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Downtown flops in visitor survey, prompting a council debate

downtown_san_antonio.jpg
Downtown San Antonio

Downtown San Antonio flopped in a recent survey of visitors conducted by Centro San Antonio, a non-profit organization that works to make the city center more welcoming.

San Antonio City Councilman Clayton Perry referenced the results as the council on Thursday approved special assessment rates for commercial properties and residential condos in the Downtown Public Improvement District or PID.

The funds raised from those assessments are spent on capital improvements and services within the district.

Centro oversees many of the services in the PID, including landscaping services, trash pickup, and power washing sidewalks. Its yellow-shirted ambassadors are best known for their friendly advice and directions for tourists.

Perry shared the results aloud with those gathered in the council chambers. He said only 58% of visitors said they felt safe during the day while downtown, and only 27% felt safe at night.

"We got a lot of work to do, and I would to like see the plan on how to correct this. What's the plan? Do you have something written down on what the plan is to improve these numbers," he asked of Centro CEO Matt Brown.

Other results of the survey read by Perry showed only 40% felt downtown was a place to live. Only 46% thought of it as a place for families. The numbers were even worse in other categories. For example, only 31% felt it was a place to shop. Twenty-three percent approved of overall public safety.

Public transportation and parking both finished with abysmal 17% approval ratings.

But the lowest approval of all was how the city was addressing homelessness downtown. Only 5% approved.

The Riverwalk and Alamo are the two biggest tourist attractions in Texas and downtown workers are highly skilled at making visitors feel welcome.

But Councilman Manny Pelaez said the city's well-known hospitality is not enough to overcome some of the images seen downtown by visitors.

"When I talk to hotel owners, they'll tell me that people are defecating on their front door ... and urinating on their front door, sleeping on their front door. That's a real problem, right? And we can't just continue to say but we're the friendliest place on earth," he said.

The Centro CEO said it cannot solely address the problems raised by the survey. It does partner with local homeless organizations on homeless outreach downtown. He said Centro ambassadors also report criminal activity to the downtown police bike patrol.

Brown said they are also expanding the number of yellow-shirted ambassadors who offer routine assistance to tourists and those called Quality of Life Ambassadors, who wear blue shirts, and try to dissuade persons from committing code violations that affect the downtown quality of life, such as public intoxication and public urination.

"Currently we have nine Quality of Life Ambassadors. The plan before you would increase that number up to 20," Brown said.

"We'll never have fewer than 15," he explained, "but we'll flex up and down depending on kind of demand and need. We're also hiring at a minimum, three additional ambassadors for cleaning and power washing. We can also flex that up to six or seven. So, we've built in some flexibility to address the cleaning and some of the public safety concerns."

Mayor Ron Nirenberg was quick to defend and praise the work of Centro. He said they cannot fix all the problems downtown.

He said what people think of the city is largely formed by the impressions they get when they come downtown.

Nirenberg chided councilmembers of outlying districts who may forget from time-to-time that downtown issues should be treated as their issues too.

"It matters to District 9, it matters to District 10, it matters to District 3 and 4. It matters to everybody. So, it matters to me that we improve upon these issues," the mayor said.

Centro reported between December 2021 and June 2022 it assisted more than 55,000 pedestrians, had 38,000 engagements with the public, requested police on 388 occasions, and provided 275 safety escorts to visitors who requested them.

Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia was pleased to hear of the safety escorts after her own bad downtown experience.

"I was mugged downtown during construction many years ago. I was held at knifepoint, and so I know first-hand what it feels like, right, to be scared and with no one around, right, and in sight," she said.

The council approved the PID assessment rates of 15 cents per $100 valuation for commercial properties and 9 cents per $100 valuation for residential condos.

Centro did not respond to TPR's request for a copy of the survey.

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Brian Kirkpatrick can be reached at brian@tpr.org and on Twitter at @TPRBrian