The recently passed City budget and $850 million bond both represent a prime opportunity for District 5 to make strides in improving infrastructure and quality of life, Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales said at a Monday night forum at Our Lady of the Lake University. 

But her district has a long way to go toward better addressing issues such as affordable housing, reliable transportation, and higher paying jobs, she said.

“It’s a really exciting time to be on the Council,” Gonzales said Monday at “Conversation with the Council,” which was hosted by the Rivard Report and moderated by its Publisher Robert Rivard.

It was no small feat for City officials to propose the City’s largest bond to date, Gonzales said, but thanks in part to citizen input, it passed in May.

The Council in September approved a $2.7 billion Fiscal Year 2018 budget, which uses an “equity lens” to commit more resources to areas and populations that have been historically underserved.

“There’s money [being allocated] to the projects, which is the first time I think I’ve seen that in a long, long time,” Gonzales said.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg has helped set the tone for the City to concentrate not only on residents’ basic needs, Gonzales said, but also on more transformative goals, adding that the current Council is more in accord on a wider range of issues than the last.

“I’m now one of the more senior [Council members], so I get to have a little more influence on what we do on Council … We now have money to do them,” she explained.

Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5).
Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5). Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Gonzales highlighted major bond-funded projects that lie ahead in District 5, such as a revamp of Roosevelt Avenue, an overpass at the Frio City Road railroad tracks, and improvements to West Commerce Street.

Planned improvements for Roosevelt Avenue, a major north-south route that links downtown to the Southside, include bicycle lanes and racks, sidewalks, landscaping, and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-compliant access at the Union Pacific railroad bridge.

“That’s the idea – for [Roosevelt] to become a complete street,” Gonzales said.

Budget and bond funds dedicated to new and improved sidewalks, lighting, crosswalks, and streets will also help increase pedestrian safety, she said. Gonzales has spearheaded the Vision Zero initiative, which aims to reduce the number of road-related fatalities.

“It’s part of a network where we are improving quality of life for people and making it easier for them to use their streets for walking,” she added.

Gonzales hopes that current and future Councils will find ways to improve transit options. She acknowledged, however, that communities must rally behind such ideas before the public sector can commit to investing taxpayer money.

Publisher of the Rivard Report Robert Rivard.
Rivard Report Publisher Robert Rivard (right) speaks with Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5). Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

In July 2014, public opposition prompted then-Mayor Ivy Taylor  to drop the VIA Modern Streetcar proposal.

In situations like that, “is the City leaving millions of state or federal funds on the table?,” Rivard asked.

“We never did get the marketing behind that quite right,” Gonzales said. “We did have a viable streetcar project. Now if we want to have rail, we’re going to have to have a voter-approved process.”

Rivard then raised the point that some district residents – particularly elderly and low-income individuals – may fear being displaced by rising property values and housing prices due to budget- and bond-funded improvements, as well as increased infill redevelopment.

Gonzales responded that the City’s investments in District 5 are designed to raise the quality of life for its current residents.

“We don’t have a lot of new housing stock coming into the Westside,” she said, “but we are working on lots of projects to improve the existing quality of housing stock.”

While she is not yet ready to make a formal pitch to her Council colleagues, Gonzales said she plans on proposing a pilot program designed to spur development of affordable housing for individuals and families who earn less than the national median income that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development uses as a standard for public housing eligibility.

Gonzales acknowledged that a large part of the population has widely been neglected, namely those who earn low wages and may not be eligible to live in newer market-rate, multi-family housing developments that are popping up all over the city.

“There’s still a huge gap we need to fill,” she said. “We’ve got to have alternatives for people who don’t fall into the range of affordable housing.”

Responding to audience members’ questions, Gonzales said the City must keep equity at the forefront of its public investments, particularly in urban core areas such as District 5.

Even with the equity lens approach in developing the 2018 budget, Gonzales said, the City still has plenty of work to do to further improve infrastructure, services, and housing in District 5.

According to Gonzales, the next City bond, slated for 2022, should focus on upgrading drainage in many neighborhoods.

“We still need to keep working on the equity piece to make sure we get our due,” she said.

The next event in the “Conversations with the Council” series will feature District 4 Councilman Rey Saldaña and take place on Oct. 26 from 6-7:30 p.m. at the San Antonio Museum of Science and Technology at Port San Antonio.

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.