Trish DeBerry remembers downtown’s vibe when her public relations agency, Guerra DeBerry Coody, moved into its offices at the corner of Houston and Soledad streets in the early 2000s.
“There was an energy here,” she recalled. “That time period was the heyday of downtown, as far as I’m concerned.”
DeBerry spoke from her corner office at Centro San Antonio on the second floor of 110 Broadway. With five months under her belt as president and CEO of the downtown placemaking organization, DeBerry sat down with the San Antonio Report last week to talk about her priorities for the organization and downtown, the challenge of fighting negative perceptions and what is needed to create a new heyday for downtown.
She called the “Decade of Downtown” — the effort launched by then-Mayor Julián Castro in 2010 to bring more investment and residential capacity to downtown — “a blessing and a curse.”
“It brought a lot of good things down here, kicking off a housing-first strategy and what’s happening at Hemisfair,” DeBerry said. “But some people think it’s over, and there’s still so much left to be done.”
Like many U.S. downtowns, San Antonio’s is struggling to rebound from the pandemic, which cut deeply into the critical mass of office workers and tourists who kept it afloat.
Today, bright spots, like the opening of Civic Park, UTSA breaking ground on its second downtown building and the development of more downtown housing, are marred by disruptive construction projects and the perception that crime and homelessness in the area have become intractable.
A recent report on downtown revival trends across the U.S. described a mixed bag for San Antonio’s downtown. At 85% of pre-COVID levels, it had the most nonresident visitors returning to downtown. Residential occupancy has rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, but office vacancy rates remain stubbornly high.
When she took the helm at Centro, DeBerry homed in on a foundational requirement for the center city’s rebound. Downtown San Antonio must be clean and safe, she said, and Centro has “doubled down” on that commitment, hiring additional ambassadors to patrol and keep streets tidy, strengthening ties to the San Antonio Police Department’s downtown bike patrol unit and responding to the concerns of downtown businesses and residents.
A large part of “clean and safe” means dealing with the unsheltered population. DeBerry, who reckons she could have “gotten a Ph.D.” in the complexities that surround homelessness over the past few months, described balancing a compassionate approach to those on the street with the needs of businesses, residents and tourists.
“It’s easy for people to look at a homeless person on the street and say, ‘Why aren’t they gone? You haven’t done enough.’ But it’s a lot more complicated than that.”
Centro is funded via the downtown public improvement district, or PID, which the city recently reauthorized through 2033, along with a $7 million annual budget and a slightly expanded service contract that now includes the upkeep of Main Plaza and the street entrances to the River Walk.
Centro recently added 10 new “quality of life” ambassadors to its roster. Unlike the well-known yellow-shirted ambassadors who offer directions, water plants and pick up trash, blue-shirted “quality of life” ambassadors wear body cameras and focus more on public safety, getting to know people on the street, talking with business owners and, with new kiosks that look like paleta carts, acting as visual deterrents to crime.
DeBerry meets regularly with the ambassadors and SAPD’s bike patrol unit to stay abreast of what they’re seeing and hearing on the streets. Centro also has regular meetings with the city, its tourism bureau and the merchants and residents who live downtown.
One thing many other downtowns have that San Antonio’s currently lacks, she said, is a robust network of security cameras; the discussion for implementing such a system is still in the early stages, she said, “but whatever we can do to help make people feel safe, we want to look at.”
SAPD Officer Gus Segura, who has been patrolling downtown for the past 15 years, said much of the crime the downtown unit deals with is petty theft, vandalism and public intoxication. Because Centro’s ambassadors have a direct line to the downtown unit, he said, officers can respond quickly to nuisance behaviors.
He called the perception that downtown is dangerous inaccurate.
“I bring my family down here all the time,” he said. “We’re actually spending a staycation down here next week during Thanksgiving. If I felt it was unsafe, I definitely would not bring my family down here.”
But DeBerry, a longtime communications pro, is keenly aware that “perception is reality,” and she acknowledged that as long as people believe downtown isn’t safe, they will stay away.
That’s why Centro continues to develop events — or “activations” in the current parlance — to bring locals back downtown. This year that includes the new “Holidays on Houston,” which will offer five blocks of twinkling lights, “large, festive decorations, entertainers and special offerings from restaurants, shops and partners.”
DeBerry described what she sees as a new esprit de corps among downtown stakeholders, including around a new effort to update the 2011 Center City Strategic Framework Plan.
San Antonio still needs more multifamily housing downtown, she said, and while the Decade of Downtown-era incentive program that propelled much of the housing built downtown over the past decade no longer exists, DeBerry said given current market conditions, a new incentive program would be helpful.
A sports and entertainment district also could invigorate private development, she said. Nashville has located a minor league baseball park in a once-blighted area of downtown, “and you see midrise development all around it. You see families pouring into the facility, entertainment options nearby, all of it. And the most important emphasis is, it’s affordable.”
Bob Cohen, a member of the San Antonio Missions’ ownership group, said at the San Antonio Report’s 2023 CityFest sports panel that the group is developing a plan that could locate a minor league baseball stadium “in the central business district or some place that’s centrally located.”
DeBerry, who said she’s “not privy” to those discussions, said she’s unabashedly rooting for a downtown location, just as she has long been a downtown booster.
“I want people to come downtown,” she said. “So we’re going to program it and activate it. It’s about creating community in downtown and bringing people together.”