Starting in the 1920s, Houston Street in downtown San Antonio was a thriving retail hub for local and national shops. As the city began to build away from downtown in the ’70s and ’80s, the large department stores went with it.

“The tide was going out of downtown San Antonio,” said David Adelman, principal of AREA Real Estate which owns several buildings on or near the historic street. “Now the tide is coming back in.”

Centro San Antonio, the local chapter of the American Institute for Architects, and the Urban Land Institute will host a community discussion centered around the reactivation of Houston Street on Saturday, Jan. 20 at the Henry Ford Academy Alameda School for Art + Design, from 8 a.m. to noon.

During the event, billed as a charrette, guests will be split up into groups and explore four different segments of Houston Street at a time – listening to facilitators’ information, providing feedback, and making recommendations as they go. But they won’t be starting with a blank slate; they’ll have a basic framework report compiled by an advisory panel from the International Downtown Association.

In November 2017, Centro hosted urban planners, retail strategists, and other downtown enthusiasts from across the United States for a series of workshops focused on reactivating Houston Street. Leaders of several City departments and institutions such as the Witte Museum, Majestic Theatre, and Artpace were also in attendance to provide local perspectives.

The panel’s recommendations are available online here.

“Houston Street has a long and storied past as [downtown’s] most striking and lively street,” Maria Nelson, manager of urban planning at Centro, stated in a news release. “However, a significant amount of work remains to transform Houston Street into a seven days a week destination. We at Centro remain committed to accomplishing this goal by working with the community and Houston Street stakeholders.”

Examples of activation can be as simple as keeping the lights on, Nelson told the Rivard Report on Tuesday. Since receiving feedback that the Majestic marquee looks “passive” when turned off at night when there are no performances, its staff has been keeping it illuminated.

The charrette is free and open to the public. For more information, click here.

The street has become a central line for the emerging tech district and a construction zone at many intersections as office spaces, hotels, apartments, restaurants, and retailers move in.

“If we can enhance the experience of the employees that are moving in or near Houston Street … we can then retain and attract the talent needed,” Nelson said.

Construction is underway on the new, 23-story Frost Bank Tower, anticipated for completion in early 2019.

Google Fiber, CodeUp, Scaleworks, and other tech companies have moved to the area, including dozens of companies and hundreds of members at the co-working space and incubator Geekdom.

GrayStreet Partners purchased the former San Antonio Children’s Museum building at 305 E. Houston St. in 2016 for a food hall, and the developer owns at least seven other properties on East Houston Street — the entire north side of the 300 block — including the adjacent Court and Kress buildings.

La Panaderia moved into 301 E. Houston St. last year.

Despite all this development, Houston Street still lacks some connectivity and vibrancy, Adelman said, adding that while it used to be retail-focused corridor, it now has much more to offer.

“It’s got everything from food and beverage to theater,” he said, adding that the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts – while technically a few blocks away – serves as a bookend to a “spine of performing arts venues” on Houston Street including the Alameda, Empire, Majestic, and Aztec theaters.

Adelman’s projects include the Maverick Apartments and the Burns building. He also sits on Centro’s board.

“Personally, I’m enamored [with] the opportunity [for Houston Street] to be a performing arts calling card,” he said.

Centro’s Houston Street Initiative is an example of several of the nonprofit’s projects that continue despite its abrupt change in leadership when an employee was caught embezzling funds in November. No charges or arrests have yet been made in the case.

“The board has been incredibly supportive,” Nelson said when asked about the general mood of Centro staff.  “We have a lot of work to do, and that’s what we’re focusing on.”

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@rivardreport.com