began its transformation from a sleepy urban park into a popular destination for families of all ZIP codes. The contentious Alamo Plaza plan recently survived a grueling public process (though, critics would argue it shouldn’t have). And the convention center was expanded, the largest capital project in San Antonio’s history.
The growth can legitimately be characterized as the beginning of downtown San Antonio’s revitalization after decades of stagnation. It can also legitimately be characterized as the beginning of the complete gentrification of every neighborhood that surrounds downtown.
So, what happens after Sculley leaves her position next year?
On Thursday, Sculley announced she will retire in 2019, but will stay on no later than June 30 to help with the tradition.
“This is my decision,” Sculley said in a statement, adding that she had wanted to retire for more than two years. However, it’s difficult to ignore the message voters sent four weeks ago on Election Day, when they approved Proposition B, which limits the salary and tenure of future city managers.
To attempt to predict the impact of Sculley’s departure is difficult—almost impossible—without knowing the quality of her successor, and without knowing if voters will keep Mayor Ron Nirenberg and the current council, make a few changes, or replace them wholesale come May.
It’s also challenging to make a proper assessment not knowing the behind-closed-door machinations at City Hall.
For example, it was Mayor Julián Castro, his “decade of downtown” strategy and the eventual Center City Housing Incentive Policy (CCHIP) that has spurred the apartment boom in the downtown area—and all of the intended and unintended consequences that have followed. But it was Sculley who executed it.
Just as Nirenberg now insists on a deeper level of affordability from CCHIP, it’s Sculley who is manifesting the mayor’s edict.
Sculley’s strategy has been to offer developers rebates on the city portion of their property taxes, as well as fee waivers and loans. Since CCHIP began in 2012, the city has disbursed an estimated $102 million in incentives to the developers of 64 multifamily projects, which the city says will yield an estimated $1.4 billion in private investment. That comes out to 6,810 units either built or under development. There’s also the handful of pre-CCHIP developments, built from 2008 to 2012, such as the Vistana, which also received tax breaks.
Under Sculley, CCHIP’s initial 36-square-mile boundary extended far beyond downtown, and swallowed all of San Antonio’s inner city neighborhoods. It wasn’t just about adding new housing in downtown proper, it was about building up all of the inner city. Though neighborhoods like King William and Lavaca south of downtown were gentrifying on their own, CCHIP sped up the process for other abutting communities.
In late 2014, and early 2015, the more than 100 low-income households of Mission Trails, a South Side mobile home park on the San Antonio River—nowhere near downtown—were displaced for luxury apartments by local developer White Conlee Builders, which received a CCHIP package worth an estimated $1.7 million.
In June 2016, the program’s footprint was scaled back, but it’s unclear whether the move—clearly a reaction to the negative media attention Mission Trails brought to CCHIP—came from Castro, Sculley, or a staffer.
It could be argued that Sculley holds immense power because of the complexities of the policies she presents to the council. She puts them on each council member’s desk, they ask a few questions during a B session, it gets voted through.
The CCHIP revisions, which the council is scheduled to vote on this Thursday, is a perfect example. Throughout 2018, the program has been on hold at the behest of Nirenberg, as staffers tweak it as to produce more affordable units. It was first scheduled for a vote in October, but District 4 Councilman Rey Saldaña pulled it from the agenda because, he told me, he didn’t understand it.
The second time the council discussed the revisions as a group, in a B session on Nov. 14, I could tell members had a better understanding of the policy’s nuances based on the questions were asking.
It was also the first time the council met after the Nov. 6 election, and you could feel the presence of Proposition B in the room.
Early in the meeting, Nirenberg threw a fastball at Assistant City Manager Lori Houston when he asked her why the city characterizes CCHIP-incentivized apartments rented to people making 80 percent of the area median income as “affordable,” when he said the reality is that most San Antonians couldn’t afford to live in such dwellings. District 4 Councilman Rey Saldaña and District 7 Councilwoman Ana Sandoval talked about being able to defend CCHIP to their constituents, many of whom are low income: What is the public benefit when CCHIP hands out millions of dollars in tax breaks to developers?
Voters had spoken the week prior. And my interpretation is that some of the elected officials in the room, in their questioning, were alluding to the municipal election in May.
Though it didn’t affect Sculley’s contract, the passage of Prop B was an indictment from taxpayers on her $550,000 in salary and bonuses. Her supporters said she was worth every penny as the head of the $2.7 billion organization that is the city of San Antonio. But the majority of voters—59.2 percent—disagreed.
Having a better grasp of the policy, Nirenberg told Sculley and her staff the revisions needed more work.
For better or worse—and that’s completely up to you—Sculley made tough decision after tough decision. At times, she pushed the downtown agenda too hard, some have argued.
Earlier this year, she resuscitated developer Mitch Meyer’s controversial apartment project next to the Hays Street Bridge after it had been rejected twice by the Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC). (It was Mayor Ivy Taylor and Sculley who, in 2014, pushed for the sale of the land north of the bridge to an entity controlled by Meyer and Eugene Simor, owner of Alamo Beer Co. The Hays Street Bridge Restoration Group sued the city, and the case was heard in September before the Texas Supreme Court. Both sides await a decision.)
And in 2013, she raised from the dead the controversial Joske’s hotel project, which the HDRC had also blasted.
This is a power afforded to the city manager under the Unified Development Code, and Sculley took advantage of it on these two occasions.
There was also the $40 million allocation in the 2017-2022 bond program for the rebuilding of Broadway, the single most expensive bond item in recent years. During the campaign, critics argued that the expenditure didn’t benefit the entire city, and saw it as a clear example of Sculley ramrodding through a project too specific to downtown.
Of course, there was the Alamo Plaza master plan process, which the City Council approved in October. Many other leaders besides Sculley—District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, and, eventually, Nirenberg—shared the burden of selling the plan to the public. But even still, Sculley played a huge role. While Treviño defended the relocation of the Cenotaph, Sculley, through City Attorney Andy Segovia, defended the more technical points such as the barriers that will enclose the plaza during museum hours, which she argued do not contradict the 1871 deed that states the plaza should remain a “dedicated for public use as a public space.”
In the middle of 2014, Castro left San Antonio to serve as Barack Obama’s housing secretary while in the middle of a heated public debate on streetcar. Two weeks later, Taylor and Judge Nelson Wolff killed the plan amid mounting political pressure to put the streetcar project to a public vote.
During this time, Sculley, in my view, was the person who carried Castro’s “decade of downtown” torch.
Though Weston Urban approached the city about the Frost tower public-private partnership toward the end of Castro’s run as mayor, it was Sculley and the expertise of her staff who put that 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzle together. (We will see how well the partnership’s other components are executed. Will the renovation of Frost Bank’s current headquarters into the city’s new administrative building end up saving the city money? Will it be cost-neutral? Or, will it be a boondoggle? Will Weston Urban build mixed-income apartments, or will they be market rate?)
And it’s in the same kind of pro-downtown environment that the city was able to contribute some of its unused land toward the University of Texas at San Antonio’s expansion of its downtown campus.
The downtown agenda was represented in each bond program that was passed by voters—in 2007, 2012 and 2017—each one growing larger.
The relative success of the bond projects—the fact that they were completed relatively on time and on budget, and that they were spread throughout the city—meant Sculley and the council could come back to voters with bigger asks. The $850 million bond program voters approved last year was the largest in the city’s history.
The three programs combined for nearly $2 billion worth of citywide improvements—streets and drainage, parks and libraries—and $265 million of that went to downtown.
The bulk of those downtown dollars were for street upgrades, most notably the Broadway corridor project. But $53 million went to Hemisfair, $21 million for the massive Alamo Plaza undertaking, and $19.5 million for San Pedro Creek.
(San Antonio got the best interest rates on these general obligation bonds because of its Triple A bond rating, an accomplishment that Sculley can claim as her own, though she has always deflected praise toward her staff.)
One has to ask, can this level of expertise—whether you agree with Sculley’s decisions or not—be sustained as San Antonio makes a leadership transition next year? Would the Frost tower, for example, have happened under a less qualified or less experienced city manager?
Maybe, depending on who’s selected as the next city manager, it’s not so much what will happen, but how.
Setting It Straight: In a previous version, this article misstated the percentage of voters who approved Proposition B. It also misspelled the name of former President Barack Obama.