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.
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.
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.
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.