The next speech by Mayor Julián Castro is billed as the “The Future of Downtown,” a fitting topic for a departing mayor who came to office in 2009 declaring the next 10 years as the “Decade of Downtown.”
It also could be billed as “Mayor Castro’s Farewell Speech,” his last major address before he departs for Washington D.C. following his expected Senate confirmation as the Obama administration’s next Secretary of Housing & Urban Development.
Barring complications, Mayor Castro should preside over his last City Council meeting, at which his successor will be selected by peer vote, sometime in mid to late July, and take up his new duties in the nation’s capital before the traditional August recess.
That’s why the Friday, July 10 Centro San Antonio luncheon event at the Marriott Riverwalk where Mayor Castro will deliver his speech will attract a who’s who of San Antonio’s civic, business, and cultural leadership. Click here for ticket information for what likely will be an early sellout.
Assessing the Castro legacy began the day we learned of his Cabinet nomination, so who wouldn’t want to hear the mayor offer his own assessment of what he believes lies ahead for San Antonio’s urban core?
Looking ahead to, say, 2020, Castro will have a lot to look back on over his five years as mayor. He’s the first to hold the office since his predecessor, Phil Hardberger, pushed through term limit reform that doubled the time a mayor and members of City Council can hold office, from two, two-year terms to four, two-year terms. He once stated he would stay until 2017, but with opportunity knocking, he’s leaving three years early, halfway through a third term.
The mayor and city council members still earn less each week than a good table waiter at the Pearl or in Southtown can make in an hour, so early indications suggest many elected to city office will leave for other opportunities before their eight years of eligibility expire.
Castro will resign his office with the same high approval ratings that led to his re-election twice by landslide margins. The Castro of 2014 leaves as a far more confident leader and public speaker than the Castro of 2009, someone comfortable in his own skin who developed a talent for deflecting opposition on the Council without ever appearing adversarial or confrontational.
His audience at the Marriott Riverwalk will be more interested in hearing how San Antonio, rather than Castro, has evolved in the last five years. Both he and the city have enjoyed quite a run.
Much of the story of the last five years is about the changing real estate landscape. June alone brought big headlines with the newly adopted Vacant Building Ordinance that goes into effect Jan. 1, 2015 and the Weston Urban and Frost Bank proposal that would transform whole blocks of the western edge of downtown and add the first new tower to the skyline since 1988.
More than 3,300 new residential units have been built or are being built in the urban core, and the SA2020 goal of adding 7,500 units now appears well within reach. H-E-B’s new Flores Market will be open by the end of summer 2015 and its campus expansion will redefine the historic Arsenal footprint and bring another 1,600 jobs to downtown.
That’s why the Decade of Downtown is about more than real estate. Two of the most iconic names and important companies in San Antonio, H-E-B and Frost Bank, have recommitted to downtown in a big way under Castro’s watch. People take the presence of both companies, their jobs, and their philanthropy for granted, but one only has to think back to 2008 and the departure of AT&T to understand that nothing should ever be taken for granted.
Near-downtown neighborhoods like Mahncke Park, Tobin Hill, Government Hill, Alta Vista, Dignowity Hill, and Lonestar continue to attract new residents and investment. Many if not most of the newcomers are young professionals.
I’d argue that Castro’s Pre-K for SA initiative is one of the most important urban core initiatives undertaken during his terms in office. The program may be citywide, but the greatest gains will be realized in the inner city where the highest percentage of disadvantaged young children live.
The Eastside Promise Zone designation won by San Antonio this year as one of five cities nationwide selected by the Obama administration for the inner city revitalization program recognizes the progress already made and infuses new resources into continuing public and private reinvestment in the inner city’s most neglected neighborhoods.
Early on, Castro used the mayor’s bully pulpit to advocate for higher performance in the San Antonio Independent School District, the city’s largest inner city public school district. He was joined by many others in the business and downtown community who recognized that poor education outcomes were the major impediment to convincing young professionals to buy homes and stay downtown after starting families.
Since then, a re-energized district has continued to develop an impressive number of high-performing in-district charter schools. Any day now, the state will release final numbers that should show the SAISD dropout rate falling below the 10 percent level for the first time in decades. No one pretends inner city public schools have achieved acceptable levels of performance, but the trends are positive.
The mosaic of downtown redevelopment under construction or on the drawing board offers a 2020 portrait of center city San Antonio that looks very little like the city we live in today.
The city under construction will feature streetcars plying mayor downtown streets, serving an expanded Convention Center, a re-imagined Hemisfair Park, and a new Frost Tower which will become the most important building in downtown, an architectural work equal to the Frost Bank tower in Austin.
The blocks north of Main Avenue on West Commerce and West Houston Streets will be newly redeveloped as the San Pedro Creek project gets underway. The proposed UIW medical school at the former Fox Tech High School campus is going to Brooks City-Base, but that leaves an extraordinary space available for a different major initiative. Farther south, hundreds of new residential units will occupy the River Walk between downtown and King William where Univision once stood. Residents there and in King William will be able to walk to the Flores Market and other new retail establishments to shop, dine and socialize.
North of downtown, the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts opens in September and symbolizes the River North development that will eventually connect Midtown and the Pearl to the downtown in a seamless stretch of dense community served by the first streetcar line and the Museum Reach.
One way Castro could continue to contribute to the Decade of Downtown as the HUD Secretary would be to use his newfound political influence and access to help secure funding for the new federal courthouse in San Antonio. Approval of the $100-110 million project would fill a now empty square block along West Nueva Street and open up the southern reaches of Hemisfair Park to full redevelopment.
The city that will greet Castro when he returns for San Antonio’s 300th birthday in 2018 won’t be the same city he left. He came to office with a vision for transforming downtown. By the time he returns, he’ll be able to take ample satisfaction in having seen much of the vision become reality.
*Featured/Top photo: Mayor Julián Castro stretches to shake hands as he makes his way through the crowd gathered at La Fonda on Main to hear election night results. The Pre-K 4 SA initiative passed on Nov 6, 2012. Photo by Iris Dimmick.