Mayor Ivy Taylor’s announcement that rideshare company Uber is close to coming to an agreement with the City of San Antonio dominated most conversations and media coverage after she took to the stage during Tech Bloc‘s Summer Rally on Tuesday night. But the underlying theme of the evening – that engaged citizens have the power to transform their cities – has also permeated throughout the tech community and beyond.
Guest speaker and San Antonio native Robert Hammond served as an example and inspiration of that power for the more than 700 people that packed in and around the Pearl Stable to listen to his story: how two guys with “no plan, no money, and no relevant experience” started with a small group of supportive friends that snowballed into what would become a multi-million effort to conceive and complete the High Line in New York City.
The elevated linear park and pedestrian path in lower Manhattan – an abandoned railway slated for demolition – has generated more than $2 billion in private investment around and along the park as of 2011 and recently surpassed the $1 billion mark for additional tax revenues for New York City. Hammond, an Alamo Heights and Princeton grad, co-founded Friends of the High Line with then travel writer Joshua David in 1999, despite seemingly insurmountable public and political support for the track’s demolition. Ten years later, in June 2009, the first segment of the High Line opened.
It’s become one of the great urban transformation stories in the new century, and has city builders here and around the globe looking differently at their own urban cores and rethinking the definition of transformation.
After a brief reprise of his 2011 TEDTalk, he sat down on stage with Rivard Report Director Robert Rivard. Hammond was born and raised in San Antonio, graduated high school in Alamo Heights, and moved to New York after college. Comparisons between the High Line project and plans for the San Pedro Creek (SPC) have been made in terms of size, cost, and challenges – but Wednesday night Hammond brought a perspective about the public input process that some have argued has been hurried along in San Pedro Creek’s case by a looming deadline.
In general, Hammond downplays his role in the creation of the transformative project and emphasized that of the community.
“The most important thing I did was raise the flag,” he said, and then people followed. Lots of them. “It’s not about starting things, it’s about getting involved.”
Friends of the High Line hosted more than two dozen community input sessions before landing on anything close to what the park is today. What should the High Line look like? Hammond and and his allies asked people to tell them rather than have a design dictated beforehand. Someone suggested a roller coaster. Another suggested the world’s longest lap pool. Another suggested that they do nothing with it – just let nature continue to take its course.
“We were nervous about community input,” he said. “(But) all the good ideas, none of them were ours,” they came from board members, the community, and other partners.
Rivard described a certain frustration with the pace of change and development that has been growing in San Antonio for some time. Tech Bloc, for instance, is an organization born out of that frustration, he said.
Hammond said he could feel the momentum.
“People want change and they’re ready for change (in San Antonio),” he said, but he’s been disappointed with the general attitude that San Antonio “doesn’t have enough money, not enough leadership, feeling that San Antonio can’t do it.”
He pointed to projects like Hemisfair, San Pedro Creek, the Mission and Museum Reach – all of which are multi-million dollar testaments to San Antonio’s progress and development.
“Voters and officials are putting money towards it,” he said. “But what I don’t see happening is the private sector matching that … holding the city (accountable) to good design,” because it’s harder for the City to take risks, that’s what the private sector has to do.
In the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project’s case, for instance, Hammond was surprised the private sector hasn’t jumped in to fund a world-class landscape architecture firm to help design the 2.2 mile project. Referring to the SPC design renderings, he said personally he’d rather see less “architectural moments” and more landscape integrated into the project.
“Big things get people to come … but I really don’t think you need that … those big architectural moments (like the proposed amphitheater and “Tree of Life” renderings) are often for tourists,” Hammond said to a round of applause.
His advice to the audience boiled down to finding or raising their own flag, whatever it may be, and actively engaging with the community around it. “Get involved, make that donation, volunteer,” he said.
As Hemisfair, the city’s multi-million dollar project that aims to become “San Antonio’s front porch,” approaches the grand opening event of the first phase this October more attention is being paid with what to do with the brutalist period buildings “left over” from HemisFair ’68. The three buildings are the former Texas Pavilion, now UTSA’s Institute of Texan Cultures (ITC); the United States of America Pavilion – which actually included the United States Confluence Theater and Confluence Exhibition Hall; and the ’70s-era San Antonio Federal Building.
“I think it’s beautiful,” Hammond said of the ITC building. “I don’t think we need to be slaves to preservation … but a lot of times it just takes a new use of an old building” to bring it back into style.
Another opportunity that Rivard pointed to was the potential for more urban density (read: housing) on or near Brackenridge Park.
“That’s where SA needs more density — so people can walk to work,” he said. “You can’t keep growing at this pace without density.”
San Antonio’s population is expected to grow from 1.4 to 2.4 million by 2040, the underlying premise driving Mayor Ivy Taylor’s SA Tomorrow comprehensive planning team.
As a visitor and former resident, Hammond said he doesn’t know anyone that goes to Brackenridge Park, but suggested that Broadway Street may be the next step towards making the park more accessible to people living and working in the urban core.
“Broadway still needs to connect through downtown through Southtown,” he said, suggesting that a more “complete street” design approach be taken with the thoroughfare. “I love to ride my bike …. once you get used to doing it, you don’t want to stop.”
Hammond noted earlier that if New York City can make the streets safe for commuting cyclists and the world’s largest bikeshare program, so can San Antonio, which adopted its B-Cycle bikeshare program even earlier than New York.
The priorities highlighted by Tech Bloc as main concerns and areas for development dovetailed nicely into Hammond’s talk. Tech Bloc Co-Founder Lew Moorman, the group’s leading evangelist, whipped up an energized audience at the outset, called on slackers to become dues-paying members, and beseeched people to become engaged citizens and vote. He also asked for audience feedback as Tech Bloc looks beyond the return of rideshare to San Antonio and tackles new challenges.
The list of possible Tech Bloc initiatives includes the Lone Star Rail District that would connect San Antonio and Austin, the city’s master transportation plan, livability strategies, a re-examination of the City’s planned annexation of suburban communities, downtown development, community broadband, and workforce development.
It’s clear what Hammond thinks should be at the top of the list.
“If San Antonio does not build a vibrant core, it will not succeed,” Hammond said to another round of applause. “That’s not a wild idea, that’s a fact.”
*Featured/top image: Friends of The High Line co-founder Robert Hammond speaks during Tech Bloc’s rally. Photo by Scott Ball.