The Houston Street Mistake: An Off-key Melody

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The lot next to the Maverick Building is to become a hotel. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The lot next to the Maverick Building on Houston Street is to become a hotel. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

From my second story office at Houston Street and Broadway, I can hear the noise of jackhammers coming from across the street as the foundation for the new Hilton Garden Inn begins to take shape. The sound should be music to my ears, given that our organization, Centro San Antonio, is one whose mission in part is to advocate for and catalyze downtown development.

Instead, I can’t help but feel that the “music” emanating from this particular project is off; like a symphony soloist playing in a different key than the rest of the musicians. No matter how much you try to tune out the soloist, you can’t hear anything else.

Normally, construction noise is an unmistakable sign of progress, much like the sight of a construction crane appearing on the city’s skyline. It means that a project has moved past several phases – design, financial, and approval – to the most exciting phase of all, the building phase. It’s even more exciting for us when building occurs on Houston Street because it’s a sign that our “Main Street” is taking a step towards its revitalization as a commercial, retail, and entertainment hub.

Hilton Garden Inn construction continues in the lot next to the Maverick Building on Houston Street. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Hilton Garden Inn construction continues in the lot next to the Maverick Building on Houston Street. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

In this case, the noise is instead a constant reminder that a key design element of this project, shockingly approved over a year ago by the City’s Historic Design and Review Commission, will change Houston Street, and not for the better. The wonderful pedestrian flow of the street, a positive outcome of the controversial Tri-Party project nearly 25 years ago, will now be interrupted with a “drive way” put in place to provide guest vehicle access to the entrance to the hotel.

It’s frustrating that the HDRC, normally a thoughtful group when it comes to protecting our rich historic assets in the urban core, would miss so badly on this one. Equally frustrating is the fact that Centro should have paid more attention last year, when the driveway was presented to HDRC. Instead, we were absent and this blemish on Houston Street was blessed. Perhaps that’s why I can’t tune out the jackhammer. It’s a constant reminder that we should have been more vigilant.

Rendering of Hilton Garden Inn planned for Houston Street. Image courtesy of WestEast Design Group.

Rendering of Hilton Garden Inn planned for Houston Street. Image courtesy of WestEast Design Group.

When the HDRC took up another design modification requested by the owner and developer, we took the opportunity to express our views on the project in an open letter to commission members. Here is the letter in its entirety, which we read into the record at the commission meeting.

“I am writing on behalf of Centro San Antonio to go on record to express our deep concern over the direction that the developer, the HDRC, and the City have taken for the new Hilton Garden Inn on Houston Street. Simply put, we believe that the project as conceived and designed is inconsistent with the vision for Houston Street set forth by Tri-Party nearly twenty-five years ago and reflected in the 2000 Houston Street Design Guidelines and the Downtown Design Guide.

Houston Street is a unique, special place; envisioned to be the most pedestrian friendly street in downtown San Antonio. Some say it’s also the most beautiful street in Texas. The introduction of a curb cut and driveway severely interrupts the pedestrian experience and presents significant safety issues. Some of the building design elements, including the terrace overhang and the requested 1’9″ setback, interrupt the pedestrian’s visual experience. Together, they take away some of Houston Street’s beauty.  

Many of the hotel’s design elements are not in keeping with the architectural and pedestrian integrity of Houston Street. To this point, Houston Street has remained a pedestrian-oriented corridor with buildings and the street scaled to encourage people to take leisurely walks in a safe environment. Without further protections, that pedestrian environment and connectivity will be further eroded.

The empty lot next to the Maverick Building on Houston Street is slated to become a Hilton Garden Hotel. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The empty lot next to the Maverick Building on Houston Street is slated to become a Hilton Garden Hotel. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

I recognize that HDRC’s decision on the curb cut and driveway was made over a year ago, and I am disappointed that Centro San Antonio did not weigh in at that time. However, this project will set a precedent that is troubling and has the potential to change the fabric of our main street. At a time when we are working hard to develop a cohesive retail presence for Houston Street, we are introducing a “missing tooth” in the form of a drive through lane into a building.

There may be nothing that can be done to improve or delay this project. However, it points to the need for Centro, the City and the HDRC to get together to explore ways to create more clearly defined and enforceable design standards for Houston Street. This is critical if we are to return Houston Street to its rightful place as a driver of commercial and retail activity and a vibrant entertainment hub for our city.

Some interpreted these words as an attack on the hotel industry. But our position has nothing to do with the property owner and developer’s plans for a hotel on Houston Street. On the contrary, we recognize and value the importance of our hospitality industry as a prime economic engine for downtown. Although we want to see more commercial, retail and residential development on Houston Street, we fully buy into the philosophy that it shouldn’t come by dampening development of our most successful downtown industry. The market itself will and should determine where the hospitality sector develops.

Our point here is really pretty simple. If we want to attract people to live and work downtown, we need to create a great physical environment. That means walkable, pedestrian friendly and visually appealing streets. Houston Street was and should always remain that street. As I said in our letter, some have even called it the best street in Texas. We need to enhance its stature as a great street.

The noise of the jackhammer will eventually fade away. And the Hilton Garden Inn will rise from the ground. I’m positive it will be successful. I hope that the design, once executed, looks better than it does on paper. I hope that there is never an incident where an inattentive driver meets an inattentive pedestrian in the driveway. I hope that we all learn a lesson and become better stewards of our main street. And Centro is going to work diligently with the City and others to fill those vacant retail spaces along the street on either side of the development, so the missing tooth becomes less noticeable.

Now that would be music to my ears.

 *Featured/top image: The lot next to the Maverick Building on Houston Street is to become a hotel. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

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15 thoughts on “The Houston Street Mistake: An Off-key Melody

  1. There’s a very simple message in this article, cars damage pedestrian environments. Parking (surface or access to garages), curb cuts, noise, danger, the space demanded to support cars all degrade the usability and desirability of a place for pedestrians. You’ve got to think that the pedestrian activity was at least part of the decision Hilton wanted to build a hotel there, but then they set about damaging that same environment. Does that reflect corporate indifference or ignorance?

  2. Just another reminder how car centric this city really is that we can take the most walkable street in our city and make it less walkable. As downtowners we really were asleep at the wheel on this one.

  3. What to make of this? Houston Street has not been a great street for more than two decades — there is no “visual experience.” So now Centro SA points to the Tri-Party grand plan from the 1980’s or a 15-year old “design guideline” that continues to gather dust on some unknown bookshelf somewhere in Bexar County. Please. I agree that working toward the enhancement of Houston Street’s stature is a good thing, but micromanaging has not worked in the ’80’s, ’90’s, ’00’s nor will it today. Let’s get on with it!

  4. Hi Pat – great comments (and unfortunate if it is too late with this particular project).

    The approval suggests potential issues not just with HDRC review but also the City’s recent Downtown Design Guide or interpretations of these guidelines: http://www.sanantonio.gov/Portals/0/Files/CityDesignCenter/DowntownDesignGuide.pdf

    Centro San Antonio should consider crafting its own streetscape design principles to supplement the City’s – to help shape all new development downtown (and elsewhere in San Antonio) towards a better experience for pedestrians, as well as to help guide Centro San Antonio’s voice at various public meetings and forums.

    For example, where the City’s current Downtown Design Guide stresses “limit the number and width of curb cuts and vehicular entries to promote street wall continuity and reduce conflicts with pedestrians”(p. 26), Centro San Antonio or the City could add ‘permit no additional vehicular entries to established (including historic) blocks or street walls’.

    A recent and apparently initially sharply critiqued downtown gas station proposal (within the Public Improvement District) was praised by the City when it was re-designed following the Downtown Design Guide recommendations . . . which allowed a second vehicular entry/sidewalk interruption to be added to an established block leading to historic parks and neighboring medical buildings and feeding into Houston St (N. San Saba St).

    Similarly, a recently proposed apartment building on the north side of W. Commerce St just east of Leona St (on the edge of the Public Improvement District but within the City’s downtown district and new Zona Cultural) plans to add two new vehicle entries/sidewalk breaks to that established and (historically?) uninterrupted block.

    Centro San Antonio can do more for downtown streetscapes and pedestrian conditions beyond landscaping and street cleaning, as your comments suggest.
    Along with encouraging street life and car-free new residential development downtown and critiquing proposals, I hope Centro San Antonio will work with the City this year to improve walking conditions north of the Central Library (where the Public Improvement District has expanded) along San Pedro Ave and N. Main Ave to address discomforting if not dangerous infrastructure conditions for pedestrians (no curb cuts, crossings, signage, or passable if any sidewalks in sections). This will help visitors and residents enjoy without a car more greater downtown amenities, historic and new and frequently on visitor’s lists (Lulus, The Cove, San Pedro Park, etc)- not to mention helping area students make safer passage.

    Centro San Antonio should also work with the City in coming months to help improve VIA Metropolitan Transit’s presence, waiting conditions and services (frequency and duration) to and from San Antonio International Airport (SAT) so it is easier for visitors to leave cars out of the equation when visiting San Antonio. With international visitation up approx. 25% and a heightened profile amongst urban travelers (New York Times, etc.), it is a key year for San Antonio to work to improve completely car-free visits.

  5. Oh please stop. Houston Street needs a lot of improvement before you can go on and on about its great pedestrian flow or visual experience. Either you’re blind to the reality or your in denial to the reality. Houston Street isn’t great and needs tons of work. A curb cut in the sidewalk isn’t going to do anything. It’s not going to change the “great” pedestrian flow because it’s not great.

    It’s not going to keep people from moving to downtown, stop with the hyperbole.

    It’s not going to doing anything other than replace three vacant buildings with a ten story hotel.

    But guessing the three vacant buildings was much more preferable for that “great” pedestrian flow?

    P.s.

    Here’s another reality.

    Cars are never going away. Never. Not in our lifetime and really, not until we get some type of futuristic star trek transporter. Ha!

    I want street car and I want light rail and I want more brt lines but cars are near going away. Never. Stop being so one sides when it comes to that policy and learn that a great city interacts with both automobile transit and mass transit.

  6. I couldn’t disagree more with the statements made in this article. Where do we start?

    Tri-Party was (and is) an abject failure. It basically took so long (not to mention the cost) that it ended up hastening the failure of many remaining businesses along the Houston Street corridor. The “pedestrian friendly” aspect that was created has done nothing to promote business growth in the area. Yes, it can get busy when the Majestic and Empire Theatres have shows, but that would have happened regardless. All you have to do is look at the vintage photos of Houston Street when it was a vibrant retail corridor (with on-street parking) to realize the project was an epic, misguided mistake.

    The alternative to having a driveway (and curb cut) at the hotel would have been on-street valet parking service. All one has to do is take a look at nearby hotels who do it this way to realize what a nightmare that creates. Navarro Street just north of Houston Street is a great example. These traffic bottlenecks only serve to further deter people from coming downtown. Yes, you can point to the Valencia and say it works, but then again, Houston Street is practically deserted…thanks in large part to Tri-Party.

    Quite frankly, the best way to restore vitality to Houston Street would to openly admit to the failures of Tri-Party. Take the sidewalks back to their narrower width. Reinstate on-street parking. Add some bike lanes. Create places where the buses can pull over when picking up passengers.

    If Mr DiGiovanni wants to see a similar — yet vibrant — urban corridor, I suggest that he travel to Vancouver and check out Robson Street on the west end of downtown. He will see stores like The Gap, Urban Outfitters, Club Monaco, and many, many more. All of this is on a street where buses frequently run, there is on-street parking…and the occasional curb cut for a driveway. At the same time, the sidewalks are full of pedestrians and bicyclists ride amongst the cars and buses. It is an example worth examining…

  7. Although I have no stake in this project, I happened to be in the HDRC meeting when this was approved, and I remember the conversation because this issue was the subject of some debate.

    So, first of all, this didn’t just slip in because someone was asleep at the wheel. The commission discussed the issue at length, and there was disagreement among the commissioners. It was certainly not a unanimous vote to approve.

    And while it’s easy to look back in retrospect and say that they should have done something different, here are some of the facts that were considered that day:

    The structures which were on the site had been vacant for 20+ years. These are remnant buildings left over from the days when Houston Street was full of department stores. Today, the demand for downtown street-level retail tends to be small restaurants and bars, and small tourist-oriented retail. The buildings that were there were built as department stores – the wrong size and shape for today’s needs.

    A hotel could offer what this site hadn’t ever seen: a potential for new development that would add activity and density to the area.

    Personally I like that San Antonio has become more walkable, and less car dependent. Nonetheless, even if hotel patrons arrive by Uber, they still need a place to load and unload passengers and luggage. Houston Street is one lane, each way, which makes drop-offs difficult. Additionally, the site backs up to a one-way alley, which made a rear entrance problematic as well.

    As they often do, the commissioners weighed the desire to improve downtown, add density, and encourage appropriate development, with questions of historicity of existing buildings, the challenges of a driveway through the sidewalk, and other factors.

    In the end, a majority decided that while it’s not a perfect project, downtown would be better off with the new project than if they left decaying 1970’s department stores to be a blight on Houston Street for another decade.

    • I’m glad someone mentioned that the site has easy ‘alley’ access – or what is called College St (wide enough for parallel parking, drop-off or valet service for those requiring it).
      https://www.google.com/maps/@29.4260714,-98.488179,3a,90y,357.31h,85.84t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1s-_i1D7HtvA3Anc1vQlLmxw!2e0

      The argument that a hotel absolutely needs a new vehicular entry or drop-off point on Houston St suggests a real lack of experience with design for historic or urban areas – or urban travel in general. Or simply time on foot in downtown San Antonio.

      It also ignores what Towneplace Suites has done directly across Houston St from the site (no drop-off or vehicular entry on Houston St). And the massive Central Parking facility visible from the site on Loyosa St – also with no vehicular entry from historic Houston St.

      Yep, we’ll always have cars in San Antonio . . . but it is a bum argument that the planned Hyatt needs an unprecedented new vehicular entry on Houston St between N. Presa St & Loyosa St – including with access to the site available from College St and a multi-storey parking structure one crosswalk / 50 ft away from the site.

  8. So one of the key individuals involved in downtown development is complaining about this a year after-the-fact? How is a driveway in any manner going to inhibit pedestrian flow more than the already existing intersections? Plenty of our urban streets, with greater foot-traffic than Houston St. no less, have driveways into hotels and there doesn’t seem to be any trouble.

  9. get rid of the palm trees (plant some smaller shade trees native to area) (or provide building shade awnings) and narrow the driveway approaches, make sure there is good signage for pedestrians that make clear that they have the right of way and, in future, require mixed use development on ground floor and (maybe some residential too)….and maybe, this is the last of this kind on Houston street….drive throughs belong in suburban settings.

  10. Can someone diagram out for me how it is possible for a property owner to leave multiple downtown buildings abandoned for 20 years?

    How can some person / business afford to own a property that never brings in any income?

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