10 Reasons to Credit Castro for the Decade of Downtown

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Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Frost Tower, as seen from East Houston Street speaks to the growth that downtown San Antonio has seen during the Decade of Downtown.

Julián Castro’s attention these days is focused on 2020, but the city he once led continues to prosper from his 2010 declaration that the ensuing 10 years would be San Antonio’s  Decade of Downtown.

Under Castro, new levels of public incentives and infrastructure investment spurred private sector developers eager to meet growing market demand for urban life and work. The result after a decade of renewal and new construction is a center city that now welcomes locals alongside tourists and conventioneers.

SA2020, Castro’s signature initiative, tapped into a multigenerational desire for a more vibrant urban landscape. Of all the long-term plans hatched at City Hall by a succession of mayors, it has enjoyed the most success.

Castro recruited three very different people to lead SA2020: Graham Weston, Rackspace co-founder and chairman and owner of the Weston Centre office tower; Darryl Byrd, then-CEO of Pearl Brewery; and local attorney Sonia Rodriguez.

Byrd would become CEO of the nonprofit SA2020, and after Castro stepped down as mayor to become HUD Secretary in 2014, Rodriguez became chair of its board of directors.

Weston, meanwhile, formed Weston Urban and, together with CEO Randy Smith, forged an unprecedented public-private partnership with Frost Bank and the City. The deal, which will take years to complete, sparked the biggest downtown development since Hemisfair ’68.

Weston Urban also purchased and restored the historic Rand and Savoy buildings, with plans to do the same with the historic Milam building. 

SA2020 was not only about downtown development, of course, and next month CEO Molly Cox will report on the status of the 11 vision goals established in 2010, which focus as much on human development. Cox also is expected to make the case for the initiative to be extended with new goals for the coming decade.

Silver Ventures would have continued development of the Pearl even without Castro’s vision, but River North development began to gain traction after the San Antonio River’s Museum Reach was completed in 2009 and the Pearl became a magnet for other developers investing in long-stagnant surrounding properties.

Finally, much of the private sector investment was spurred by new levels of public sector investment, notably via the City of San Antonio’s five-year bond cycles, the work of former City Manager Sheryl Sculley, who arrived in 2005 and introduced a new level of fiscal management. The 2007, 2012, and 2017 cycles collectively total $2 billion in capital improvements. Each succeeding bond led to greater investment not only in the urban core, but also in historically underserved communities.

Here is my list of the 10 most notable and transformative projects and developments as the decade ends:

  • The P3 deal that led to Weston Urban’s construction of the new Frost Tower, the City’s acquisition of the original Frost Bank as its future headquarters, and Weston Urban’s planned redevelopment of 20-plus acres of western downtown.
  • The Pearl Brewery‘s continued redevelopment, with the Hotel Emma serving as the dramatic centerpiece, along with the opening of the Culinary Institute of America’s 30,000-square-foot school, the rise of the Pearl Farmer’s Market, and construction of the Can Plant and Cellars apartments.
  • Acquisition by USAA of two prominent downtown office towers, first at One Riverwalk Place, and then the Bank of America Plaza, with a commitment to locate 1,500 professionals downtown.
  • The establishment of Geekdom, first in the Weston Centre and then in the Rand Building, as a co-working space and startup accelerator. It seeded downtown’s new tech economy and culture.
  • The redevelopment of East Houston Street’s historic buildings and the creation of the emerging downtown tech district. Weston Urban sparked things with its acquisition of the Rand Building from Frost Bank. GreyStreet Partners and AREA Real Estate followed. That, in turn, led to new development now underway farther east on Houston and Commerce Streets and in St. Paul Square.
  • The redevelopment of Hemisfair, including the expansion of the Henry B. González Convention Center, Yanaguana Garden, and AREA’s recently completed The ’68 apartment tower.
  • The opening of the Tobin Center for Performing Arts in the former Municipal Auditorium.
  • Bexar County’s San Pedro Creek Improvement Project, with Phase One completed and Phase Two now under construction.
  • The $100 million expansion of the Witte Museum and the opening of the DoSeum on Broadway, the latter made possible by a $20 million lead gift from H-E-B Chairman and CEO Charles Butt.
  • The opening of Confluence Park, an ecology learning center and event space on the Mission Reach.

The next decade might not come with a slogan, but the pace of center city development shows no signs of slowing.

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