Commentary: Big Ideas Beyond the Decade of Downtown

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A mural displaying the once-lively street life in the neighborhood near El Mercado. Photo by Alex Barrera.

A mural displaying the once-lively street life in the neighborhood near El Mercado. Photo by Alex Barrera.

I am a son of San Antonio, a descendant of the Isleños (Canary Islanders) and Payaya natives who founded San Antonio about 300 years ago. My love and pride for our city is both engrained and genuine. With that in mind, I want to share a few thoughts on how we can use our unique culture and history to improve our city beyond the “decade of downtown.”

San Antonio grew and developed steadily over the course of three centuries, blending authentic Tejano customs with more modern, urban characteristics into cultural heritage staples like La Villita Historic Arts Village and the Historic Market Square, or El Mercado. While these historically significant sites have survived the times, we’ve been content with simply preserving the remnants of our history. We need to learn from these sites and further expand our city’s sense of identity and community.

Remnants of Tejano culture tell tales of our old city’s urban vibrancy, of times when public space and private property intertwined seamlessly. More importantly, they provide us with blueprints and valuable concepts that will aid us in more effectively utilizing public space through paseos, plazas, courtyards, and parks. Such architectural traits and venues already serve as popular meeting places during Fiesta and similar community events, but can be optimized. As our city continues to develop, we should strive to further expand the communal nature of our culture within San Antonio’s urban core.

Produce Row in El Mercado. Let’s expand on what makes these pedestrian-friendly areas so great. Photo by Alex Barrera.

Produce Row in El Mercado. Let’s expand these pedestrian-only avenues that make the area so great. Photo by Alexander Barrera.

Recent developments and initiatives like the Mission and Museum reaches of the San Antonio River Walk, San Pedro Creek Improvements Project, Zona Cultural master planning and Hemisfair Park have already adopted this concept and I applaud the city and for these efforts. However, I see tremendous value in further expanding and increasing projects that incorporate public space into our urban fabric. The “decade of downtown” is a great start to what could be a renaissance of how we plan for our city’s future development in the greater urban core: we need to constantly think beyond the bland box-shaped developments that can be found in any given city and instead plan for unique developments that capitalize on our city’s culture and environment.

Embracing our heritage, establishing more public spaces and weaving them into our urban fabric will accomplish several things: it will reinvigorate our city’s urban neighborhoods by providing inviting places for locals to congregate, reintroduce a core aspect of our culture and history and expand on what sets San Antonio apart from other cities in the United States. There are many ways to go about growing our communities and I encourage passionate discussion about developing our city to reflect our distinct past.

Here are some ideas for possible developments that I would like to see initiated by the City, County or in partnership with the private sector.

Expand Pedestrian-friendly Paseos and Corridors

My first idea is to expand the street-level paseos, or pathways, located around Market Square and throughout Zona Cultural in order to reintroduce housing and retail to the underutilized land surrounding El Mercado. The Zona was designated as an official cultural district by the Texas Commission on the Arts in 2015. By expanding pedestrian areas we reestablish an old-world marketplace feel that allows people to congregate, shop, and mingle in a modern setting. Creating street level paseos would also provide a natural entrance for people walking to and from the future San Pedro Creek paseo.

Three proposed paseos, or pathways, that would better connect San Pedro Creek to area resources: The green paseo would expand upon the existing Produce Row Paseo connecting it with the San Pedro Creek. The blue paseo would expand the existing Concho Paseo two blocks, connecting it with the third new paseo. The yellow paseo path would parallel the Produce Row paseo and connect with the San Pedro Creek, replacing the Central Texas Detention Facility. Image via Google Maps, edited by Alex Barrera.

Three proposed paseos, or pathways, that would better connect San Pedro Creek to area resources. Image via Google Maps, edited by Alexander Barrera.

Next, I envision the existing Produce Row paseo extending east from El Mercado to the San Pedro Creek. The South Concho Street paseo would extend south in order to connect to a new sister paseo that parallels Dolorosa Street and Produce Row, extending towards Casa Navarro and, again, connecting to the San Pedro Creek. The expanded pathways would cut through the middle of the city blocks, mirroring El Mercado’s layout. Each building would include affordable residential units and space for local retail shops, boutiques, cafés, restaurants, art galleries, and studios.

Instead of this empty parking lot, the proposed pedestrian paseo would create a more inviting space for people to congregate. Photo by Alex Barrera.

Instead of this empty parking lot, the pedestrian paseo and development I propose would create a more inviting space for people to congregate. Photo by Alexander Barrera.

The City of San Antonio and Bexar County already own a large portion of said properties and could use them as a jumpstart to promote this cultural urban layout. This idea would be an excellent way for the city to restore the Zona Cultural for locals while also staying true to its historic Tejano roots. This same concept can be applied to the under-utilized parking lots near La Villita, a dead zone that isolates the area and decreases downtown’s overall aesthetics.

(Read More: For Sale by City & County: Downtown Acreage, Historic Hotel)

Expand and Reinvent San Pedro Springs Park

Another worthwhile initiative would be to expand and reinvent park space in our city. San Antonio only dedicates 8.7% of its land to park space, and only 34% of our residents live within walking distance of a park, according to The Trust for Public LandThis should be unacceptable to us, especially in a time of increasing air pollution and childhood obesity rates. We need to expand our parks system in a more ambitious way.

This rendering shows San Pedro Springs Park's current boundaries highlighted in green. I proposed expanding it (blue outline). This would extend the park to Fredericksburg Road, replacing pavement with green space, park monuments, playgrounds, a pond, and perhaps restaurant space for the park to lease replicating ideas drafted for Hemisfair Park’s redevelopment. Image via Google Maps  edited by Alex Barrera.

This rendering shows San Pedro Springs Park’s current boundaries highlighted in green. I proposed expanding it (blue outline). Image via Google Maps edited by Alexander Barrera.

Imagine expanding San Pedro Springs Park south towards Fredericksburg Road. This would connect the park to a major thoroughfare, thus increasing its accessibility and allowing the land around the San Pedro Springs to be transformed from asphalt and concrete back into green space. San Pedro Springs Park is one of the oldest public parks in the country and vastly overlooked as a city asset. We could learn from Hemisfair’s redevelopment in how to fund improvements for San Pedro Springs Park. This expansion could have a tremendous impact on San Antonio’s status, especially when you consider popularity of parks like the Boston Commons or City Park in New Orleans which are around the same age as San Pedro Springs Park. This development would also serve to further reinvigorate Five Points, one of the oldest neighborhoods in San Antonio.

The Boston Commons.  Photo courtesy of the Massachusetts office of Travel and Tourism.

The Boston Commons. Photo courtesy of the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism.

Connect The Missions with a Southside Park

The five Spanish-colonial Missions of San Antonio are internationally recognized, designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites. We should do that designation and the community justice by seeking investments aimed at connecting these historic structures, which are also home to active parishes, to the people that live around them. Converting the Riverside Golf Course into a public park, similar to parts of Brackenridge Park, would serve that goal.

A proposed centerpiece for a Southside park would benefit the residents in the neighborhood. The new park could complement the San Antonio Missions and the San Antonio River. Image via Google Maps, edited by Alex Barrera.

I propose replacing the Riverside Golf Course in the Southside with a public park. Image via Google Maps, edited by Alexander Barrera.

A centerpiece community park would provide access to the San Antonio River and complement the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park by acting as a bridge between Mission Concepción and Mission San José. I envision a reforested Southside park with cypress trees along the river section, an amphitheater for live music events and performance arts, a public pool, picnic areas for family barbecues, playgrounds, and community gardens – a welcoming space for both locals and visitors.

Our city has so much potential and we must take the time to explore it thoroughly: some ideas may seem unrealistic at first glance, but if the “decade of downtown” as well as recent park and urban development projects have taught us anything, it’s that open-minded vision and proper planning can lead to great results. My ideas are ambitious because I believe in San Antonio, and I want to see this city further build on what it already does so well: preserve cultural values to reinforce its unique identity, create community in an urban environment and consistently grow in a wholesome yet modern direction.

Top image: A mural displaying the once-lively street life in the neighborhood near El Mercado.  Photo by Alexander Barrera.

Related Stories:

Group Calls for City to Buy Land Around San Antonio Missions

Rivard: A Bond and a Vision for San Antonio

For Sale by City & County: Downtown Acreage, Historic Hotel

Coming Attractions: Transformation of Downtown Streetscapes

Brackenridge Park Master Plan: More People, Fewer Cars

5 thoughts on “Commentary: Big Ideas Beyond the Decade of Downtown

  1. Good ideas Alexander. Can you contact me before you leave for the Peace Corps? Rivard Report has my personal e-mail. Or, you can contact me through SARA (SA River Authority) San Pedro Creek project office. Jerry Geyer, Co-Chair San Pedro Creek Improvements Project Citizens Oversight Subcomittee.

  2. I’m new to San Antonio but all the things I love most besides friendly people about San Antonio are the public plazas & parks, and pedestrian friendly plazas and areas. All places to combine community, beautiful spaces shared by all, and city life and why not create more. Wonderful ideas that are all I believe are very possible and will add to the health and community of the City of San Antonio. Thank you for writing this pieces and showing concretely how it could be done!

  3. Alexander, these are great ideas. Especially the paseos in the Market Square area, I have not previously through of this idea. This area will undergo an extensive transition as the jail is removed and the new courthouse is constructed. The area needs to be made as pedestrian-friendly as possible.

    San Pedro Park still retains much of its charm, despite efforts to utilize every portion of the park for some “productive” purpose. The tennis center, baseball fields, library and play house are all great resources for the community, but any addition to the green space would be welcomed. I appreciate the city adding in the walking path around the park during the past year. Doubling the size of the park to the south, however, would require the removal of extensive VIA parking lots and facilities. I just don’t know where you would relocate the city’s main transportation hub.

    San Pedro Springs itself is under-utilized, despite the upgrades made during the past decade. The pool could be made into a Barton Springs-like facility by deepening the south end a bit more and adding a nominal entry fee. The most amazing thing about the pool is that it is only open for 2-3 months each year, despite the warm temperatures that persist well into October. I imagine this is probably due to the staffing situation/lifeguards that are available only during the summer.

    Finally, removal of golf courses within the city center (such as Roosevelt and Brackenridge) would open up huge amounts of green space for public use. However, golf retains its sacrosanct status in San Antonio. These courses are also some of the most affordable and therefore represent the public’s best chance to experience golf without belonging to a country club. It will probably be several decades before the city can recognize the benefit of added park space (in comparison to urban golf courses).

  4. Those are well and good, but as a native San Antonian who loves the culture, this is more of “improvements to downtown” to which those of us even living inside Loop 410, seven miles from downtown, really don’t have access to by public transportation. Parking is expensive. About 12 years ago, our bus was diverted to the West Side. The second bus we could take goes down Hildebrand to Randolph, and the third bus goes to and from the West Side and Wonderland of the Americas. I appreciate that this serves people going to work, but it also tends to cut us off from the downtown activities and we tend to look for things to do in our area of town. We spend our money here and reward the owners of small businesses here . Downtown might as well not exist for those of us who live off Babcock Road. Having to transfer to go seven miles is time-consuming as is driving a mile to Wonderland to catch the Primo. I would look at more ways to tie the near suburbs to downtown and to the activities that Broadway, Southtown, and other trendy areas seem to have an abundance of so that we could hop on a bus and enjoy them also.

  5. On trips to Germany to see grandchildren ages 5 & 7, I have fallen in love with German forest and park play areas which are adventurous, challenging, clever, varied, and frequent. Interesting to see an article in this morning’s New York Times with a report, images and links:

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