San Antonio City Council’s new map under fire

Last-minute protests from the downtown business community this week blew months of painstaking planning and negotiation for a new city council map.

Downtown San Antonio has been in District 1 for decades. But a new city council map due for approval this month divides the area between District 1 and District 5 on the west side.

Included in the draft map released in April, the change met with no resistance from a redistricting committee appointed by city council members. The committee met regularly to redraw city council district boundaries based on new U.S. Census figures released last year.

But Richard Perez, president of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and former councilor for District 4, called on the committee Tuesday night to unify the central business district.

“The continued viability of the central business district is important to the overall economic recovery and success of our community,” Perez said. “We believe now is not the time to start carving out sections of the central business district and risk diminishing this important economic driver.”

An early committee vote approved the change narrowly, 12 to 9. If it remains in place, Downtown will remain primarily in District 1. City Hall, San Antonio Children’s Hospital, San Pedro Creek, Marketplace, HEB Headquarters and more to be moved to District 5.

Tensions mounted and residents and committee members became visibly distressed as they discussed the request. The previously contentious votes returned for discussion. The prospect of Los Jardines reclaiming part of its neighborhood in District 6, which residents have long been asking for, has once again been put on the negotiating table. The committee also voted to return half of Brackenridge Park to East Side District 2 instead of placing it entirely in District 1.

District 5 officials said they had no idea District 1 was going to ask to keep downtown. Amy Kastely, one of the District 5 appointees, accused Jordan Ghawi, a District 1 appointee, of retaliating against her for her vote on Brackenridge Park, though Ghawi disputed that characterization.

“I think it’s a real perversion of our fair process,” Kastely said.

She said the move was not transparent to residents who did not speak out because they thought it was over. Ultimately, the committee added a final meeting tentatively scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday pending a venue. They plan to only discuss areas of the map that were unscrewed on Tuesday – Downtown and Los Jardines.

The eleventh-hour proposals suggested a flaw in the committee’s ability to work together and agree on a final map with just over a week to make adjustments.

City Council is due to vote on a new map at its June 16 meeting next week. Mayor Ron Nirenberg called for a direct yes-or-no vote, without making changes, to build confidence in what he created to be an independent committee free from the politics of elected officials.

Arguing that District 1 should take over downtown, Ghawi argued for the numbers. The previous final proposed map left District 1 with the least population and gave the overall map a deviation just below the legally allowed 10%.

But returning portions of downtown from District 5 to District 1 closes some of the gap, bringing the gap of the entire map closer to 8%. Legally, it won’t make a difference, but residents have called for the smallest possible deviation to ensure fairness among city voters.

“This will bring back much needed population that is already sparsely populated in our district, District 1,” said Theresa Vargas Wyatt, another District 1 appointee. “These have significant strengths as well.”

Although the western edge of downtown has long sat in District 1, Kastely said the area has historical and cultural value to the West Side. Area residents will want to come out and talk about the change if they face it, she said.

“I’m fighting,” said Shelley Potter, one of Nirenberg’s appointees to the committee. “It’s like all of a sudden here, and I’m a little uncomfortable with that.”

Tuesday’s marathon push to compromise on last-minute changes around downtown again opened up the possibility of returning parts of Los Jardines to District 6. A prior compromise split the neighborhood and parts of the business community off the old Highway 90 between Districts 5 and 6, moving Cuellar Park and the Edgewood Fine Arts Academy to District 5.

Residents have repeatedly spoken out against the change, saying they have established a strong relationship with District 6 Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda and her office. After the question of downtown placement opened up, Kastely offered to return part of Los Jardines to District 6 if District 5 could keep its grip on downtown.

The downtown debate eclipsed another vote expected on Tuesday in Brackenridge Park. The plan placed the entire 349-acre park in District 1, instead of dividing it between District 1 and District 2.

Residents of River Road, who see themselves as closely connected to the ongoing issues at Brackenridge Park, wanted the entire park to be in their District 1. They said it would make it easier to work with the city on the issues there. .

But over the past two weeks, residents of District 2 have come out in droves to speak passionately about the park and ask to keep their better half. Many said it had cultural and historical significance to the black community on the East Side. Other residents, who have taken part in ongoing protests against the felling of trees in Brackenridge Park, said they needed more than one person to police the fate of the historic park.

District 1 appointees ultimately voted to return the split to the park.

The vote to overturn the original plan on Brackenridge Park gave a victory to District 2 Councilor Jalen McKee-Rodriguez, who had publicly called for his part of the park to be returned so neighboring East Side neighborhoods like Mahncke Park could have a seat at the table.

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