“The Decade of Downtown” From a Northside Perspective

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San Antonio downtown view from Judson condominiums.

View of downtown San Antonio from Judson condominiums.

Most major cities in America are afflicted by dying downtowns.  At best, the downtowns are a collection of office towers surrounded by dilapidated storefronts.  At night, those downtowns can look like the remnant of a nuclear winter.

Nighttime on San Antonio’s downtown is better than most other cities because of two of Texas’ major tourist attractions, the River Walk and the Alamo, that serve to populate the downtown every night.  San Antonio, however, wants to do even better.  It wants to populate its downtown with yearlong residents.  But this objective, which Mayor Julián Castro has sloganized as “The Decade of Downtown,” raises two issues:

  1. Why should San Antonio intervene against the free market to develop its downtown?
  2. Can San Antonio efficiently intervene against the free market to develop its downtown?

The answer to the first question has a financial component – i.e., infill of San Antonio’s existing footprint is more efficient than providing the necessary infrastructure for more suburban sprawl.  But the major consideration seems to be emotional – almost akin to the erstwhile desire to save the family farm in rural areas.

San Antonio downtown view from Judson condominiums.

San Antonio downtown view from Judson condominiums. Photo by Sam Nunnelly.

Downtowns have been dying since the 50s and 60s, and modern planners pine about a return to “walkable urbanism.”  Ironically, however, this nostalgic concept is most attractive to the young.  The following rationale was provided in a Brookings paper, “Turning Around Downtown: Twelve Steps to Revitalization,” that lobbied for more urban development:

“Downtown revitalization can bring additional economic development benefits as well. With increasing demand for walkable urbanism and a dearth of such neighborhoods in most metropolitan areas, cities with vibrant downtowns have a better shot of recruiting or retaining the “creative class” of workers economists, like Richard Florida, have shown is key to future growth.  When the strategy for downtown Albuquerque was being crafted, for example, a senior executive from Sandia National Laboratory spent many hours volunteering in the process. However, the laboratory—employing 5,000 scientists, engineers, and professional managers—is located five miles from downtown. When asked why he spent so much time on the downtown strategy, he replied, “If Albuquerque does not have a vibrant, hip downtown, I do not have a chance of recruiting or retaining the twenty-something software engineers that are the life’s blood of the laboratory.” If 30 percent to 50 percent of the market cannot get walkable urbanism, why would they come or stay in a place without that lifestyle option when Austin, Boston, and Seattle beckon? A purely suburban, car-dominated metropolitan area is at a competitive disadvantage for economic growth.”

Robert Rivard, a former editor of San Antonio’s daily newspaper, currently publishes articles here at The Rivard Report relating to urban development in San Antonio, and he provides a more personal perspective for why San Antonio’s downtown needs to be revitalized:

“We launched the Rivard Report in mid-February of 2012 to become part of the public conversation at a time San Antonio is at a crossroads. Both our sons, Nicolas and Alexander, left San Antonio to attend college and did not come back. While they hold San Antonio in their hearts, there was never any questions about their departures. The opportunities and lifestyle they each sought were to be found elsewhere. That bothered us, as did frustrations we heard again and again from business colleagues struggling to recruit smart, educated people to come live and work here. The Rivard Report seeks to become an accelerator driving the kind of change in our city that reverses the outflow of educated young people and increases the number of individuals who want to come here.  ….  The Rivard Report is all about urban renaissance, the movement to build a better San Antonio. We hope to be a catalyst for urban transformation and progressive economic and cultural development. Transforming a central city is not a quick or easy process, but it’s been done elsewhere and is now happening here. That gives us plenty to write about as the city heads toward its 300th birthday in 2017 and Mayor Julián Castro seeks to achieve the ambitious goals of his SA2020 initiative.”

These rationales for developing downtown San Antonio make sense to me.  Not only does infill of the downtown make short-term financial sense, it makes sense for the long-term attractiveness of our city for our children.

Mike Kueber at Alamo Plaza.

But the more difficult question is whether San Antonio can successfully intervene in the free market.  As an economic conservative, I am skeptical of the City’s ability to efficiently and effectively redirect the free market.  Not only is the city woefully unskilled in development, but the cost of effective measures will likely render them inefficient.

A recent extensive article in the San Antonio Express-News, “Heart of downtown doesn’t feel like home,” provided a broad overview of the city’s recent efforts toward downtown development.  According to the article, there has been some residential development on the extreme northern and southern edges of downtown, but almost nothing in the middle.  The reason for “almost nothing in the middle” is surprising, and it relates to the two great downtown tourist attractions:

“‘San Antonio does have a wealth of historic office buildings that are really cool and great buildings to be converted (to residential),’ Cross said. ‘But the hotel business has done so well for so long that those buildings never really became available at a price that an apartment conversion would work.’ One idea floating around is for the city to regulate hotel development in certain parts of downtown. That would force down land prices because landowners wouldn’t have the option of selling their properties at a premium to hotel developers.”

The thinking by developer Ed Cross is why I am generally averse to trying to redirect the free market – i.e., government planners simply can’t evaluate all of the factors that the market does automatically.  So I would be in favor of making it easy for developers to move into downtown and to provide moderate financial benefits for cost-effective infill, but I don’t think the rest of the city should subsidize an emotional sentiment.

For a contrary argument, I refer you to an article from April 2012 on The Rivard Report titled, “The End of Subsidized Sprawl: Why Council Should Support Downtown San Antonio.”   Its lead sentence reveals its thesis – “Moving from the long era of city government-supported sprawl to a new era of tax-supported inner city development could prove to be the issue of our time.”


Mike Kueber is a former farmboy, a father of four boys, a retired insurance lawyer, an amateur blogger, and an aspiring politician. He grew up on a farm in North Dakota, graduated from UT Law, took early retirement from USAA in 2009, ran for Congress in 2010, and has maintained a blog (“Mike Kueber’s Blog,” from which this this article is re-published) ever since. He is currently running for the District 8 seat on the San Antonio City Council. 


Related Stories on the Rivard Report:

Urban Renaissance: Taking Stock of 2012, November 2012

In Defense of Downtown Investment: A Core-Periphery Vision, July 2012

No to Downtown Subsidies: The View from District 9 and Councilwoman Chan, May 2012

The End of Subsidized Sprawl: Why Council Should Support Downtown San Antonio, April 2012

The Economics of Placemaking, November 2012

9 thoughts on ““The Decade of Downtown” From a Northside Perspective

  1. I appreciate the tenor of this article. However, I think it is important to point out that many downtowns are not dying. Hardly. To frame a discussion about the “death of downtown” is to coop talking points that were at a feverish pitch beginning decades ago, in the 1980s. At that time, many cities undertook bold moves — some failed and some brilliantly successful. There is a lot to learn from those cities. But, suffice to say, some of the discussions that occur in San Antonio seem to be 10-20 years behind the social curve.

    I don’t think urban planners “pine.” They fight institutional, governmental, and marketplace factors that are often slow to get what works and what does not work. They have solid and sophisticated ideas, again ones we should look to in other cities and not seek to reinvent the wheel here.

    The private market drives housing and related service and retail in developing any economically and socially diversified downtown areas. But, to ever suggest that that is done in some pure sense, as some do, is absurd. There is and has almost always been (in contemporary times) a public role is aiding in the creation of an urban core that is balanced and well-executed. That includes well-planned and executed public financial support. And, as many cities can prove over and over, it is the smartest strategy. A strong and successful urban center reaps disproportionate direct and indirect financial benefit, over and over again, for both the public and private sectors alike. Again, when well done. A strong urban core runs laps around the most successful and supposedly well-done of suburban areas in terms of social financial efficiency any day of the week. We’re only beginning to understand the short- and long-term economic inefficiencies, social costs, and subsidization of a suburban development model. We have to maintain open minds.

    Folks in places like Portland, Atlanta, Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis … on and on … turned about the “death of downtown” decades ago.

  2. To say that we are only investing in downtown on emotion is short sighted and irresponsible in my opinion. We are humans and emotion plays a role in every decision we make and I for one want the future of or city to be decided by those who are passionate about the opportunity in front of us if we do make the investment in downtown. Passion and emotion combined with educated risk taking will certainly be a plus as we build our city, regardless if it is in downtown or in the suburbs. The creative class and the knowledge/technology economy want vibrant downtowns/cities and if we decide not to invest to capture that leading free market we will certainly be wishing we had 10 years from now.
    Engage. Lead. Transform.
    “Go. Make something happen.”
    Zac Harris

  3. It’s a mixed economy, not a “free market.” There is significant demand for walkable communities, among Boomers and Millennials alike, and city government policies should accommodate rather than frustrate this demand.

  4. I agree with the author’s point. And the commentators are correct in saying that densely populated areas are more efficient in terms of capital projects and infrastructure. Some points that MUST be considered:
    One of the main reasons there is little demand for downtown housing for families: A broken school district. If you want to families to live in the downtown area, force a merging of school districts.
    If you want to control urban sprawl, control the growth of infrastructure or at least don’t subsidize it so heavily.
    As long as we are a car society with relatively cheap gas, people will prefer gas over asphalt as yards for their children.

  5. In countless studies, the best way to revitalize a community is to build solid public-private partnerships. The city seems to be taking the initiative and leaving the private side out of the conversation. Businesses downtown recently decided against using their money for the new street car system. The city then made the decision to continue and fund the whole thing without their support. That kind of decision making is faulty because the city shouldn’t carry the weight of downtown revitalization on its shoulders alone. COSA has made those kinds of decisions several times in the past and it is unsustainable.

    An interesting article from the Brookings Institution –

  6. Look at what Oklahoma City did to revitalize its “Bricktown” area–even patterning it after the San Antonio Riverwalk. Major successes, even bringing in an NBA team to a market that did not have one, creating an urban center of renewal, and seeing young families move into the inner city with their MAPS for Kids program. Of course it can be done. Similar things happened in Kansas City. If they can do it, we can do it too.

  7. Good instincts Mike. You are right in your hunch that city planners cannot guess the market. That task is extremely difficult even for developers who carefully invest their own money. But when someone is putting the faceless taxpayers’ money at risk, they are wont to get much more wrapped up in emotional theories and the dreams of new urbanists. I know many stories of developers who wanted to invest in revitalization of downtown but were thwarted by senseless land use regulation and bureaucratic stubborness. City planners are happy to stop all kinds of helpful development if it does not exactly fit their vision. A friend of mine on the west side finally abandoned an old warehouse he was going to revitalize because he never could get approval from the city. Today, that block is blighted and dead. Who knows the fortunes the owner and the neighbors might have enjoyed if the city had simply gotten out of the way.

    Instead, they are now heavily subsidizing downtown living units because development is too expensive to be affordable. The city makes it expensive and so they subsidize it. Totally insane.

  8. I agree with Jeff. City planners have no idea how to move towards Sculley’s plan of making the cities investments sustainable. The city gets locked up in a “who’s on first” loop and the politicians continue to make empty value judgements about a project when their shortsightedness keeps them from making real progress. I propose that city leaders and planners each develop a real relationship, collaborate and develop metrics with business leaders, community leaders and neighborhood associations to get something done.

    One example of the COSA’ failure:

    Brooks City Base – proposed research and development site(nonexistent not counting DPT). Proposed Solar plant (negotiation limbo) faulty due diligence and a slim chance of increased employment opportunities for five or six years. Toyota put up way more of an investment and all the city has to look forward to is a consortium of suppliers with a consortium of temporary placement companies. The availability of dwellings is slim in the area (Toyota) which makes it worse because most people have to commute which means less money which means little savings and spending which hurts instead of helps the economy. That is the outlook for Nexelon at Brooks. A guided approach to the creation of a research consortium would have been a better investment in my mind. Research and Development, from what I understand, helped Boston renew itself and recover from the highs and lows of the national economy.

  9. I appreciate your willingness to have an open conversation, Mike. I disagree on your idea of what a “free market” is, however. You speak of it as though an economy is an untouched thing out of the control of the people live in it. On the contrary, this mixed economy was created by people and should therefore be manipulated when it does not fit our needs as a society. Do hotels fit the needs of San Antonio’s citizens? Not in my opinion. Governments manipulate markets all the time and everywhere. They manipulated the market when creating the GI Bill that set a foundation for the sprawl you see today. They continue to manipulate it by providing billions in subsidies to oil companies and for highway infrastructure. I wouldn’t worry about manipulating the market – it has never been pure.

    In accordance with SA2020, we need downtown to be an urban core for the people who call San Antonio home, not simply a place for tourists. I am one of those “20-somethings” and as a result, the lack of people my age in this city is all too jarring. The youth go to other cities because they provide for our progressive values: public transportation and alternatives to cars, green spaces, a fast-paced work environment, efficient and ecologically responsible lifestyles, and creative development.

    To use the old adage, “If you build it, they will come”. City development cannot be controlled solely by those who have the wealth to own the “free market”. I’m afraid that doesn’t sound like freedom at all. Diversity is important for cultural and economic development.

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