As 2015 draws to a close, I am considering the future, San Antonio’s future, and what my focus should be in 2016 to move the city toward the future we want. Mayor Ivy Taylor launched the comprehensive planning process known as SA Tomorrow in 2014, a process that continued throughout 2015, and will be completed in 2016.
The New Year marks the transition from planning to implementation, and my priorities for 2016 will focus on issues that move District 5 and San Antonio as a whole toward the vision and goals captured in the comprehensive planning process. Three themes stand out from SA Tomorrow: public health and safety, community development and budget.
San Antonio adopted a Vision Zero policy in 2015. City staff is leading development of a Vision Zero action plan with internal and external partners that will map our way to a future where people are no longer seriously injured or killed on San Antonio’s streets. I look forward to championing that plan in 2016, and taking the boldest steps the city has seen in decades to elevate safety as the first priority in our transportation planning process. The fact is our streets could be safer, much safer, if safety was our first priority.
As we begin to make progress towards Vision Zero we will also find we are making progress towards better public health. Streets are a major proportion of public space in any city. Dangerous and unpleasant streets hurt public health by limiting the opportunities to walk and ride bikes for transportation and play. People of all ages, from children to Millennials to Baby Boomers to our oldest citizens, want active living. Yet, today’s dangerous streets are a barrier to active living.
In 2016, we will demonstrate an alternative design for a neighborhood street that creates a quality environment for active living, calms traffic and connects residences, schools, parks, churches and businesses. The first “Paseo” will be temporary and built in District 5, but we hope to build a permanent network of Paseos that will connect neighborhoods throughout the city using existing streets to provide citizens with an attractive option for active living and transportation.
I will also remain focused on roaming dogs, street lighting and crime. Roaming dogs are a problem in many parts of San Antonio, including District 5. It is a difficult problem to solve, but through persistence and creativity we are making progress. Neighbors and constituents are noticing the progress, but I still see loose animals on the street, and I will continue to work this issue until every part of the city is free of roaming dogs.
Crime is another persistent problem, but a strong relationship with police, code enforcement and neighborhood associations is making a difference. The Light Up District 5 project saw 1,500 new LED street lamps installed during 2015, and a citywide expansion of that project. Street lighting improves traffic safety, but also helps deter crime and instill a feeling of safety. We will install another 1,350 new street lights in 2016.
When I think of San Antonio, I think of a city of lights that will revive the spirit of neighborhoods and its residents. The formula is quite simple: if people cannot see, people feel the city has neglected them and their safety. Jean Street is our pilot project. We installed five street lights where there would traditionally be three. When the lights went up, a constituent told me she felt she could dance in the street. Lights had changed her entire outlook.
I see community development as the sum of two components: housing and economic development. District 5 is home to some of the most historic neighborhoods in the city. That brings advantages, such as walk scores that are better than even the most prestigious communities in San Antonio. I recently spoke at a community health conference, where I noted that District 5 lies in San Antonio’s core and is composed of many compact, connected neighborhoods. Our best prospect for prosperity is not through the suburban model, but by high-quality urbanization.
That means protecting our stock of historic homes, returning vacant properties to productive use, and fostering business development. The Westside Historic Gateway Project holds the promise of transforming the near Westside into a choice neighborhood. I believe the best opportunity to resolving many of the longstanding issues in the near Westside is by creating a place where more residents who find success choose to stay. The Westside Historic Gateway Project is the catalyst needed for true transformation.
Community development in the city’s core requires focus and resources. Annexation will continue to be a dominant topic in 2016. Though there has been strong internal and external pressure to annex new areas, I have not heard a convincing argument that annexation is good for the city. The fiscal analysis performed by the city is based on estimations from prior budgets. The city budget reports projected revenues and approved expenditures, but it does not report all existing requirements. We know there are unfunded requirements, such as sidewalks, and deferred maintenance on roads, parks and facilities, but we don’t have a robust and transparent method for reporting those unfunded requirements.
Moreover, it is not clear if those unfunded requirements are equally distributed around the city. It appears the oldest parts of the city have the greatest deferred maintenance needs, which could simply reflect years of unmet deferred maintenance. A continued pattern of deferred maintenance could result in similar needs in larger areas of the city.
Approved budgets serve as the basis for estimating the costs in areas considered for annexation, therefore, we risk underestimating the resources needed to support newly annexed areas if we do not account for the unfunded requirements in the budget. To address this risk, I will initiate action to identify and report unfunded requirements as part of the budgeting process. This may be difficult, but it is essential to ensure both our discussions on annexation are well informed and the long-term solvency of our city.
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I am optimistic about San Antonio’s future. I am especially excited about my role with the exciting things happening in the city and the opportunity in 2016 to accelerate the momentum gathered since the beginning of SA2020. I feel this is an important moment in San Antonio, and that we have an opportunity to create an even better city that extends prosperity and quality of life to every resident in every part of the city.
I am grateful for the opportunity to lead District 5 today and eager to work for District 5 and San Antonio in 2016. Together we will make important strides towards the high goals set in SA2020 and SA Tomorrow.
*Top Image: Pedestrians cross the intersection of Audubon Drive and San Pedro Avenue. Photo by Scott Ball.