SAN ANTONIO (AP) -- When Texas lawmakers convene in Austin next week to start their biennial task of crafting new legislation, they'll be asked to consider some bills that would directly impact the city of San Antonio.
At the top of the list is a proposal that would allow HemisFair Park's master plan to be realized. The plan calls for overhauling the urban park into a sprawling mixed-use area that would be a beacon for all San Antonians.
Here's the rub: In order to completely redevelop the park as it's been envisioned, the city needs to offer some of the designated park space as property available for private development.
HemisFair Park won't lose any park acreage -- in fact, it will likely gain green space. Still, state law calls for voters to decide whenever the government wants to use park land for something that isn't "a public purpose," said Carlos Contreras, an assistant city manager who oversees the city's legislative agendas.
Mayor Julian Castro said getting the Texas Legislature to pass a narrowly tailored law that gives the City Council the authority to swap park land for land not designated for parks within HemisFair is an important component in creating a world-class gathering place.
"The first concern is to create a great park at HemisFair. We don't have a real park at HemisFair right now," he said. "It's a park in name only, and we can create wonderful green space that everyone will be proud of. But we need some flexibility to do that."
The proposed legislation has safeguards that will ensure that park space at HemisFair wouldn't be reduced -- it could only be expanded.
Contreras said the bill also includes provisions excluding historic landmarks such as the Tower of the Americas, the River Walk and La Villita.
The park's master plan calls for the development of mixed-use spaces -- development that often has bars, restaurants and retail on the ground floor and residential units above -- on some of the land designated for parks. Under current state law, in order for the city to designate those areas for development, it would have to take the issue to local voters.
The city wants to give the authority to makes those swaps -- at HemisFair only -- to the council.
Asking the legislature to consider it is no small request.
"Certainly it's a difficult ask to do that during this legislative session because of the challenges the legislature is facing," Contreras said. "But we're hopeful our delegation sees fit to support it and we can get it passed."
San Antonio's legislative agenda also includes proposals that would expand the city's ability to prevent property owners from illegally adding fill to their land in the flood plain and broaden its ability to address blighted areas through a land bank program.
"This initiative would give the city the power to go to court and ask for injunctive relief to stop a property owner from violating city ordinance," Contreras said.
Under state law, the city only has the right to act administratively against those who are illegally adding fill to their properties. City officials want to amend a section of the Texas Local Government Code to give municipalities the authority to go beyond current limits of a possible $500 daily fine.
The city is asking that it be able to seek a court order to both stop the illegal dumping and require cleanup. Under the proposal, if a judge issues such an order and it isn't obeyed, the city would be able to do the cleanup itself and charge the property owner.
Contreras said the city also will ask lawmakers to consider expanding municipal authority for land banking, a practice that allows cities to amass land in blighted areas and offer it up for redevelopment.
A couple of years ago, after the state gave municipalities the authority to do some land-banking under the "Urban Land Bank Program," the city envisioned a plan to promote infill development in blighted areas.
But limits in state law have stymied what the city had hoped to do. Now officials are asking lawmakers to amend the local government code to expand authority.
Contreras said the city wants to be able to acquire all available properties -- not just ones that don't have existing structures. And it wants to be able to use the properties for not only affordable housing, as state law requires, but also for commercial purposes.
For example, under current law the city couldn't purchase a decrepit, nonoperational grocery store and turn it over to a developer to construct a new grocery store -- even if that's the highest and best use for the property, Contreras said.
Under the city's proposal, he said, the city would be able "to put the property in a land bank and repurpose it as a store if that's the best use."
City officials said they'll continue discussing San Antonio's legislative agenda with the Bexar County delegation as the Legislature is poised to open its 83rd session next Tuesday.
Information from: San Antonio Express-News, http://www.mysanantonio.com