Scott Ball / Rivard Report
City Council District 5’s boundaries include some of the oldest and most neglected urban areas in San Antonio. About 93% of residents are low income and the largest employer is the Bexar County jail. Despite the presence of three colleges within the district, the college-degree attainment rate is low and the crime rate is among the highest in the city.
While all City Council districts have their challenges, some areas of the city face particularly difficult obstacles.
For four years, San Antonio native Shirley Gonzales has represented the urban district on the city’s near Westside that also includes Southtown and the near-Northeast Side. She runs her family’s pawn shop in Prospect Hill and owns several commercial and residential properties in the area, so she’s well versed in the pervasive problems for business and homeowners in the area.
Gonzales, 44, hopes to continue to push for better streets, more sidewalks and parks, and other basic infrastructure improvements as well as small business support and public safety as she campaigns for re-election.
After Gonzales took the seat from David Medina in 2013, she worked with City staff to assign three more SAPD bike patrol officers in the area surrounding Haven for Hope and add $3 million for lights on dark neighborhood streets. She helped initiate the now-citywide Vision Zero program to eliminate pedestrian deaths and worked to get an Animal Care Services officer assigned to her district to combat the growing stray dog problem.
Gonzales has noticed an increase in drug use near downtown over the past two years, she said, adding that she’ll be looking into ways to combat the problem.
“After really trying to learn about this issue, I don’t think it has to do with Haven for Hope … they’re not homeless, just addicted,” she said of the one-stop homeless shelter and social service campus.
The shelter, which offers a free outside sleeping area as well as recovery housing for those willing to give up drugs and alcohol, is often blamed for the increase in vagrancy on the Westside.
Several long-awaited projects are slated for District 5 if the $850 million municipal bond package is approved by voters on May 6, including $10 million to transform the West Commerce Street bridge into a “gateway to the Westside,” Gonzales said. The bridge connects the Westside to the Zona Cultural district and greater downtown area. Other bond projects that would benefit the area include walkability improvements to Probandt Street and Roosevelt Avenue and an overpass at railroad crossings at South Zarzamora Street and Frio City Road where “traffic is delayed as long as 20 minutes,” she said.
Gonzales’ challengers didn’t take issue with any of her achievements during a candidate forum hosted at the UTSA Downtown Campus on Monday night as they answered questions from an audience of about 30 people. But they each said were motivated to run for office to fill in various gaps they see in district leadership.
David C. Yañez, 50, is a local immigration attorney who has worked for Catholic Charities and former state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte.
Cynthia T. Cavazos, 45, works as a hotel housekeeper and unsuccessfully ran for Texas governor in 2014 and San Antonio mayor in 2015. She attempted get her name listed as a candidate for president last year, but was unable to gather enough signatures or pay the required fees to become a write-in candidate.
Dolores Sotomayor, 58, is unemployed and said she is currently doing volunteer work. She previously served as the interim president of the Prospect Hill Neighborhood Association.
Daniel Lopez Jr., 20, is the youngest candidate on the District 5 ballot. He graduated from high school two years ago and is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in government. He and his father founded Dan’s Construction last year, he said.
All five contenders called for new initiatives and focus.
“It’s hugely difficult to oust an incumbent,” Montez told the Rivard Report on Tuesday, “but I felt compelled to run because I see a number of issues the community faces.”
Infrastructure, or “the basics,” is one of them, he said, but he would also like to see more public investment in workforce development and social services to stop “multigenerational poverty” and gentrification.
Montez’s main goal, if elected, is to create a series of community advisory boards comprised of residents of all ages. He wants to open up discretionary district dollars to participatory budgeting, meaning the community would have a clear voice in how those funds are spent.
Yañez agrees that residents should have a stronger connection to their Council representative.
“My motto is: Every neighbor has a voice,” he said, and those voices weren’t heard as clearly as they should have been during the bond committee process.
There are good projects coming for District 5, he said, but he wanted to see a more aggressive plan for expanding and building libraries, specifically a new one at Elmendorf Lake Park.
Yañez said he has noticed a lack of communication and responsiveness from Gonzales’ district offices. Without clear lines of communication, he said, more situations like the Malt House sale and pending demolition will occur, adding that he will fight to preserve the “cultural flavor and historical identity of the Westside.”
The Malt House, an iconic restaurant on the Westside, was purchased by the 7-Eleven convenience store chain. The Historic and Design Review Commission will be reviewing a second round of designs for the new building Wednesday afternoon.
When I spoke to several candidates this week, they wondered why Gonzales didn’t take a more active role in the discussion surrounding the Malt House’s future.
“It really kills me that I can’t weigh in on it,” Gonzales said.
She owns all the property surrounding the restaurant, lives just blocks away, and has known the now-former owners of the Malt House for decades. Citing these conflicts of interest, she said it would be “very inappropriate” to influence the public process.
Beyond her political career, she has substantial investments in that area, she said. “What happens to that corner is very important to me.”
Cavazos said more money should be spent in the city’s poorest neighborhoods so they can “catch up” to the rest, especially when it comes to education. The best way to improve higher education opportunities, she said, would be to provide in more after-school care for residents and increase access to computers.
Our Lady of the Lake University, UTSA Downtown Campus, and St. Philip’s College are located in the district. St. Mary’s University is just outside District 5’s boundaries in District 7. Gonzales would like to see students and faculty expand their reach beyond their campuses and into the district.
What’s really missing from schools, Sotomayor said, was religion, specifically Christianity.
“Our kids are our future,” she said. “We need to instill God in them.”
Sotomayor would like to see the City give neighborhood associations funding because “they are the ones [who] actually know what’s going on.”
Lopez said his main priorities would be addressing homelessness and improving transportation and other infrastructure.
“We shouldn’t target homelessness as a crime,” Lopez said. “We need to team up with Haven for Hope to see what kind of resources we can implement more [of] … and improve the courtyard program.”
The top need for many areas in District 5 is basic infrastructure such as streets, sidewalks, and drainage, said Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center Executive Director Cristina Ballí, but “one big issue we’re dealing with right now is drug addiction.”
On top of fundraising and community support of the arts, these issues – the “human tragedy that is rampant drug abuse” – are important to art institutions, too, Ballí told the Rivard Report. Last summer, the Guadalupe had to hire security guards during class and exhibit hours to ensure patrons’ safety.
“I don’t want to frame this as a crime problem,” she said. “It’s a socioeconomic problem. We need treatment [facilities], jobs, access to services, and more economic justice.”
Haven for Hope and its partners do what they can, she said, but they probably need more public funding to meet the need.
Beyond these omnipresent challenges, District 5 has a wealth of arts and culture organizations and institutions, including the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, Southtown and Lone Star arts districts, the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center‘s MujerArtes Studio, and more.
Bill FitzGibbons, a local artist who owns Lone Star Studios, hosted a fundraiser for Gonzales and Councilman Robert Treviño (D1) last week.
Naturally, their strong support of the City’s public art program is key to appealing to the art community in District 5, FitzGibbons said, but it’s also about public safety and infrastructure.
Gonzales’ support of the recent rideshare contracts – important during major art events with limited parking and plenty of adult beverages available in the neighborhood – and opposition to annexation also played a large role in his decision to endorse her.
“We need to focus on our older neighborhoods, instead of spreading ourselves too thin” by annexing outlying areas, he said.
As a member of the Lone Star Neighborhood Association, which likely will not endorse a candidate, FitzGibbons said he feels that Gonzales is well connected to her constituents and makes herself available when she can.
“Does she get everything done that we ask? No. But things take time,” he said.