Downtown San Antonio: Good, But Not Yet Great

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The northwest quadrant of downtown San Antonio and its lazy parking lots as seen from the Rand Building on Houston Street. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The northwest quadrant of downtown San Antonio and its LAZ parking lots as seen from the Rand Building on Houston Street. More than $337 million was allotted for street reconstruction as part of the 2012-2017 bond program. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Robert RivardDowntown business and civic leaders who reserved seats at Monday’s Downtown Alliance “State of the Downtown” luncheon at the Westin Rivercenter found themselves instead at the inaugural Centro San Antonio event in which four distinct non-profits devoted to building a better downtown San Antonio have merged into a single entity.

Same people, same mission, new sense of purpose and a more market-savvy image and story. See ‘We Move Downtown’: Centro San Antonio Launches With New Brand, Structure posted Monday.

One refreshing aspect of the new message is its honesty:

“At the center of every great city is a great downtown. San Antonio’s downtown is blessed with extraordinary people, traditions and cultures. But its greatness is yet to be achieved. Look around. Tall buildings and bustling businesses contrasted by vacant spaces and empty store fronts just steps away from our beloved Alamo and River Walk.”

Vacant storefronts (center, right) surround downtown skyscrapers a block away from the San Antonio River on the corner of Soledad and Houston Streets. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Vacant storefronts (center, right) surround downtown high-rises and skyscrapers a block away from the San Antonio River on the corner of Soledad and Houston Streets. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

That’s language excerpted from page one of Centro San Antonio’s luncheon program. Centro’s President and CEO Pat DiGiovanni assumed a pulpit-like demeanor as he led the audience in a communal recital of the longer text that included the above excerpt. All that was missing was an “Amen!” and a church organ.

[Download DiGiovanni’s presentation points here.]

The northwest quadrant of downtown San Antonio and its lazy parking lots as seen from the Rand Building on Houston Street. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The northwest quadrant of downtown San Antonio and its lazy parking lots as seen from the Rand Building on Houston Street. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The reorganization seems to align SA2020 and Centro San Antonio more closely than ever. SA2020 Darryl Byrd opened the program with the observation that “San Antonio, unlike a lot of other cities, decided what the next decade downtown was going to look like,” and that process, he said, led to today’s announcement and the program’s focus on culture and education as the two keys to transforming downtown into “everyone’s neighborhood.”

DiGiovanni said the merger grew out of a “self-assessment” that concluded  a single, stream-lined organization that included each individual entity and preserved the respective missions was a smarter marketing approach.

“We will meet our SA2020 goals on housing, jobs and quality of life,” he said.

Coincidentally, The Atlantic Cities website previewed a story today, Where Millennials Can Make It Now, in which reporter Nona Willis Aronowitz, herself a Millennial, writes about her recent six-week journey through urban America, exploring cities large and small that are attracting her generation to live and work.  She skipped the obvious destinations for twentysomethings, such as Austin, Portland and New Orleans, and looked for the emerging destinations. She found nine cities that stand out, one being San Antonio. Individual stories from each of the cities will follow.

Downtown Kickball, one of many emerging staples of downtown San Antonio. Courtesy photo.

Downtown Kickball, one of many emerging staples of downtown San Antonio. Courtesy photo.

DiGiovanni gave way on stage to two women leaders who stole the show, in my opinion, which should serve to remind everyone that attracting women to live and work (and fill leadership positions) downtown goes far beyond some of the suggested reasons and attractions offered up in another recent Downtown Alliance luncheon. See Designing Downtown Spaces — With Women in Mind.

President and CEO of the Southwest School of Art Paula Owen stands amid supplies and kilns at the outdoor studio space at the school. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

President and CEO of the Southwest School of Art Paula Owen stands amid supplies and kilns at the school’s outdoor studio space. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Paula Owen, president and CEO of the Southwest School of Art, which will begin offering four-year undergraduate degrees in the arts in the Fall 2014, painted a convincing portrait of the “artistic dividend” earned by cities that understand the value of a community rich in artists, who produce art, intellectual property and what Owen called a “creative climate, a creative vibe.”

Looking south from the Broadway Cultural Corridor, Owen ticked off the names of the newest places and events enriching the urban core’s artistic profile: The San Antonio Book Festival, The new San Antonio Children’s Museum (opening in 2015), the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts (opening in 2014), the Southwest School of Art (an accredited four-year college starting in 2014) the recently opened Briscoe Western Art Museum, the soon-to-be-expanded Blue Star Arts Complex, and the Alameda Theater renovation.

Owen was followed by Carri Baker-Wells, chair of the San Antonio Independent School District Foundation board and an executive with the Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson law firm.

“Great cities have great downtowns, but great downtowns have to have great schools,” Baker Wells said. She then dispelled what she called the “The Myth of SAISD.”

“How many of you think the dropout rate is more than 40%?” she asked. A few hands went up.

“How many of you think the dropout rate is more than 30%?” More hands went up.

The real rate for the Class of 2013, as measured by the Texas Education Association, Baker Wells said, will be “less than 10 per cent,” which she said represented the district’s success in cutting its dropout rate by more than half in recent years.

Southwest School of Art President Paula Owen (left) and SAISD Foundation Chair Carri Baker Wells accept $3,000 checks from Centro San Antonio President and CEO Pat DiGiovanni. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Southwest School of Art President Paula Owen (left) and SAISD Foundation Chair Carri Baker Wells accept $3,000 checks from Centro San Antonio as a token of the nonprofit’s commitment to arts, culture, and education in San Antonio. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

That drew some surprised murmurs and applause. Baker Wells offered an overview of the district’s growing number of in-district charter schools and programs, all of which have been profiled on the Rivard Report and can be found below. She also introduced a new video interview with Lorenzo Gomez, executive director of Graham Weston’s 80/20 Foundation, which underwrote the cost of introducing CodeHS, a new programming curriculum developed by Stanford graduate students, at Highlands High School to more than 400 students who are learning how to write code.

[Read more: From Stanford to Highlands, CodeHS Aims to Program Success]

The loudest applause of the luncheon came after the video presentation, which included one young student saying his current goal was to land an internship at Rackspace or Google.

Gomez happened across Code HS co-founder Zach Galant while watching another video featuring several more prominent figures in the tech world, but shortly after the youthful Galant came to San Antonio, his name and program went viral. Last week he was the featured guest on the Colbert Report.

SAISD, the city’s largest inner city school district, is realizing real gains. Like Centro San Antonio, the district may need a marketing makeover to get out its real story. It’s sounding better all the time.


Full disclosure: Robert Rivard is a member and donor of the non-profit SAISD board and a district resident.

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.


Related Stories:

‘We Move Downtown’: Centro San Antonio Launches With New Brand, Structure

Great Hearts Charter Coming to San Antonio: Tuition-Free, Secular, Classical School

‘Inspire Awards’ Celebrate SAISD Success

St. Paul’s Episcopal Montessori, A School Where Art is Crucial

‘Diplomas Now’ Champions Burbank Students Through Graduation

Understanding the School Choice Debate: A Primer

Local School’s Anti-Dropout Program Makes it to the Small Screen

The Pre-K 4 SA Model: Where Kids are Nurtured and Nourished

Burbank’s Best and Brightest Learn to Think Globally

How the Locals are Attracting More Visitors to San Antonio

County Judge Bullish on San Antonio

U.S. Chamber of Commerce: San Antonio Makes Top ‘Enterprising Cities’ List

Streetcars and Bus Rapid Transit Will Speed San Antonio’s Transformation

In Speech and Play, a City Reclaims the San Antonio River’s Mission Reach


14 thoughts on “Downtown San Antonio: Good, But Not Yet Great

  1. The best part of the presentations yesterday was the SAISD report. There is so much people don’t know about the great things happening in SAISD. I’ve had the opportunity to visit a number of their campuses and have been amazed. Doing all I can to spread the word.

  2. The Decade of Downtown has left me so hopeful that this new initiative will add vitality to the kernal of the birth place that I so adore, San Antonio. Being an Air Force child I had the wonderful opportunity of living in cities in many states and countries. San Antonio always stood out and I returned home as a young adult to stay. There were many other cities I could have chosen, some I would have even made more money, but quality of life and rich culture I consider is part of my pay check. For the past almost 29
    years I have made my living as an artist and small business owner in La Villita. Hence, my good pleasure in knowing of this renewed emphasis on adding another layer of vitality to downtown on top of those previous layers that have been continually laid down decade after decade. No one initiative can do the entire job. It’s a continual never ending process. As Millenials age out of this decade there will be the next generation coming up behind them with their own vision of downtown. Just as it has been with mine and other generations.
    Your mention of women taking a more prominent leadership role is spot on. My generation laid the ground work for this one to rise up on our shoulders. It might be of interest that The small art businesses in La Villita are over 90 % owned & operated by women artists. Women who are now in their 60’s 70’s and 80’s, one even in her 90’s. Entreprenualship is not a beginning its a long continuum. Over the years we have quietly figured out the business of making and selling our artwork. So I’m very encouraged by all of this talk about the Millenials remaking downtown in their image and I wish them much success. I’ll be looking forward to enjoying their accomplishments. Hopefully I’ll live long enough to see who will come along behind them and what they will add to the mix. Rock On Millenials! Rock On!

  3. I love love love seeing stories on the momentum SAISD is gaining. I had no idea about this. I am one of those young professionals who lives within SAISD and keeps an eye on the direction things are heading for future children I may have. We are in the Hawthorne Academy/Edison boundaries and I really enjoy hearing about things like CodeHS at Highlands and IB at Burbank. I am hoping things like this will come to Edison. By the way, I notice most cities in Texas have more IB schools than San Antonio- let’s add more IB programs to SAISD schools as well. That would be spectacular.

  4. I grew up here in SA, left for 40 years, returning in 2008. In those decades away, I often trumpeted the look of downtown SA because many of the buildings here are the only buildings that had ever been there — attesting to the historicalness of our town. I love those little old buildings (like the empty ones pictured in the first photo in this article) and hope they don’t get demolished to make more Anytown USA highrises.
    As for enhancing the allure of downtown to other SA residents: My frustration with going downtown (I am not far from there) is that it is hard to make each trip “multi-purpose.” I think downtown SA needs more diverse destinations — not just Majestic, hotels, Riverwalk tourist stuff, restaurants/bars.

    • I agree with a lot of what you say, Alamo Spartan. However, I think, though could be wrong, that to make downtown more “multi-purpose”, we cannot hang onto the romanticism of the little old– and as you say “empty”– buildings. Did you know people are actually protesting tearing down the Univision building and got a court-order to do so? To me, that is absurd. Univision relocated to another building already. Let’s turn it into something great for this city instead of a potential eye-sore. Let’s use that building for development and to create the “multi-purpose” community we all desire!

      Multi-purposeness will require a certain population density which will require more development. Unfortunately, this will also stir up a lot of debate in the already established community.

      Also, I am certain we could allure more prominent businesses downtown if we were able to develop high rises (Look at downtown Dallas and Houston as excellent examples). The upside also is that the more businesses and population we see downtown, the more population density we have, thus creating a snowball effect of multi-purposeness.

      The good news is, I think we are well on our way to creating that momentum!

  5. Alamo,
    Perhaps you have not been looking in the right places. Check out the Facebook pages ‘Downtown San Antonio’ and ‘The Rivard Report’ for non-tourist destinations. Some examples are The Pearl, the Museum Reach of the river walk (more for locals), the Blue Star brewery, the Mission Reach of the river walk (also for locals and has kayaking), and too many restaurants in Southtown and Midtown to name. Since you mentioned you are not interested in hanging out downtown at local restaurants (you are missing out- not the ones on the river walk but neighborhood places), then I also suggest the downtown Kickball league, the Something Monday bicycle league, the San Antonio Museum of Art third fridays social event, the outdoor pop-up movie theaters at The Pearl and Travis Park, different events with music and food trucks held at Main Plaza and Travis Park, and tons of other events going on by and for locals in San Antonio. There is so much to do, I’m honestly surprised you made that comment. #getinvolved #thingsarehappening #lotstodo

    • Kari,
      You hit the nail on the head. I am also in downtown Kickball, but your name does not ring a bell. Sorry :).

      Like you, I never, ever, ever have a shortage of things to do. I even got rid of cable a few months ago, because there is an abundance of culture in the areas you mentioned and I found I never watched TV. I also encourage thinking outside of the box. I know so many trivia nights, slam poetry events, local theater events, etc… there is not excuse to not have something fun to do.

      The beauty of it is, it continues to grow! I know an abundance of developments right around the corner that have already broken ground.

      • Kevin, I am not in the kickball league but I am well aware of it. I have hardly a day or night off between work and graduate school, but I keep up with all of the events I can because it makes me so giddy to be a part of this wonderful downtown scene. My husband and I do attend as many events as we can, though. I’m curious, where are the trivia nights in the area? That sounds fun! Best, Kari

        • Kari, check out for locations all over town. If you are in the downtown area, Southtown 101 has it every Monday from 7-9PM.

  6. My apologies to Kevin & Kari for not being clear — and probably for being a sentimental geezer. I think we have a generational difference on parade here. By “destination diversity,” I meant something other than entertainment. Yes, food trucks are a delightful new species here. The river reaches and greenbelt-in-progress greatly improve the quality of life. And there are indeed many venues for art here, and not just downtown — colleges, theatre troupes, music of (almost) all sorts, etc. Here’s what prompted my post: I intend to visit the new Briscoe Museum on a weekday soon and tried to think of what else I could do while downtown — you know, multi-purpose a bit. I don’t mean to catch up on my mojitos or experience the latest yumminess from Bakery Lorraine; I mean stuff like hit a hardware store to get those keys copied I’ve put off for weeks, check out hiking boots, hit a bookstore (sorry…I forgot, those are extinct now), or just stumble around downtown for something to pull me in — other than a place with cocktail napkins or menus. I know about all those wonderful things you both listed and have appreciated being able to include a visit to SAMA with a quick jaunt on the Mission Reach in tandem with leaving my Mom off for an appointment of hers or hit the library before going to the courthouse for something, etc. Viva Blue Star and Southtown and SoFlo and more. [NB: Some of the things you listed are geared and promoted for young professionals — I’m not complaining about that, just observing.] I lived in Boston for many years and then San Francisco for many more. Now I know it’s unfair to compare Early American beans and post-modern fog-sicles to prickly pears, but I remember how easy it was to include some “chores” and exploration while taking in urban thrills in those admittedly pedestrian-promoting cities. It’s not astute of me to say that the web — for as great as it is — has robbed the American scene of a certain bricks-and-adobe frisson, and the proliferation of suburban big boxes and malls were at the expense of shoppes de mom and pop. I’m speaking as a resident (albeit an antique one) who would like to hop on the no. 5 bus (or my bike for some of the year) and be able to hop off and on along the way to do stuff I would ordinarily have to conquer a Loop 410 mall parking lot to pull off. There was a tres groovy kitchen supply store in the old brick warehouse on Flores until a few years ago (it’s moved to Baca KW). Root Candle company had a small outlet store near there that always had surprises. Wasn’t there a coin & stamp store on Commerce? Places like that are dinosaurs (like me), I guess, but sure added to the uniqueness of SA. HEB to the rescue? Fine with me. I just hope they have a key kiosk. Again, I don’t mean to grouse — I realize that the progress of SA is dependent on its scale and our density becoming more vertical than horizontal.
    Disclosure: I was saddened a bit to learn of the Univision bldg’s death warrant. I thought it was a pretty — what’s that word? — ah, yes — cool! building. I wonder if the apt. bldg replacing it will be as appealing.

  7. Richard, in your first description box for the vacant buildings on Houston and Soledad, you call the Embassy Suites hotel a “skyscraper”. That is most definitely the wrong term. The Embassy Suites is a high-rise, not a skyscraper. Thought I would let you know.

    • Thanks, Derek. I guess I was more referring to skyscrapers downtown in general – the Weston Centre is just a block away. I’ll clarify. Side note: When does a high-rise become a skyscraper? 🙂

  8. I saw the picture of “The northwest quadrant of downtown San Antonio and its lazy parking lots.” Looks like a good spot for an HEB store!

  9. I really appreciate the “we have room to improve” and “we’re not there yet” attitude. There’s something so constructive and critical in this honest perspective. We shouldn’t pat ourselves on the back too much just yet as there’s much more to do.

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