2015 State of District 5: Urbanism, Sustainability, and Vision Zero

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Councilmember Shirley Gonzales speaks at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Elmendorf Lake Park redevelopment, part of the Westside Creek Restoration Project. Photo by Sean Encino.

Councilmember Shirley Gonzales speaks at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Elmendorf Lake Park redevelopment, part of the Westside Creek Restoration Project. Photo by Sean Encino.

I presented the “State of District 5” address to the West San Antonio Chamber of Commerce to a packed room on Wednesday. But there were many District 5 residents, businesses, and civic partners who did not get to hear that message. I would like to share my prepared comments with the entire community:

The District 5 office has worked hard the past two years. The fruits of that work are displayed for your review and comment on poster boards throughout this room. We have not done that work alone. We have teamed with national, state and local elected officials, business, and the community to conceive, refine and implement initiatives that improve lives and business opportunity in District 5.

This morning I will highlight the work from the past two years, but I want to focus on the work for the next two years. I want to emphasize how to build on what constituents have described as what is best for our neighborhoods.

As I have listened to constituents, I have repeatedly heard many of the same requests. To slow traffic on neighborhood streets, to repair or add sidewalks, improve street lighting, and end the loose animal problem. My staff and I have done our best to address these problems as they were reported, but as we worked on these problems, I learned about something even more important than individual problems. We simply cannot fix everything that needs fixing by working these problems on a case-by-case basis.

So, I began reading, and studying, and talking with people. And through that process, I had what I might call a revelation. We often talk about the Millennials and how they want a quality urban lifestyle. The term “new urbanism” has taken hold, but new urbanism is really just urbanism coming full circle.

District 5 has the urban structure sought by so many. We’ve always had it. That’s what is so wonderful about this District, and that’s why I have such high ambitions for what we can do in District 5. I recognize the many challenges we face in the District, but a second lesson I’ve learned is to solve these many challenges, we must approach them systematically, not one-at-a-time, not case-by-case. Systemic changes will have long-term impact on entire neighborhoods, not just on those who call in to ask for help.

We are turning the corner on some problems. Take roaming dogs, for instance. After two years of work from the community, Animal Care Services, volunteer agencies and my staff, the number of roaming dogs is down significantly. We see it in metrics like dead animal pick-ups, but most importantly residents and visitors have commented to me about how there are so few loose dogs. We can’t claim victory yet, but we are making progress where folks had come to believe there would never be progress.

Joint walks with community members, ACS, volunteers and Councilmember Shirley Gonzales (D5) to helping reduce the number of loose animals in District 5. Photo by Sean Encino.

Joint walks with community members, ACS, volunteers and Councilmember Shirley Gonzales (D5) to helping reduce the number of loose animals in District 5. Photo by Sean Encino.

The Honorable Henry Cisneros published a new book, “Urban Real Estate Investment: A New Era of Opportunity.” The book is timely, and it identifies the business and quality of life opportunities emerging through urbanization in cities throughout the nation. It’s a story of opportunity, and that opportunity is right here, in District 5.

I am inspired by SA Tomorrow, San Antonio’s comprehensive planning effort. I find an incredible alignment between the direction emerging in SA Tomorrow and the trends highlighted by Mr. Cisneros as America goes through an urban paradigm shift.

I’m going to lean on Mr. Cisneros’ work as I explain my vision for District 5, and discuss the projects that will move us towards that vision. He identified 13 trends that are creating opportunity for urbanization. I see many of those in the work we are doing in District 5.

Those include:

  • Building for sustainability
  • Harnessing anchor institutions and industries
  • Modernizing urban infrastructure
  • Addressing mixed income housing
  • Making walkability real
  • Adding transit related value
  • And cementing public/private partnerships 

Study after study show there is a large, unmet demand for urban living. There is a desire for quality, safe, walkable neighborhoods. District 5 has the foundation for exceptional walkability in neighborhoods throughout the district, but public and private investment is needed to realize the full potential of that opportunity.

The Big Tex mixed-use development will bring commercial and residential space to Southtown soon. Photo by Sean Encino.

The Big Tex mixed-use development will bring commercial and residential space to Southtown soon. Photo by Sean Encino.

San Antonio expects more than 1 million new residents in the next 25 years. When we look at the issue of sustainability, this anticipated growth presents challenges, but more importantly, it presents opportunity. If we consider sustainability to be the long-term affordability of housing, transportation, and energy, then infill development has significant economic advantages. Projects like 210 Developers’ Peanut Factory Lofts, Lifshutz Co. and NRP Group’s Big Tex, and the San Juan Homes developed by SAHA along with the NRP Group and Westside Development Corporation are meeting the need for market rate and low income housing.

Another approach to meeting housing needs is to stabilize and rehabilitate our existing housing stock. Over the next five years, the City of San Antonio Transportation and Capital Improvement department will execute a $1 million project to rehabilitate homes for residents in need. Not only is this an opportunity to assist families in need, but also it brings opportunity to our business partners, and hopefully jobs for District 5 residents.

Smart energy management is another important aspect of sustainability. In the coming months, the District 5 office, CPS Energy and the City of San Antonio will complete the Light Up District 5 project, which replaces 1,100 streetlights with high efficiency LED residential lights around parks, schools and churches. Neighborhoods, who were pitch black at night, will enjoy residential streets with lights that give everyone a sense of safety and peace of mind that is long overdue in District 5.

Community design is another area where we can address sustainability. Within District 5, Infill Development Zoning (IDZ) is both beneficial and appropriate. IDZ cannot only reduce development costs, but it can also improve walkability. Parking is a very good example. Excessive parking is well understood as a driver of auto-dependence and damaging to walkability. IDZ reduces the minimum parking requirements that may fit the suburbs, but degrades more urban areas of the city while driving up housing and commercial property costs.

When I built the new building for Bills Pawn & Jewelry, I was sensitive to the needs of customers arriving by transit, bike or foot. I wanted to welcome customers with a storefront at the street, and not require them to wade through a parking lot to reach the entrance.

We were also space constrained. We could not build the building we needed if we had to provide the standard, minimum parking. IDZ allowed us to reduce parking requirements by roughly 25%. At $19,000 per space in construction cost and $2,000 to $4,000 per year in maintenance, the savings not only made the store friendlier to all patrons, but also made the building economically viable.

Suburban development patterns in urban areas makes urban areas less competitive, and deny us the qualities of urban life. District 5 is predominantly urban, our economic advantage and best quality of life will come from capitalizing on the strengths of urbanism. That means using design standards appropriate for urban areas, not the suburbs. The new H-E-B store on Nogalitos is a perfect example of how a traditional retailer can build urban sensitive stores. Thank you, H-E-B.

H-E-B shows how to do "urban sensitive" retail at their new Nogalitos store. Photo by Sean Encino.

H-E-B shows how to do “urban sensitive” retail at their new Nogalitos store. Photo by Sean Encino.

IDZ is good for District 5, and I am very supportive. But I also recognize rezoning is cumbersome, risky, and expensive. During my next term, I plan to explore with businesses, members of the West and South Chambers of Commerce, and developers ways in which we can institutionalize the principles of IDZ as the standard for all commercial and residential development in the district.

District 5 needs jobs. We have prestigious institutions, such as Our Lady of the Lake University, UTSA, and St. Phillips College. These institutions will continue to serve as anchors to District 5, both economically and socially. We are making investments to support them. We just broke ground on a $15 million project to redevelop Elmendorf Lake Park. Combined with the West Side Creeks project, OLLU will have a wonderful new park and off-road trail access to the Mission Trails and downtown San Antonio.

Planning is moving forward on the 5-year, $10 million West Commerce Gateway project that will not only re-create the environment around UTSA Downtown, but better integrate the near Westside with the vitality of the Westside Multimodal, UTSA Downtown and downtown San Antonio.

These two projects are examples of how the Westside will undergo a transformation that will permanently change the face of our neighborhoods without losing the cultural texture that is so elegantly woven throughout District 5.

Small business accounts for 80% of American jobs, and that trend holds true for District 5. When I look at where businesses are clustered in the district, I see several important centers. One such center is Zarzamora St. However, the rail line that passes through Frio City Rd and Zarzamora is a major inhibitor to both business and residents. The community has been advocating for, more accurately, demanding a solution for at least 50 years.

I’m proud to report, we are making progress. Capital improvement projects take time, and the engineering for this site is extremely challenging, but for the first time ever, the Frio City Bridge has made the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s priority list. It is my top priority for the 2017 Bond, and with your support, I believe it will be funded.

In addition to the Frio City, Commerce, and Buena Vista bridges, I am also working on a 2017 Bond initiative to upgrade the Guadalupe Bridge, and working with neighborhood associations to identify bond initiatives needed to address longstanding infrastructure needs around the district. The reconstruction of these bridges and the artistic and family friendly design under the bridges will be home to the largest Outdoor Mural Museum in the State of Texas. Yes, that’s right. It will be here in District 5.

Transportation is critical to all parts of the city, and more than any other district in the city, VIA Metropolitan Transit is a critical transportation partner to District 5. The new long range transportation plan finishes the Westside Multimodal and improves services on key corridors in the district. I am particularly pleased to see light rail proposed on West Commerce, running from the multimodal, which becomes a central hub of transit activity, to Lackland AFB

The next topic I’d like to discuss is walkability.

Walking and cycling are the most sustainable and efficient modes of travel in quality urban environments. Let me restate this point. We should build District 5 and San Antonio to make walking and cycling the first transportation choices, followed by transit, and last by automobile. Walking and cycling are more than the fantastic forms of exercise and recreation; they are the safest and most economically feasible modes of travel ever discovered.

https://www.walkscore.com/TX/San_Antonio

San Antonio’s Walkscore map.

District 5 has a higher than average population of older residents and we have a lot of children. Walkability is essential to their quality of life. As important as sidewalks are, walkability is much more complex than just sidewalks.

Culebra St is a perfect example. During my first two years on council, nine people. Nine mothers, daughters, brothers, sons, and grandparents were killed walking along or crossing Culebra. Two others were seriously injured; injuries that may never completely heal. Although Culebra has sidewalks, it remains a dangerous and hostile road to all road users, but especially pedestrians.

I cannot accept this. My most important, my most basic responsibility as an elected official, is public safety. I wrote Senator Jose Menendez and TxDOT for their assistance. Senator Menendez committed $400,000 for immediate solutions to address the most troublesome locations on Culebra St. I am grateful for his responsiveness and desire to address this critical issue.

Our collective efforts may address the immediate needs but it does not solve the fundamental problem. Culebra was designed and built with indifference to the needs of the community it runs through. Residents, local residents, cross Culebra out of necessity. Their safety and convenience is paramount. When mobility and level of service is the primary concern, safety is compromised.

When safety is compromised, pedestrians suffer disproportionately.

I have given great thought to the issues of pedestrian safety, traffic fatalities, and transportation priorities since taking office, and I have come to the same position as Mayor Bill de Blasio. The status quo is unacceptable. Death and injury on city streets is neither inevitable nor acceptable. San Antonio must join New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland as the next American Vision Zero city.

Those five cities have formally adopted plans to eliminate traffic fatalities and injuries. They are making strides. One year into their Vision Zero Action Plan, New York reported the lowest traffic fatalities in the city since 1910.

Vision Zero may seem lofty, unrealistic. After all, San Antonio is not New York or San Francisco or Portland or Seattle. We are auto-dependent. Some may argue that eliminating traffic fatalities is just beyond our reach.

Well, Brigadier General Robert LaBrutta, Commander Joint Base San Antonio might disagree with you. According to available crash data, with 80,000 full-time personnel working on Ft Sam Houston, Lackland, Randolph and Camp Bullis, Joint Base San Antonio has not suffered a single traffic fatality on one of its installations in at least 13 years.

I will be working aggressively the next two years to extend the same outstanding traffic safety record achieved by our military installations to all of San Antonio. That endeavor will take a broad range of policy and project based actions that emphasize safety and accessibility in our transportation systems.

I anticipate the argument that Vision Zero will be too expensive. Meanwhile, as a society we blindly, and research shows pointlessly, spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year in San Antonio alone attempting to eliminate congestion. One result of this relentless pursuit of mobility is that the design of our road system is inherently dangerous, and that results in thousands of traffic crashes, injuries, and fatalities every year.

The resulting cost of traffic crashes is three times that of congestion. Just last year, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration estimated the annual societal cost of traffic crashes in Texas was $772 per capita. For San Antonio alone, that’s an annual cost of almost $1.1 billion. Spending our entire transportation budget on safety, including complete streets, cycling infrastructure and walking is not only morally right, but also economically justified. But walkability requires more than just safety. It also requires quality environments, beauty, and accessible destinations. The West Commerce Gateway project will address many of these needs by including a pedestrian priority zone, pedestrian amenities such as street trees for protection and shade, and bringing destinations within walking distance.

Much of District 5 has the form needed to support walkability, but more needs to be done. For example, we should respect the needs of pedestrians by removing obstacles such as utility poles and street signage from sidewalks.

And, we must meet the needs of cyclists of all skill levels and of all ages by providing safe and convenient routes. Complete streets calm traffic and encourage cycling. More and more citizens in San Antonio are riding bikes to work, to shop, and to recreate.

The policy of the City of San Antonio is to accommodate all road users with complete streets. We don’t always live up to that policy, but I will continue to demand complete streets in District 5.

Thank you for inviting me to share my vision and policy priorities for District 5 and the City of San Antonio. My staff and I will continue to work hard on the behalf of residents and business. Please continue to engage with us as we make District 5 an incredible place to live, work and play.

 

*Featured/top image: Councilmember Shirley Gonzales speaks at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Elmendorf Lake Park redevelopment, part of the Westside Creek Restoration Project. Photo by Sean Encino.

Related Stories:

Bringing Vision Zero (Pedestrian Deaths) to San Antonio

As Election Nears, City Launches SA Tomorrow Plan

The Battle Over Unshared Street Space In U.S. Cities

State of the Center City: Treviño Breaks out the Drone

Photo Gallery: Peek Inside The Peanut Factory Lofts

4 thoughts on “2015 State of District 5: Urbanism, Sustainability, and Vision Zero

  1. The point about street signs and poles in the middle of sidewalks is spot on! I hope San Antonio does embrace the vision that she presented. Bravo!

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