New Year’s memo to Mayor Ron Nirenberg, City Council and City Manager Erik Walsh: You have to do better by citizens and local businesses in 2023.
Readers frustrated and detoured daily by the city’s multiple major capital projects underway for so long in the urban core are not alone. Several city employees, who have spoken to me on the condition they won’t be named, say misgivings about the status of some 2017 bond projects is a problem inside City Hall.
“You can’t offer effective communication externally to the public when there isn’t effective communication internally among the many siloed departments,” one midlevel city employee told me.
One well-informed professional outside City Hall wrote a commentary published in the San Antonio Report last week that described the situation as “death by progress.” Frustration is widely felt by people living and working in the urban core, much of it because of the information vacuum.
Heavily trafficked streets, notably Lower Broadway, North St. Mary’s Street, around Main Plaza and where East meets West on Houston Street, have been closed or narrowed for improvement projects stretching from months to years. The 2017 bond project to redesign South Alamo Street along Hemisfair, finally underway, will only add to the challenges of navigating downtown.
In all those instances, the finished streetscapes will fall short of national complete street standards. Protected bike lanes, often portrayed in advance design renderings shared with City Council, the media and the public, have repeatedly been eliminated by the city’s Public Works Department. I question the ethics of holding bond elections where voters are promised one project outcome and then delivered a lesser one. That, however, is detouring from the subject at hand.
The pandemic, the difficulty of assembling healthy work crews before the advent of COVID-19 vaccines, supply chain breaks and inflation all are legitimate reasons for projects being over budget and behind schedule. There is a point, however, when such factors become convenient crutches that mask a lack of public oversight of private contractors who are not being held accountable.
While residents and visitors experience mobility frustrations in their daily travels or efforts to reach a favorite store, restaurant or bar, imagine the toll on small-business owners. The city’s proposed $400,000 Band-Aid for addressing the problem had local business owners shaking their heads, saying lost revenues that far exceed that minimal sum. The original version of this Sunday column, finished earlier last week, called on the city to establish a far more substantial fund to reimburse locally owned businesses for documented losses. That was preempted by Walsh late Friday, who told San Antonio Report Senior Reporter Shari Biediger that staff next week will recommend to City Council the allocation of $2.25 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to give qualifying business owners up to $35,000 to offset losses they suffered due to the COVID-19 pandemic and city-funded construction projects. Read the article here.
I applaud Walsh’s proposal and hope City Council approves the plan and that affected small-business owners, especially family-owned ones with little or no back office administrative staff, can receive payments without undue red tape or delays. San Antonio needs a more permanent fix. Federal stimulus funds will not be there for the next five-year bond cycle.
The delays and poor communication out of City Hall regarding the most visible of the 180 projects still not completed from the city’s 2017 $850 million bond are one source of general frustration. Another is the blatant political interference from the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), which has stymied improvement projects on Upper Broadway and Roosevelt Avenue, city streets still state-owned, dating to pre-WWII years when they served as major avenues leading into and out of a much smaller San Antonio.
State officials have failed to live up to two agreements: One is their previously announced intention to deed the streets to the city. The second is reversing TxDOT’s prior verbal approval of the redesigns approved by city voters.
There are 183 improvement projects in the 2022 $1.2 billion bond passed by voters last year, so shared misery will be the reality for the foreseeable future. Walsh and his leadership team have the means to improve oversight of private contractors and demand better performance — and to make significant changes in the city’s public communications processes. Walsh should direct staff to create an interactive website or app to give the media and citizens real-time project status updates. Public works inspectors can’t be everywhere, every day, so the platform should include a mechanism for citizens to report projects where work has come to a stop. Citizen alerts should also merit real-time responses.
Our oldest son, Nicolas, was part of a team of Dignowity Hill residents and professionals who led the Dignowity Park Project, an effort to unite Dignowity and Lockwood parks by closing one block of Burnet Street. With two sons who live within two blocks of the park, our family keeps a close eye on the project. At times entire weeks have gone by without visible progress. City staff have to hold contractors more accountable.
“There is no mechanism internally here for the different departments involved in capital projects to know what the other departments are doing, so right now there is no way to deliver the kind of timely reporting you are suggesting,” another midlevel city employee told me. “It would take significant resources, including dedicated staff, and real changes to the way departments share information to make that happen.”
Citizens and businesses deserve that level of service. Nirenberg and council members should hold senior city staff accountable and demand they dedicate staff to eliminate information vacuums by giving them the necessary digital tools to address the problem.
The city must muster the political will to hold contractors accountable and to engage the media and public more proactively. San Antonians face more years of inconvenience in the course of building a better city. No pain, no gain. That said, we should be able to do more than watch helplessly.