The first standing ovation for Mayor Julián Castro came at the mere mention of his presence in the packed Marriott Rivercenter ballroom. The second standing ovation came as he ended his luncheon speech, bidding farewell to his hometown where he has served as mayor for five years and promised to return one day.
Thursday’s luncheon program organized by Centro San Antonio drew a who’s who crowd of downtown true believers. A VIP table featured the mayor, wife Erica, who is expecting their second child, and daughter Carina; seven of the 10 city council members, including four of the five who appear ready to seek the interim mayor’s job; City Manager Sheryl Sculley and Lori Houston, director of the Center City Development Office; Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and County Manager David Smith; and Graham Weston, chairman and CEO of Rackspace, who introduced the mayor.
More than 450 people came to hear what Centro CEO Pat DiGiovanni said was probably Castro’s last major address before leaving for Washington.
“That’s okay. We’re not here to lament his impending departure to Washington,” DiGiovanni said. “We’re here to celebrate how far we’ve come in four short years of the Decade of Downtown, and to look boldly into the future.”
The room seemed electric with anticipation, and if there was a single, defining emotion in the audience it was this: Julián Castro has enjoyed spectacular success as mayor, and while San Antonio is losing its star mayor, it isn’t losing its momentum.
DiGiovanni introduced a short video that celebrated a fast-transforming downtown vastly different than the one that existed a decade ago.
‘A Call that Changed My Life’
Graham Weston introduced Castro by recounting “a phone call that changed my life, a call from Mayor Castro. Right at four years ago, he called to ask me to be one of the trichairs of SA2020, and let me say at the beginning, I had no interest in doing it … I had lost my interest in downtown. I had no vision of doing anything myself downtown.”
Weston said he had spent fewer than 10 minutes with the Mayor before the call, yet the phone call brought “three gifts to my life.”
“Gift number one was ambition for our city,” Weston said, adding that Rackspace had 3,000 employees and $1 billion in revenues when Castro called and now has 6,000 employees and nearly $2 billion in revenues and, contrary to some media reports, is alive and well and on its way to becoming a 10,000-employee company.
“The second gift he gave me arose from SA2020, the notion of the Decade of Downtown … which is what bring us to this presentation today,” Weston said, surveying a city that has become far more appealing to the kind of talented people Rackspace is recruiting.
“The third gift is a gift that the mayor leaves behind, which is that we are genuinely a city that is on the rise. We are a city that has broken out of the sleepy city we’ve been for the last 20 years, (a city that) didn’t aspire to greatness the way our city does today,” he concluded.
Mayor Castro began by acknowledging others in the city and county leadership who have helped build and create momentum in San Antonio, a message he also delivered Wednesday after his confirmation vote by the U.S. Senate, underscoring his belief that City Council includes several candidates who have the leadership skills and experience to succeed him as mayor.
New Downtown Development
Castro then delivered a rousing recitation of the many downtown residential projects recently built or under construction. Together they represent $574 million in private sector investment and $54 million in city incentives designed to spark such development. Castro said there were 3,034 downtown residential units in July 2009, and that 3,573 have been added since then, nearly half of the 7,500 units called for in the SA2020 plan.
Castro then recited the names of the major residential projects, all built or developed on his watch:
“So this is the Decade of Downtown: Cevallos, 1221 Broadway, the Mosaic, the Can Plant, 1800 Broadway, the Steel House Lofts, South Flores, the Riverhouse, Big Tex, the Casa Blanca Lofts, the Peanut Factory Lofts, SoJo — that stands for South Josephine –, East Quincy, Elan, the Cherry Modern, the Merchants Ice House, 1130 Broadway, 307 Dwyer, The Southtown Villas, and The Cellars Project at Pearl. That is the Decade of Downtown you see in front of you and it is unstoppable now.”
Castro cited a number of other major downtown projects also transforming life, work and play in the center city: The Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, set to open in September; The Briscoe Western Art Museum, the redevelopment of Hemisfair Park; H-E-B’s planned Flores Market grocery store; and the major real estate deal proposed by Weston Urban and Frost Bank that would add the first new office tower to the city skyline in more than 25 years, more than 300 new residential units, more than 730 new indoor parking places, and new life and economic activity to several western downtown blocks now dominated by vacant or underused buildings and surface parking lots.
Castro’s speech hearkened back to a time when downtown San Antonio was the center of the city in every sense: a retail destination, home to major employers and cultural attractions, and a place where historic neighborhoods defined the character of the city. That was before suburban sprawl, the advent of malls, and new expressways.
The city Castro spent five years building is one that recognizes the reality of suburban growth, while putting in place progressive policies that have led to significant reinvestment in downtown. The 2012 bond program infused $93.5 million in downtown compared to a meager $11 million in the 2007 bond program. An array of city programs and incentives have attracted developers back to the urban core.
Beware of ‘Downtown Scapegoats’
The mayor said sustaining the current momentum and downtown rebirth would require four things: continued city incentives for downtown housing; supporting downtown as a growing hub for “21st century entrepreneurs, like Geekdom and Cafe Commerce“; sparking a revival of street level retail in now-vacant storefronts; and reminding all San Antonians that “it is in the entire city’s best interests to continue to invest infrastructure dollars in our downtown.” Streets, drainage, and streetcars are all important investments downtown, Castro said.
“The streetcar project is an important part of revitalizing the urban core of our city,” Castro said. “It will be an excellent people mover and a catalyst for future economic investment in our city. I have always tried to work as mayor in the spirit of thinking through what’s good for our entire city and not just one part of town. I would caution this community (about)…folks who would pit one side of town or one community against another side of town, those who might scapegoat downtown…the fact is investment downtown or other places is good for the entire city. The fact is significant investments are being made in our entire city.”
He then cited redevelopment on the Eastside, the Southside, the near-Westside, along lower Broadway, and investment in the suburbs.
“Far out in our city, beyond 281 and 1604, (the city) continues to get developed, where, over the last decade we have spent the most amount of transportation and infrastructure money,” Castro said. “The future of this city’s prosperity lies not in pitting neighborhoods against each other or singling out downtown as a place we don’t want to invest, but in understanding that all of us will rise together if we tend to all of the city’s needs, including downtown.”
A New Task Force to Preserve Community
“Finally, going forward, we have to make sure that ours is a downtown that belongs to everyone,” Castro said. “Early next week I will appoint a mayoral task force on diverse and dynamic communities to make recommendations on policies to keep our urban core lively, but also affordable for folks along the income scale.”
Castro said no U.S. city has handled gentrification well, but he believes San Antonio can find ways to strike the right balance. District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal, who Castro singled out for praise at the start of his speech, will chair the task force. Bernal later said the task force membership and agenda would take shape in the coming weeks.
Castro said it was 20 years ago this week that he reported to work as an intern at the White House in the Office of Cabinet Affairs.
“Of course, I never imagined 20 years later that this summer I would begin as a Cabinet member in Housing and Urban Development,” he said, remembering that as a young intern he always anticipated his returns to San Antonio.
“These days I look forward to that again,” Castro said with a note of nostalgia in his voice. “I look forward to Friday, Sept. 25, 2020, 10 years after we kicked off SA2020. I look forward to walking in the downtown of tomorrow, a place I know will be teeming with people from throughout San Antonio and the region, where we will hear different languages spoken, a place where both locals and visitors both enjoy the sights and the sounds.”
Castro said that even now he imagines walking with his wife and daughter and unborn child in a redeveloped Hemisfair Park, taking in a performance at the Tobin Center, visiting one of the city’s many museums, savoring a reborn downtown that he played a central leadership role in bringing back to life.
“We have in this city two of the most powerful things a community can have that don’t show up in a balance sheet or on a pie chart, but they make a world of difference,” Castro said. “The first of those things is optimism, a sense that we are a city on the rise, a city whose better days are ahead, and that’s true. The thing is, and any one of you who have traveled much around the world can say this, that’s not the case everywhere. There’s something special about San Antonio because we have that. And secondly, we have a vision for where we are going. We are building in this city a brainpower community that is the liveliest city in the United States. I have always believed cities have destinies, and that because of your work and the work of so many others, and that optimism and that vision, that for San Antonio our destiny is prosperity.”
Watch a video of today’s luncheon at www.nowcastsa.com.
*Featured/top image: Mayor Julián Castro speaks at Centro San Antonio’s “The Future of Downtown” luncheon. July 10, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.