San Marcos getting ready for population surge

Comprehensive plan aims to shape growth

San Marcos' population of 46,685 is expected to swell by 70 percent during the next two decades, according to estimates from the Texas State Data Center.

The city is sandwiched between the rapidly expanding metropolitan areas of San Antonio and Austin. Factor in a growing university and a cherished river, and city officials say it is no wonder that San Marcos is expected to add about 33,000 residents by 2035.

With the approval of a new comprehensive master plan in April, City of San Marcos officials and residents have articulated a vision for their city and a game plan for growth. The plan, Vision San Marcos: A River Runs Through Us, aims to make room for new residents and businesses while preserving the character of established neighborhoods and protecting environmentally sensitive areas, among other goals.

"San Marcos is about to explode," said Matthew Lewis, the city's planning and development services director. "This is going to be a true central location for Central Texas, and we're putting tools in place that are going to forever change how San Marcos develops for the positive."

Goals for growth

Drawing on extensive input from residents, Vision San Marcos sets goals and objectives for economic development; environment and resource protection; land use; neighborhoods and housing; parks, public spaces and facilities; and transportation.

For example, the plan envisions high-density redevelopment along I-35 from Aquarena Springs Drive to Hopkins Street. It also encourages development to the north, south and east.

With the city's vision for itself in place, municipal staff members have begun the task of integrating that plan into the city's operations. A rewrite of the land-use code, which will help guide zoning decisions, is set to begin this summer, and city officials are re-evaluating future infrastructure projects to encourage development in areas of preferred growth.

"We talk about the completion of the plan, but really a lot of the work is just now beginning," said Jane Hughson, chairwoman of the Vision San Marcos Citizen's Advisory Committee.

Starting as early as this fall, the city is also set to hold a series of public events to develop a neighborhood character plan. Focusing on the look and feel of each neighborhood, the plan will factor into future zoning decisions such as requests to place a business in a residential area, Hughson said.

"It's incredibly important that people turn out when those events are held in their neighborhoods, because that's when each neighborhood is going to be looked at in depth," Hughson said.

San Marcos' previous plan

Whether it is the adoption of neighborhood plans or land-use maps, the effort to integrate the plan's vision into city functions is one of the major differences between Vision San Marcos and the city's previous comprehensive plan, Horizons, which was adopted in 1996. Success of the Horizons plan has been mixed, city officials said.

"The Horizons plan was great for its time. The general guiding principles are still good today," said Hughson, a former City Council member who served on the Horizons steering committee in the mid-1990s. "It's supposed to be the umbrella under which everything operates, and that didn't get done last time. ... This time [Vision San Marcos] is the comprehensive plan under which all other master plans live."

Why some plans fail

Cities' efforts to create preferred growth corridors often fail because they don't provide enough compelling reasons for private businesses and developers to build in less-desirable areas, said Mark Sprague, the state director of information capital at Independence Title Co. in Austin.

"You and I can give all the economic reasons, but if people wanted flat land, they'd move to Houston or Dallas. The growth is west toward the Hill Country," he said.

Lewis said the plan gives the city a number of tools to shape growth, but its implementation won't stop development on the western side of the city, where the Hill Country begins. Even so, the fact that San Marcos has not grown as quickly as neighboring areas—coupled with the availability of vacant land, which makes up about 26 percent of the city—has positioned the city to grow the way its residents want, Lewis said.

"We're getting way ahead of trends and opening up long-lasting development patterns," he said. "We're still a compact-style city, and we haven't sprawled out like cities around us. San Marcos is very fortunate that we have not done that yet."


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