Editor’s note: This article is part of a continuing series of reports and commentaries the Rivard Report is publishing on the 2017-2022 City Bond. Interested contributors can send proposed submissions or story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org. For other stories in the series, please see Related Stories at the end of this article.
The architects, artists and others entering the Build Your Own Broadway ideas competition will not be the first creative thinkers dreaming of a great urban boulevard in San Antonio.
Broadway, born in 1914 as the offspring of two older streets, River Avenue and Avenue C, has been the subject of redesign proposals and calls for public investment for nearly two decades. Visionaries in San Antonio recognized Broadway’s potential as a great street and as a catalyst for economic development as far back as 2000, even before the rebirth of the Pearl. On more than one occasion, notable San Antonio architects and others have set about creating plans to transform a north-south traffic artery into a boulevard alive with people and places.
None of the proposals resulted in major public funding for Broadway’s redesign, which would require the project to be included in one of the City’s five-year bond cycles. The City’s Midtown Brackenridge Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone was created to channel some tax revenues back into infrastructure investments along Broadway, North St. Mary’s Street and Avenue B, but those sums are nominal, in part because public incentives used to attract development reduce tax collections in the initial years of a completed project.
“The TIRZ will not generate enough revenue to pay for the necessary major infrastructure improvements along Broadway,” the authors of the 2011 Midtown Brackenridge Master Plan noted in their report. “The TIRZ board and the City of San Antonio should consider paying for these upgrades as part of the 2012 and 2017 bond programs.”
The 2012 bond did not include the necessary funds.
BYOBroadway, sponsored by Centro San Antonio and the Pearl, and organized by the Rivard Report and Overland Partners as a Place Changing event, aims to bring a new level of attention to Broadway and efforts to include the redesign as a major project in the 2017 bond.
Click here for tickets to BYOBroadway, which takes place at the Pearl Stable on Wednesday, March 30, 6:30-8:30 p.m. Finalists in three categories of the ideas competition will appear on stage to present their concepts. Afterwards, jurors will award $20,000 in prizes, including a People’s Choice Award voted by audience members. The people serving on the competition jury and a keynote speaker will be announced in the coming days. More than 55 individuals and entities had registered to compete in the ideas competition as of Friday. Deadline for entries is March 23.
“For years I’ve watched Broadway languish while comparable streets in other big Texas cities and cities across the nation become thriving places filled with civic life,” said Madison Smith, principal with Overland Partners. “If we want San Antonio to be a truly great city, not just an okay town, we must engage in positive, aspirational conversation across the city. BYOBroadway is meant to be that kind of civic conversation. If enough of us get engaged, extraordinary things will start to happen.”
Centro is the sponsor of the ideas competition. Its interest in Broadway extends beyond the March 30 event at the Pearl. Last year, Centro, private property owners and developers, cultural institutions along Broadway, and the Public Improvement District contributed more than $500,000 to conduct conceptual studies and schematic redesign of Broadway. The initiative developed in the months that followed the cancellation of VIA’s modern streetcar project as stakeholders searched for ways to offer improved multimodal options for the growing body of locals and visitors attracted to Broadway and its path to downtown and Southtown.
While the ideas competition will highlight creative expression and how it can be used to transform Broadway, the stakeholder group led by Centro will provide City officials with a more comprehensive proposal. Centro is leading a team that includes Parsons Brinckerhoff, a global engineering firm with offices in San Antonio, and MIG, the national design and planning firm.
Stakeholders hope private sector funding of the initiative will convince City officials to fund a major corridor revitalization initiative in the 2017 Bond. Elements of the concept study to remake Broadway from Hildebrand Avenue south to East Houston Street will be presented by MIG at the Pearl Stable on March 30.
“The city of San Antonio made a significant investment in 2008 in the Museum Reach of the San Antonio river. In part, because of that investment, the Midtown TIRZ today has an assessed value of $1.1 billion,” said Pat DiGiovanni, Centro’s president and CEO. “Three years ago, that value was $763 million, a 44% increase. In our study area, which is roughly 25% of the TIRZ, today’s assessed value is $290 million. Five years ago, that value was $150 million, or a 93% increase in assessed value.
“The river improvements and other significant investments such as the $500 million invested in our cultural institutions along the Broadway Corridor have had an incredible catalytic impact on residential and commercial development,” DiGiovanni said. “We believe the return on investment analysis that Centro is conducting will yield similar significant financial returns should the City continue its investment in the public realm.”
The 2017 bond will come before voters in May 2017 , but voters will only be voting yes or no in support of the final bond package. The election will not give voters a say in how the monies are spent, or what projects are approved for funding and which ones get scratched from the list. Those critical decisions will be made in the coming months and year.
The March 30 Place Changing event is planned as an exercise in civic engagement, spurring citizens to take a greater interest in the 2017 bond and how elected officials and City staff decide to allocate the funds. It is not an easy task. City staff can cite billions of dollars in needed infrastructure projects throughout the city’s 10 council districts. Only a percentage of those needs can be met in each five-year bond cycle.
BYOBroadway organizers purposely divided the ideas competition into three categories, including one category seeking creative ways to better connect Broadway with Brackenridge Park and other green spaces. The intent is to position Brackenridge Park as part of a larger whole that includes Broadway’s Cultural Corridor, the Pearl, the Museum Reach, River North, and the Tobin Center.
Downtown San Antonio’s northern gateway is arguably its most appealing urban side with the greatest economic development potential, including the possibility some day of dense residential housing along the park’s eastern flank. Most urban parks are flanked by such housing, which would offer park views in a setting minutes from Broadway, and less than one mile down the Brackenridge Reach of the River to the Pearl. The University of Incarnate Word and Central Market lie a half mile away in the other direction. That kind of housing option would attract more people to the urban core.
Other Texas cities, notably Houston, are undertaking major green space investments to revitalize their urban cores. San Antonio, which is competing with Dallas, Houston and Austin for talented workers, will have to make similar investments if it expects to compete.
A Brackenridge Park Master Plan has just been completed in draft form, and while it is not yet available for public review, it should be released before June when City Council will consider its findings and funding recommendations.
A Vision in 2000
Past efforts to win funding for Broadway’s redesign failed.
More than 16 years ago, architect Carolyn Peterson, FAIA, and a principal at Ford, Powell, & Carson, teamed up with fellow architect and author Alexander Caragonne, who died in 2012, and noted San Antonio historian and preservationist Maria Watson Pfeiffer, to undertake a comprehensive study of Broadway from Hildebrand Avenue to East Houston Street in 2000. That was one year before Kit Goldsbury and Silver Ventures purchased the vacant industrial Pearl site.
Peterson led recent efforts to restore the interiors of the four Spanish missions, restorations that were key to winning the UNESCO World Heritage designation granted last July. Pfeiffer has played a central role in many of the city’s historic preservation projects over the last 40 years, including the San Pedro Creek Improvement Project.
As part of the Broadway study, the trio and local architecture students constructed a 16′ wooden model that was accurate in scale, including all the individual buildings along the street. The model was put on display at the Central Library and later at the Witte Museum, where various presentations were made, including one to then-Mayor Howard Peak and City Council.
“Carolyn and Alex were the design brains, and Alex paid for all of it, and I was just the history geek,” Pfeiffer said. “We’d like to see UTSA do an update of it and drop in everything at the Pearl and all the new buildings constructed since the model was made. It would show how fast this has taken off even without the public investment. Back then, nobody was very interested in the project, it was too big.”
City officials were able to locate the model, now in storage, at the request of the Rivard Report. It will be placed on display at the Pearl Stable during the March 30 BYOBroadway event.
“Even back then, the three of us were inspired by the possibilities for Broadway, and it actually started as a project where we envisioned trees planted down the length of Broadway,” Peterson said. “We made miniature replicas of all the buildings and used two different kinds of wood to show what existed and what was planned or was possible. We did it as a gift to the city.
“We thought it was a good idea, but nothing came of it. I wish Alex could see Broadway today,” Peterson said. “It is so exciting now. The Pearl has focused people’s attention on this wonderful street that comes out of downtown and has so much potential still. It’s a wonderful area, close to downtown, the museums, the park and the river. It’s unique.”
Peterson said she, Caragonne and Pfeiffer concluded that the vacancy along Broadway between downtown and the I-35 expressway overpass could be redeveloped to hold a residential population equal to that of Alamo Heights, which was 7,138 in 2000. Interestingly, the SA2020 vision for downtown residential growth is 7,500 new units. The current count for new housing units built or on the drawing board is 4,300 units, according to SA2020 staff.
Two master plans were completed in the ensuing years, the 2009 River North Master Plan and the 2011 Midtown Master Plan, both of which identified the redesign of Broadway as the centerpiece for realizing the area’s full potential. All three plans share one central idea in common: Broadway should be transformed from a traffic corridor into a destination urban street alive with people and new gathering places.
The 2009 River North Master Plan
In 2007, the Downtown Alliance San Antonio, the organization that merged with Centro San Antonio a few years ago, formed the Downtown Community Development Corp. with the support of the City, which underwrote the cost of a master plan process.
Click here to access the 2009 River North Master Plan. This first effort was led by Moule & Polyzoides Architects and Urbanists out of Pasadena, Calif. and also included four San Antonio design firms: Alamo Architects, Ford, Powell & Carson, Lake/Flato and Overland Partners.
“The team conducted an extensive public process to develop a vision for the transformation of this under-performing 377-acre are on the north edge of downtown,” the master plan report stated.
The plan called for more mixed-use, mixed income residential development, and leveraging the public investment in the Museum Reach. The third recommendation on its list? “Invest in great streets and public spaces.”
That did not happen.
“San Antonio is one of America’s great river cities,” the master plan stated. “Since the 1950s, River North has languished as an unremarkable place in a remarkable location, characterized neither by great success nor great failure.”
The plan called Broadway, with its vacant car dealerships, empty lots, intermittent sidewalks, and general street-level inactivity, a “gap toothed pattern of 1 to 4-story buildings and surface parking lots.”
The master plan saw affordable housing as the key to activating River North.
“It is a priority of this master plan that below-market rate housing (“affordable/mixed-income housing”) for a significant number of such households, be included in the mix of housing built in River North.”
Among the master plan’s recommendations:
1. Generate mixed-use development.
2. Reconfigure Broadway to promote pedestrian activity.
3. Enhance mobility east across I-37 to the historic Dignowity Hill neighborhood.
4. Better connect Broadway to Avenue B and Alamo Street.
5. Enhance the visual experience with public art.
6. Increase street parking.
Only the first goal is being met, largely through private sector investment supported by public tax incentives.
The 2011 Midtown Brackenridge Master Plan
Architect Irby Hightower, a principal at Alamo Architects, was a driving force and the public face of a team led by his firm and Gateway Planning of Dallas that produced the latest plan to redesign Broadway and other near-downtown surface arteries. Hightower has played leading roles in many of the city’s place making initiatives. He has devoted two decades of volunteer time to the San Antonio Improvement Project, which included development of the Museum and Mission Reaches.
(Click here to access the 2011 Midtown Brackenridge Master Plan.)
“Midtown Brackenridge” never took hold as a suitable name for the district defined by Broadway, the Museum Reach and the Pearl, although it explicitly establishes an important link between the city’s best urban park and its principal north-south street. While a catchy name still eludes stakeholders and the public, everything else about the master plan rings true. Even five years later, the report reads like a sensible guide for the redesign of Broadway, connecting the street to the parks, and using public sector investment to spark a new wave of private sector activity and placemaking.
The master plan identified Broadway’s central weakness as its use as a “commuter highway”at the expense of other activities. Broadway, the report notes, originally served as San Antonio’s “Main Street,” its “extended living room,” and a “strong economic development asset.”
“Because Broadway’s resulting design is primarily for moving large volumes of cars at higher speeds, it has difficulty anchoring meaningful stretches of walkable urbanism,” the report states. “Walkable urbanism provides the context for small businesses and urban living to be nestled in and around cafes and other places where people like to spend time. This factor that attracts people to spend time is the ultimate driver of economic development for infill, creating a competitive advantage when investors, developers and ultimately home buyers and businesses make investment decisions about where in a city one wants to live, play and shop. Broadway simply is not functioning today as an attractive street linking businesses, places, cultural destinations and neighborhoods in a walkable context.”
“One of the things about that master plan I was most proud of was the decision by all five major neighborhood associations along its path to unanimously adopt the master plan,” Hightower said. “I attended all the public meetings and everyone was in favor of our recommendations for Broadway. There wasn’t one voice of protest. That kind of community unity and response is rare.”
The goals first articulated in the work of Peterson, Caragonne and Pfeiffer in 2000, codified in 2009, and blueprinted more expansively in 2011 remain the goals today.
Broadway at a Crossroads
Private sector investment, with public incentives provided by the City, have led to significant mixed use and residential development along the corridor, but the other recommendations from both master plans have largely gathered dust on the shelf for the last seven years.
The City adopted a Complete Streets plan in 2011, which aims to give all users — pedestrians, cyclists, and the disabled — safe access to streets, sidewalks and bike lanes, yet Broadway has never been seriously considered for such treatment. Most major surface arteries in and out of downtown are still engineered for vehicle traffic. Even where unprotected bike lanes exist, they often double as space for street parking. Sidewalks are interrupted in places, and seldom wide enough to encourage pedestrian congregation. Utility poles and a lack of shade canopy also impede usage.
It is against this backdrop that stakeholders now ask whether Broadway’s time has finally come. It will be one year before the 2017 bond takes final shape at City Hall, but the real work determining which projects make the cut is underway now.
The March 30 Build Your Own Broadway event at the Pearl will give the public a greater sense of the possibilities this time around. It also will give some of San Antonio’s most creative thinkers the opportunity to share their visions. Attending the event is one way of demonstrating serious interest.
Click here for details.
*Top Image: Families ride, walk and skate down Broadway St during the 9th Síclovía event on Sep. 27, 2015. Photo courtesy of YMCA of Greater San Antonio.