Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
North St. Mary’s Street is overdue for a “complete street” overhaul, several area residents and business owners said at a public meeting Tuesday. The City of San Antonio hosted the gathering to discuss how to spend $7 million allocated to the so-called “Strip” through the voter-approved 2017 municipal bond.
The City’s proposed design, which has not been finalized, includes six-foot-wide sidewalks, two lanes for vehicular traffic, and two shared lanes on either side. Those lanes would be open to cyclists during the day and parking at night. Several residents said the lanes would do little to alleviate existing parking problems and don’t afford cyclists the same safety that protected bike lanes would.
Based on feedback from preliminary meetings with area business owners and residents, the City’s Capital Projects Director Joey Doctor said, engineers had to find a way to balance multimodal traffic and parking needs.
“We’re looking to harmonize the pedestrian traffic and vehicular traffic,” said Doctor, who presented the proposal to approximately 50 people. The proposed redesign would also relocate utility poles that currently block portions of sidewalks, he said.
Asked if the final design will include separated bike lanes, he said, “we’ll consider what we can do with the limits of the right of way.”
Located just north of downtown and surrounded by the Tobin Hill and Midtown neighborhoods, North St. Mary’s Street street is lined with bars, restaurants, concert venues, and retail shops and has become a hub for live music. Its proximity to San Antonio College brings a youthful crowd, and, thus, increased foot traffic, especially on weekend evenings. That combined with alcohol consumption and aging or nonexistent infrastructure increases the risk of traffic accidents involving pedestrians.
Tobin Hill resident Lesa Rathjen suggested making one of the shared lanes a dedicated, two-way bike lane. “We need to get outside the thought that we need to drive everywhere,” she said. “I think we’re antiquated in this thinking.”
Most neighborhood traffic can be attributed to people who want to drink at area bars, Rathjen told the Rivard Report, and if the City is trying to combat obesity and diabetes, it should not encourage more driving.
Randi Simpson, owner of The Gallery Club located on the Strip, said not all business owners there want the three or four spaces the proposal would provide.
“I’d rather have a designated bike lane,” she said.
An increase in housing developments in the area has added to the wear on the area infrastructure and highlighted the need for more. Many intersections on North St. Mary’s lack crosswalks, such as the one with East Mistletoe at the Strip’s northernmost point, or their striping has faded over time.
A group of anonymous residents, who called themselves the San Antonio Department of Transformation (SADOT), installed its own guerrilla-style infrastructure at that intersection last October.
“We see St. Mary’s as having the possibility for a fantastic pedestrian experience,” said a SADOT group member, who spoke to the Rivard Report on the condition of anonymity. “However, if you’re walking on there, it can feel scary.”
The City removed the crosswalk, curb extensions, and other elements officials called “vandalism” shortly after it appeared.
Some sidewalks in the area are broken, uneven, or too narrow for two-way foot traffic.
Along with replacing old sidewalks, “road diets” that narrow paths for vehicular traffic and other traffic-calming strategies could be part of the street’s final design, said Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), who represents downtown and the near North Side. Crosswalks, signage, lighting, curb extensions, and bike lanes would all contribute to a more “complete street” for pedestrians, cyclists, motorists, and now those on electronic scooters, said Treviño, who did not attend the meeting.
“The City is really taking a huge shift toward more pedestrian mobility,” he said.
Improvements aren’t happening as quickly as some would like, he said, noting the SADOT group, but “we hear them and we can say we’re doing it within our process.”
Blayne Tucker, founder of the North St. Mary’s Business Owners Association and a board member of the Tobin Hill Community Association, told the Rivard Report after the meeting that the proposal is not perfect and “does not solve the existing parking problem … but it improves the infrastructure, and the core issue is safety.”
Several residents supported the shared lanes because they would help alleviate bar and restaurant patrons parking on adjacent streets – which sometimes blocks driveways and makes it difficult for emergency vehicles to get through.
A residents-only parking system similar to the one recently implemented in Southtown’s Lavaca neighborhood, Treviño’s Chief of Staff Jay Podjenski said, could be used in the Tobin Hill and Midtown communities, too.
“It sounds like we need a meeting to address [those other issues],” Podjenski told the crowd. “That’s got to be a community-led effort.”
Design work for the Strip’s bond project started in May 2018, and is 40 percent complete as of October, Doctor said. The design should be completed in August 2019 and construction could start in December 2019. Pending coordination with SAWS and CPS Energy’s utility work, construction could be completed in April 2021.
The next public meeting is not yet scheduled, he said, but will likely take place in 2019.