Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro speaks to the impetus of the decade of downtown.
Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro speaks about the impetus of the Decade of Downtown. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Former Mayor Julián Castro wants to see affordable housing in downtown San Antonio’s future, he said at a San Antonio CityFest panel Saturday evening.

“What you really need in a downtown or urban core [is for it] to belong to everybody,” Castro said. “We want to make sure folks can still afford to live downtown. We don’t want to make the same mistake Austin made. If we’re not careful, the Decade of Downtown can give way to the decade of displacement.”

Castro, who also served as the secretary of housing and urban development under President Barack Obama, declared the Decade of Downtown in 2009. It was a call to focus on San Antonio’s urban core and move away from outward sprawl, he explained.

The last panel of CityFest, moderated by Rivard Report Publisher and Editor Robert Rivard, honed in on downtown San Antonio’s progress since 2009 and featured Castro, Weston Urban CEO Randy Smith, SA2020 President and CEO Molly Cox, and Kimberly Espy, provost at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Smith said there’s no point in discussing affordable housing in a vacuum. How much people make at work and how they get there are integral to the affordable housing conversation, he said. He added that San Antonio needs to talk about how to incentivize affordable housing quickly.

“It has to be hand in hand with economic development,” Smith said. “We have to be able to deliver reasonably priced workforce housing in close proximity to a decent-wage job.”

Cox said SA2020, a nonprofit that has studied San Antonio’s progress since 2010 and releases an annual report of indicators to measure it, has a clear vision: Downtown is a neighborhood for everybody. And San Antonio is on its way toward making downtown accessible for everybody, she added.

“We saw that development was happening, [developers were] putting more units in, buildings were happening, economic development is occurring,” she said. “And then we starting asking, ‘Is this now a place that everybody believes is their neighborhood? Do we believe everyone can live and work and play downtown?’”

SA2020 President and CEO Molly Cox (center) speaks to the future of her organization.
SA2020 President and CEO Molly Cox (center) speaks to the future of SA2020. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The next SA2020 report will be published in January and the organization plans to address SA2020’s future in its last report in 2021. And Cox is excited to see what comes next, she said.

“What I think is magical about downtown is that it’s a nexus of economic development and arts and culture and neighborhoods and education,” Cox said. “You have this small pocket to watch and say, ‘What could we be doing?’”

Smith said he felt that students are one of the required ingredients to a great downtown.

“If you don’t have an active, vibrant student body in your urban core, it’s a letdown,” he said.

Espy said she agreed, as does UTSA President Taylor Eighmy, who has been working toward bringing more students downtown. The university has requested funding from the Texas Legislature to relocate its business school downtown and will be building a cybersecurity center and data science school there as well.

“The ‘backpack factor’ is huge,” she said. “You get the next generation studying in the communities, working at Haven of Hope. … I’m looking forward to being a part of that.”

UTSA Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Kimberly Andrews Espy responds to future plans of the university and its downtown campus.
UTSA Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Kimberly Andrews Espy responds to future plans of the university and its downtown campus. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Espy said UTSA is trying to connect its downtown campuses in a pedestrian-friendly manner and has already begun working with the city to do so.

Castro said all of the things discussed at Saturday’s panel are important to planning for the future of San Antonio.

“We need to connect the dots better — of education, of affordable housing, of quality jobs, of transportation — more holistically than any city is right now,” Castro said. “As we think about the future of SA2020 and going beyond it, that’s maybe one of the things we focus on: how we connect all those dots and put it into policy.”

Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang is a general assignment reporter at the Rivard Report.