Cityscrapes: Streetcar squawking is nothing new for SA
Published: July 23, 2014
The increasingly overt and bitter fight over VIA’s proposed downtown modern streetcar should have come as no surprise to anyone knowledgeable about San Antonio and its politics. The VIA leadership has ramped up its arguments for streetcar building, taking out full-page ads in the Express-News (and the Current) touting expansive “economic impact”—more on that later—and arguing that the downtown streetcar is just one part of a larger effort to improve transit all across the city, one that would presumably appeal to suburban residents stuck in traffic. But VIA and local streetcar proponents haven’t really recognized that big public projects with grand promises almost invariably provoke loud and often effective opposition. Take the case of the long-venerated Municipal Auditorium, now being refashioned into the Tobin Performing Arts Center.
San Antonio business leaders entered the 20th century seeking to boost tourism. They soon focused on a grand municipal auditorium as the necessary public vehicle. The Chamber of Commerce began promoting the idea of a stadium and convention hall in San Pedro Park—“A great, white, beautiful structure of classic design”—in early 1910. But the fullest statement of civic need came in February 1911, with an extended essay by the Chamber’s John Carrington headed “Why San Antonio Needs a Convention Hall and Something About the Accruing Benefits.” Carrington argued that a convention hall was absolutely necessary for the city “to realize her opportunity as a convention city and to furnish entertainment for the crowds that come to the carnival and other big gatherings.” Carrington and his colleagues sought “to get the big conventions to come here.” And over 100 years ago, he too employed the language of promised economic impact, contending that the average visitor “would spend at least $5 per day … The money thus put into circulation, although it may directly reach certain classes first, indirectly reaches all classes.”
Carrington’s plea and the entreaties of the Chamber leadership did not immediately spur action on the part of the city’s elected officials. It took a change in the structure of city government in 1915 and then public pressure for a memorial to veterans of the World War and a petition campaign before city officials accepted the idea. Even before the July 1919 vote on a $500,000 bond issue for the planned auditorium, civic leaders were pressing to keep the site selection “out of politics.”
Just days after voter approval in late July, the Express-News ran a bold editorial proclaiming “Let the People Choose the Auditorium Site—For Their Convenience,” and arguing the people deserved the best for their money: “The best possible civic planning, the best possible material, the best possible labor, the best possible appearance, the utmost utility, the most durable and attractive results should be the community’s reward….” The E-N then (and through the weeks that followed) invited the community to fill out a “Build the Auditorium” survey with their preferred location, including at the bottom of the form “I am opposed to building the municipal auditorium on Romana Street.”