San Antonio: We have a Problem.

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David Barnett moved to San Antonio from Houston in 2000 to launch as its first CEO, back when New York-based Hearst Corp. and Dallas-based Belo Corp, the owners of the San Antonio Express-News and KENS-TV, jointly operated the website. Barnett had hardly unpacked his bags before he began lobbying the corporate bosses to relocate the web operations to loft-like offices on the San Antonio River. He wanted to send a message: the web operation was not a subsidiary of the print newspaper, and the people he intended to hire preferred working in a more open, nontraditional environment.

That particular initiative wasn’t funded, but Barnett and his family found a home in the city. He now works as a downtown-based strategic consultant, and as luck would have it, the two of us find ourselves working in offices along the San Antonio River more than decade later.

Barnett’s article today is the latest in series that began when District Nine Councilwoman Elisa Chan sent constituents a newsletter in March that questioned a proposal to use city subsidies to spur accelerated development of downtown residential housing. Chan argued that such subsidies would not necessarily lead to new job creation. Ed Cross, one of the most prominent developers building downtown residential housing, sent Chan, other city leaders and a variety of stakeholders in the debate, this Brookings Institute study that links housing development to job creation and downtown revitalization. The study, Cross argued,  supports the findings of a HR&A Advisors, a New York firm specializing in helping cities renew their downtowns, that had just presented its own recommendation to City Council. The housing subsidies were among the recommendations.

Chan’s original newsletter is no longer posted. The End of Subsidized Sprawl: Why Council Should Support Downtown San Antonio, was published here April 8, and was followed by a second newsletter from Chan’s office. That led to an article by Cross published here, and now Barnett’s piece. Posted comments on both sides of the issue reflect some strong divisions in the city between suburban and downtown residents and job holders.

The Rivard Report welcomes other writers who would like to submit a well-argued point of view on the subject, but as some have seen, we are not interested in name calling, anonymous assertions unsupported by any facts, or other uncivil discourse. 

by David Barnett

We have a problem and no one is talking about it. I’m not pointing the finger of blame at anyone. I’m saying it’s time to call 911. We need help right now. The problem: College graduates are fleeing San Antonio. Why is that a problem? If you think we will attract businesses, think again. They follow the work force. One of the excuses AT&T gave as they left was we didn’t have the work force and Dallas did. If you think we will create home-grown businesses that turn into the next Rackspace, think again. We are creating the work force for all the other cities. They win. We lose.

Why are they fleeing? I have my own thoughts. But I have no research. I wish the city would survey graduating seniors and ask them why they are leaving. We have more college students enrolled in our colleges and universities then Austin. Yet Austin is ranked #2 in the US as a percentage of 24 to 35 year olds with college degrees as a percentage of population. Detroit is ranked way down at #25. And San Antonio? We are at the bottom ranked at #46. We have a serious problem. And no one is ringing the alarm. Read this recent piece in Forbes ranking the best U.S. cities for finding a good job. Austin also ranks second in this survey. San Antonio? We don’t even make the list.

What can we do? We can start by better understanding the people we want to keep in San Antonio, and others like them we want to recruit from elsewhere to our city.

Young people want to live with other young people. They don’t want to be isolated in suburban cul-de-sacs. They want to find a mate. They want to socialize. Have a good time. Talk to people like them. Make new friends. Share ideas. Downtowns provide an urban playground for this group. But we don’t have a livable downtown. Austin does. Houston does. Dallas does. We do not.

Housing comes first. It attracts the creative population. Creative people in close proximity of one another creates intellectual density and that leads to idea creation. Rackspace was created by three college students in a Trinity University dorm. Three people from around the United States brought together in close proximity spawned a billion dollar company. We attract the workforce and we will not only spawn new companies, we will attract outside companies.

Let me give you an example: Geekdom. Geekdom is housed on the 11th floor at Weston Centre, a workspace for technology and creative people to hang out with other like-minded individuals, work on their own projects and collaborate with one another.  I have witnessed ideas turn into businesses there. A downtown urban playground would emulate Geekdom on a larger scale. We create a downtown that attracts creative and educated people… ideas will be spawned and businesses launched. Eventually a few more Rackspaces.

Downtown is a city’s brand. If you have a city with buildings being built and construction cranes, what do you think? You think things are happening in this city. What brand do we have? Why is there a bumper sticker that says, “Keep San Antonio Lame”? We have to change our brand. We have to make our downtown a playground for the young creative and educated workforce.

I want to unite, not divide. This isn’t a problem only for those living and working downtown. This is a problem no matter where you live in San Antonio.


34 thoughts on “San Antonio: We have a Problem.

  1. I agree David. If we neglect downtown and don’t plan and encourage more smart growth, the whole city will be suffering, not just downtown. This shouldn’t be a suburban vs urban fight, it should be a look at how to better the entire city for now and the future.

  2. “Young people want to live with other young people. They don’t want to be isolated in suburban cul-de-sacs. They want to find a mate. They want to socialize. Have a good time. Talk to people like them. Make new friends. Share ideas.”

    Agreed. However, for the record, some of us older folk want these things too. Let’s bridge the gap and have the generations work together toward a great downtown!

  3. I agree! I would move back if SA was more like other major cities in this regard. But everytime I think about moving back, I can only picture myself living in a suburb and having to drive everywhere for everything. And this is why I stay in Chicago… great city neighborhoods, great public transportation and young spirit. Come on, SA! I wanna move home someday! 🙂

    • I understand your sentiments, as I lived in Chicago for 17 years, but longed to live in a warmer climate, and be closer to my mom. I work downtown and would love to live downtown, but with very few housing options that have obscene monthly rents for a town our size, and no attractive buy options, I feel I will be a suburbanite for the long haul.

  4. I wish living downtown was a more feasible option. It’s expensive first off. It’s illogical to say young college graduates can live down there. Buying groceries is another issue that’s been brought up. And what about the petty theft? I just read a report on that not long ago on this very website. If people do have children they arent going to want to send them to the public schools that service downtown…so they better be well off enough to send them to private school as well.

    All this means there are a ton of issues that need to be fixed and it will take years to do it…I think those bumper stickers aren’t going to be changing anytime soon.

    • @Stuart, speaking as a recent college grad living on a non-profit org salary, living in or near Downtown or Southtown is well within the financial realm of possibility for me and a number of my other “urban pioneer” type friends. Sure, you could possibly find cheaper housing at I-10/410, but there is no way I would think about moving from the center of the city to a more suburban (and honestly, boring) part of town just to save a few bucks a month. Some of my peers stayed closer to Trinity University, living in apartments near the Quarry (WAY more expensive than lots of center-city options), some fell into the I-10/410 cheaper-but-boring trap, and some moved north, to the Bitters/281 or Blanco/1604 areas. Do you know where all of them come to have fun, go out, eat and drink? To my ‘hood. Lucky me!

      • there are always exceptions to every rule.

        I amhappy for you and yes others that can do the same. But realistically, we are talking about majority of individuals/places to live.

      • Cheaper but boring…I can be downtown from where I live in my boring house in 15 minutes. Nothing about downtown attracts me on a daily basis. The places to eat are not any better than what I can get at other places. As a resident I have no desire to use the hotels. That means I go down when I have business, or on the off chance that something worth viewing is at the majestic.

        It’s safer and cheaper for me to drink at my house if I choose to…regardless of where I live that’s the truth.

        The whole point I was trying to make before was if you aren’t single, you better be well off because that’s the only type who could truly afford to live downtown and stay there.

        I just already have a family and a nice home that’s paid for…I guess I’m not the type downtown is trying to attract.

        • Well, it’s hard to compete with “it’s safe and cheaper for me to drink at my house.”

          Everyone is different, but I think it’s fair to say that drinking alone at home is an option in every city, but a great arts/culture/entertainment scene doesn’t exist everywhere.

          The point of the article is that we are losing vital creative class workers (who are looking for better socialization options than drinking at home) to other cities.

          It might not be right for you, Stuart, but you can still support it. (I support having a mix of housing, too, but right now in San Antonio there are many more suburban options like you have chosen than urban or near-urban choices that many people want.)

    • There are two excellent private schools right downtown. Providence Catholic School and Central Catholic. Both easily accessible from anywhere in the city.
      I agree about the lack of a grocery store being a big problem. There are empty lots available on Broadway that would support a store. Hey, Trader Joes, how about you?

      • It’s not that there aren’t private schools downtown, it’s about affording them on top of affording everything else. Private school can be very expensive, and that could be the deal breaker. Not everyone can afford an extra 15,000+ a year for private schooling. That’s a high school rate but still…

  5. Hey , are you at the Eiffel Tower in Paris in that picture! Don’t let people
    say DT is too expensive. Life is cool in urban centers!

  6. help is on the way for downtown. performing arts center, briscoe museum, river connecting south and north, $230 million multi model transit system, over 900 new apartments being built. just a start.

  7. I concur…I plan on leaving upon graduation to a Hip city like Austin. I would be happier in Austin deliverying pizzas than living in San Antonio.

  8. As President of The American Society of Interior Designers Texas Chapter, (the largest in the country), I speak to college students frequently. When I ask interior design students at local colleges if they are looking for a job here in SA, their response is, “Are you kidding?” When I speak in other cities in Texas, they recoil at the thought of moving here. Yes, brain drain, and “creative drain” for that matter, are real and the consequences are dire. Thanks for sounding the alarm so eloquently!

  9. BRAVO! San Antonio needs to wake up-and apparently it is,finally….visionaries have been trying to revitalize downtown since I moved here 28 years ago,and now,I am finally seeing it actually happen….but,please hurry! I have struggled for all these years to attract young talent to my design firm but we rank # 4 behind Dallas,Houston,and Austin.
    Thank you ,David,Robert,Ed,and others who are leading the march.

    • @hansonj I don’t think David of anyone else is saying that new buildings are the solution to our problem. I do think that it is a great first step in building the ecosystem. Right now that ecosystem is fragmented and atrophied in several areas. We need to give new life to the downtown ecosystem that includes:

      – Places to live (for professionals as well as student, not the predominant section 8 housing like the Robert E Lee)
      – Places to work (not just another call center)
      – Places to eat (not just fast food)
      – Places to drink and hang out (authentic cool bars that are rare in SA)
      – Places to see live music (not another death metal venue)
      – Places to workout and be fit (B-Cycle and other innovations like it)
      – Places to enjoy the arts (Opera, Symphony, Museums)

      • The section 8 housing downtown makes no sense. The Robt e lee and villa hermosa are near some office buildings with good jobs. They should be available for the people who earn money nearby to live in. Instead they are section 8, only for people who make under 20k/year, and run down. If you walk over there during the day to eat at la sopressa you might see people smoking weed or drinking on the sidewalk, they will bum you, try to sell you obviously stolen things, and the bar over there is full of people with nothing better to do than get drunk on weekday afternoons. It does not reflect well on San Antonio to have this kind of blight 1 block away from the riverwalk and the crown plaza.

        • Just remember a lot of people work their butts off everyday in restaraunts and bars, and are good hardworking people who, because of whatever reason are not college educated or couldn’t finish or whatever…and they make under 20,000 a year. That amount shouldn’t be a standard for “people who earn their money”

  10. The problem is not San Antonio, There are many other cities in our great nation. San Antonio is a small city, it has its good parts, but in general I believe that people that like/love this town are people from here or from smaller cities. If you’ve lived in a larger city for any length of time you probably know what I’m talking about. There is more to America than San Antonio, what is wrong with wanting a change of venue or scenery?

  11. Yeah seriously, SA is a great place to raise a family and I was born/raised there. But once you’re out of high-school, it is depressing…and especially if you are a young professional. I still own a home there’ but do everything in my power not to move back because SA gives me a sense of “I’ve given up” and it’s now time to work for some “another brick in the wall” type company (USAA per se) and move to a cul-de-sac. SA really needs an image make-over from the minimum-wage/single mom with crazy baby-daddy image it has. SA has so much potential. Until then, I’m staying in Austin.

    • Maybe I’m just a glass-half-full kind of guy, but this actually makes me feel optimistic.

      The reality of much of Austin isn’t that different from what you describe in San Antonio. Most Austinites live in suburban areas outside of downtown, and work at “another brick in the wall” type companies like Dell in Round Rock.

      The difference is that there is a critical mass of housing and entertainment option downtown and South Congress, so that even if you live and work in the Austin burbs 20-30 minutes away, you still have access to these amenities.

      And if you do have the good fortune to live a block or two off South Congress and are able to walk to cool places, even better.

      I think the River North area near Pearl is close to getting that critical mass, and I’m excited!

  12. Take it from a 24 yr old that spends most of her weekends in Austin. This is what I love:

    – friendly young open-minded people (older folks are cool too but downtown Austin is flooded with young people)
    – dog friendly (SA downtown isn’t too kind to my pup)
    – No cover charges to clubs or bars
    – taco trucks
    – Street artists (Musicians, chalk artists, dancers, etc.)
    – tons of concerts (I love live music)

    After a fun-filled weekend in Austin I’m glad to get back to San Antonio and buckle down to work and recover. However, is that how San Antonio wants to be portrayed?

    The music scene is dismal. I don’t like heavy metal skin heads yelling at me. The one genre that some venues are picking up on is electro/dubstep/techno. San Antonio has so many college students to attract downtown, think about what they want or need the most. Start with easy transporation that doesn’t shut down at midnight and don’t make everything a museum. They want a break from learning. You don’t even have to start with the living arrangements, start with events (cool events).

    Overall, I think older San Antonians need to give young people the opportunity to express themselves and let us enhance downtown. We all understand the history of the city and the pride to keep it alive but history never changes and things that don’t change get boring.

  13. I wonder how many people posting in this thread are actual downtowners. I am, but as I noted in the comments to the terrific “Left Behind” thread, my wife and I have decided to depart San Antonio. We moved from Milwaukee (which, although smaller than San Antonio, has a much, MUCH more vibrant and livable downtown) and San Francisco (’nuff said.)

    Yes, we found San Antonio lacking in the sorts of urban amenities, services and experiences you expect to find in many other cities, and yes, that has quite a lot to do with why we’re leaving. That said, I have no regrets about living downtown. Some people have implied there’s a safety problem, and this perception is part of the problem here–my wife and I almost never felt anything other than perfectly safe walking through downtown at all times of day or night. Living downtown was convenient, close to activities (Majestic, Southtown, river walk, etc.) and interesting.

    The only regret we may end up having is that we bought a condo that we’re now struggling to sell. If anyone wants to be an active part of downtown San Antonio’s revitalization, feel free to visit our open house this Saturday, 2 to 5 pm at The Vidorra:

  14. Ya’ll are talking about how to keep a college-educated workforce in SA. Unfortunately, 40% or more students never get to college and only 40% who do, manage to graduate. Mayor Castro’s vision of changing how most San Antonians view the value of education is spot on. Unfortunately, it may take several generations to improve the education system enough to get to that point.

    So the question becomes, can we do both simultaneously?

  15. I am thrilled to see so much conversation about how to make our city more viable and an interesting place to live, work and play. Having been involved with center city and downtown real estate in both sales and rentals for over 30 years , I can assure you things are changing. I have seen so much progress , especially over the last 5 years. Yes it has been slow to happen but in a way that is what makes San Antonio, San Antonio. Slow and steady.
    Because the writer isn’t from here, he doesn’t see that. I understand if you are moving here from a more progressive city, we may seem dull and behind the times because we are(Keep San Antonio Lame). All I can say is we have come a long way and I am confident that we will continue to do so. I can see the chnages every day. Please have faith and let’s work together to keep young and creative people in San Antonio! The more we work in a positive direction, the quicker it will happen.

  16. I’m 25, having graduated from community college in SA and studying my higher learning in NYC. I’ve chosen to stay due to the great opportunities that exist, yet it takes a special vision to see what this city can become.

    San Antonio luckily has some great leadership with goals of revitalizing San Antonio as an urban center. This article points out many of the issues that San Antonio faces, and I do agree with that, however it would be amiss to think that nobody else has considered it. San Antonio is a largely fragmented and decentralized city right now (akin to LA), once we start to connect these dots (physically via a viable rapid-transit option), then these core cultural areas will develop into thriving businesses and decentralized urban centers.

    In terms of education and college students leaving, they leave for employment opportunities that don’t exist here. The market is traditional and not growing as rapidly as it should (due in part to Austin’s focused urbanism). A large part of this has to do with a lack of creative/high-technology degrees available locally. Businesses go where a qualified workforce exists. A remedy to this would be the focus of ACCD to offer Bachelor’s degrees at the community colleges in specialized programs (Gaming, Nanotechnology, Film, Design, and other specialized services). This is being done in other cities, there’s no reason we can’t do it to keep a lot of our college students here.

  17. Truly – to make downtown’s revitalization sustainable, we’re going to have to find a way to improve our inner-city schools. Sure, initially the average person who we’re hoping to relocate downtown is a young, creative class professional. However, they eventually want to find a mate and, by and large, have children. If the schools that service the greater downtown area continue to suffer and stagnate, those individuals who initially moved downtown will pickup shop and move to a suburban neighborhood with good schools.

    In regards to keeping college graduates / convincing high school graduates to return home after schooling elsewhere (the brain drain issue) – there IS an image problem in SA, and we suffer from a city-wide self esteem problem. I’m very confident in saying that the average resident of San Antonio has no-earthly-idea what kind of amazing gems (entertainment, food/drink, cultural, professional) actual exist. Our leaders would do well to institute some kind of educational / marketing hybrid program that focuses on our youth, AS WELL as their parents – showcasing SA’s amazing history and future.

    Just one example : how do you think today’s youth would react to the *fact* that the multiple Academy Award winning software responsible for the incredible special effects in movies such as Titanic, Avatar, etc is developed and published right here in good ol’ San Antone’…?!

  18. As a recent transplant from Austin, I find it interesting that many believe Austin to be a more attractive option. In terms of entertainment, it’s incredibly awesome- particularly the downtown area. The restaurants are tops, and you can find lots of open minded people. What you cannot find is a decent job. A huge portion of my friends in Austin area job-less, and while there are some higher tech jobs, those are highly competitive. A huge portion of recent college graduates are under employed or unemployed in Austin. While I think SA has a long way to go to attract and keep talent, I think its easy to see the trappings of Austin and long for those. My husband and I both got good paying jobs quickly in San Antonio (much quicker than we did in Austin) and the cost of living is much lower here. If we’re really itching for Austin, it’s an hour of way- but we’ve found a lot of ways to stay entertained here.

  19. Our vision as an organization is to attract college students as potential candidates for our firm, since we are heavy in interactive, experiential marketing. We are hosting an Internship RoundUp this Saturday at Geekdom. I have been amazed at the positive response and the feedback from the youth as San Antonio does not offer many innovative marketing internship positions. Which does not suprise me at all. A majority of our client base is in Austin, Houston and Dallas not San Antonio. The reason? Because San Antonio businesses are failing to understand that a new generation will be sitting in our seats leading and making decisions. Their failure to understand this means they are not utilizing innovative marketing techniques to brand themselves to the Millennial generation. They ignore this new generation and expect their business to be sustainable. San Antonio is full of traditionalists which is wonderful for family entities. However, we must remember that we should maintain forward thinking if we are going to progress our city beyond our own little bubbles. I have many clients that tell me to move my business to Austin or Houston, but I am determined we will assist in the change of the thought process of this city and have them wake up to the new calling of developing our city of a choice place for living for our youth. It starts at home, with our cities’ entrepreneurs. We need to market our products and services to Millennials. We need to create products and services that attract Millienials to our city. Whether its grocery stores downtown or affordable living downtown, the foundation for us becoming relevant is getting our businesses to adjust their marketing and product development to take into consideration this new generation. I have a short article on this on my blog but I do love that The Rivard Report gets this!!

  20. There isn’t one discussion herein that considers the whole city as part of the solution. What is being discussed is what is good for the well-doing. Seeing how the glass is empty for so many in San Antonio keeps me believing that capacity building for the dispossessed is the way to build up our city, and that is central (City Centro) to the San Antonio story.

    End of pipe solutions are the result of not dealing with the real problem. It is the problem inherent in some optimism.

    If the well off, educated or financially, want to make downtown better they should first realize that they are surrounded by poverty in density in a 1.5 mile radius of downtown (kind-of excluding some of the north border and the tiny King William). And downtown SA is equivalent in size to about 5 downtown city blocks in Chicago or New York.

    Why not make downtown a city centre for the city and not a new neighborhood for new (tourist) San Antonians (especially since many of those who move here follow jobs and don’t really “stay” anywhere for long). An optimist for San Antonio, I think that building a city for new comers is foolish. Downtown for San Antonians is the way to go. A place for “us” to play and hang out and shop and dine and to mingle with the convention folk and visitors. Stop the discussion of further annexation and talk about inner city development incentives/infill housing tax credits or something similar (invent it).

    A livable downtown is really the style of a city that has enough space to also house corporate facilities and business entities that have employees that can afford to live near where they work. The people professing downtown housing density are like backseat Urban Planners with out any serious education or case study in their pockets. One should always remember that when you hire an Urban Planner he/she will do their job whether it works or not. So if you tell them to design and build it they will. It is the client that is left with the solution that it demanded – and ultimately left to live with the benefits or consequences.

    Imagine – a downtown for San Antonians. I walked downtown with my Grandfather in the 60’s. It was a vibrant, moving, and connected community. It had none of the things being proposed today. And the things being proposed today have none of the things that work then. Do yourselves a favor and watch “Miracle on 34th Street” then visit New York. You will be amazed to see how much remains the same (at least from a Hollywood perspective). The poetic of place is in the people.

    Build for us – we will spend our money downtown. Build for them – and we will see how it goes. But one thing is for sure, ignore us but you down-towners will be surrounded by us. To get anywhere you will have to pass through us. And to get back home you will have to pass through us. Instead of fostering two cities, one for us and one for them, lets encourage real inner city development through infill housing and warehouse renovation and adaptive reuse within the 1935 (year) boundary – then “we” can grow together and benefit each-other through mixed income inner city community development, which is good for education and creates job opportunity through association. Then we can go downtown and play together, without guilt and exclusion. Sure, some will eat at the Palm and others will eat at Whataburger. Some will go to the Municipal Auditorium Theater for the Performing Arts and some will go to the IMax. But we will pass each-other on the sidewalk.

    This way downtown does not become an icon of the unattainable, un-affordable, and not to mention uninviting, but rather a watering trough for the hard working of all incomes where we find innovative ways to capitalize on the visitor by selling them a little bit of SA to take back home with them.

    San Antonio is such an important and special place. I think history will record that at this time San Antonio believed that “it could be” because its leaders did not believe that “it is”.

    Those who invest in what it could be will have to blog later and tell us inner city land owners if we or they where right – but only after spending “their own money”.

  21. Pingback: Poll: Best Downtown in Texas? - Page 24 - City-Data Forum

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