Urban Renaissance for San Antonio? Keeping Score in a Fast-Changing City

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The Mosaic

The Mosaic, photo courtesy of City of San Antonio

Don’t blink or you’ll miss a lot that is changing for the better in this city.

The redevelopment of San Antonio’s central city is gaining impressive momentum as anyone who has pedaled a bicycle down Broadway, through Southtown or along the Mission Reach of  the San Antonio River can testify. Put another way, a whole lot of vision seems to be reaching the actualization stage.

The near-downtown landscape seemingly morphs by the day with yet another mixed-use project: an empty midtown lot is bulldozed one week, shaped for foundation work the next, and suddenly walls are framed, cranes are swinging and rooftops are crawling with hard hats wielding nail guns. Bang! The skyline changes.

Canplant at the Pearl, photo courtesy of the City of San Antonio

CanPlant at the Pearl, photo courtesy of City of San Antonio

The universal reaction I hear from friends, not to mention my own inner voice, is succinct: I want one. Wait too long, however, and you’ll find all but a few apartments already leased.

Take the Pearl's Can Plant. More than 200 apartments are quickly taking shape, as commuters heading south on U.S. 281 can't help but notice, but don't miss your exit.  The waiting list, according to Silver Ventures General Manager Bill Shown, already has 400 names on it.

The Boom in the Center City's  Mixed-Use Projects

A City of San Antonio Central Development  website  shows mixed use apartment complexes valued at more than $200 million  under construction along Broadway and, south of downtown, on South Flores Street. And those are only the projects that have received city incentives. Other projects, such as the Cevallos Lofts, just off Probandt Street near La Tuna Icehouse and Grille  are filling up just as fast.

The Vistana, across from Milam Park,  is 97% leased, and 1221 Broadway, a former eyesore-turned-jewel, "leased out" in four months instead of one year, as was planned, according to David Adelman, principal of Area Real Estate in San Antonio.

“The success of those three projects demonstrates the high demand to live downtown,” said Ed Cross, Adelman’s business partner and the head of the real estate brokerage firm San Antonio Commercial Advisors/Cushman &Wakefield.

The four-story Mosaic,  with 126 apartments built over retail at 1915 Broadway, one block from the Pearl, is fenced off with alluring “coming soon” advertising that shows young, active people bustling in and out and all around the city’s newest lofts, apartments and live-work spaces. It's exactly the image of the city we want to become.

The Mosaic

The Mosaic, photo courtesy of City of San Antonio

But is San Antonio becoming a city that will attract creative, well-educated individuals from elsewhere, and for that matter, start to retain many of our home grown best and brightest?

The Top 10 Global Trends Affecting Downtowns

It’s a hot topic of conversation these days, so it was no surprise that on a wet and chilly Monday more than 200 people gathered at the Hyatt Regency Hotel for the Downtown Alliance’s “Urban Renaissance Luncheon” to hear featured speaker Brad Segal’s presentation, “The Top 10 Global Trends Affecting Downtowns."

Segal, the Denver-based president of Progressive Urban Management Associates,  is a longtime urban planner turned urban futurist of sorts. Here is his work if you were unable to attend the lunch.

"Over time, downtowns become a more sustainable model than the suburbs, where you have to buy all that gas for commuting and pay for water for those lawns -- if you can even get that water in the future, " Segal said.

San Antonians who commute as part of their daily work lives wasted an average of 30 hours a year just sitting in stalled traffic in 2010, Segal said, still less than the national average of 39 hours for major cities, but dramatically more than the four hours that San Antonio commuters sat and fumed in 1982.

For anyone curious about how life differs for Millennials from Gen X, or their Baby Boomer parents, here are two telling takeaways from Segal's presentation:

One, Millennials care far less than we do about the automobile. They don't love them, they don't want to buy one, maintain one, or spend time in traffic. They run counter to their views on sustainability. They like life without them. Two, 94% of people graduating from college today want to live in a center city, compared to 61%  a decade ago.

And, as anyone who does any hiring these days knows, 60% of all college students are women. While they lag well behind men in terms of holding important jobs in urban development, planning and governance, they clearly represent the future.  The more planners pay attention to women and their interests now, the more smart, creative people they will attract to their revitalized downtowns.

One audience member asked Segal to cite cities that could serve as models for San Antonio to emulate. Surprisingly to some, he talked a lot about Oklahoma City, which he said had suffered from a "9 to 5" downtown that turned off young, educated people considering the city as a possible place to live and work.  City officials there invested more than $1.5 billion in the center city over the last 20 years, he said, to make the city more inviting and now are reaping the benefits.

Segal never spoke the name "Austin" out loud, but he did make a joking reference to "a city 80 miles from here that has done some interesting things." The fact is San Antonio compares itself almost obsessively to Austin as it works on its own transformation. While mention of Austin might cause a bit of defensiveness in some quarters, more and more people believe the authenticity and unique qualities of San Antonio position it well for smart growth.

Dr. Philip Wallace and his son Scotty take to their bikes in San Antonio

Dr. Philip Wallace and his son Scotty take to their bikes in San Antonio

"San Antonio seemed kind of cool..."

One person who chose San Antonio over Austin is Daniel Puckett, a 24-year-old Maryland native and young videographer with a degree from The Art Institute of Santa Monica. We met recently on the banks of the San Antonio River near the Blue Star Art Space.

Puckett told me he first set foot here in late 2010 with his girlfriend on a visit to one of her family members. Austin was high on the list of the young graduates who couldn’t afford to stay in Southern California, but as they experienced San Antonio over the course of several days, that changed.

“We decided San Antonio seemed kind of cool, and it fit our needs,” he said.

Puckett found work at Innovative Multimedia Group, a small web development and video production startup here. The Rivard Report hired IMG to design our website, still under construction, and through them and other small tech startups we have come to know in recent months, it's obvious that San Antonio is home to far more young creative individuals than anyone has measured.

“San Antonio reminds me of how Austin used to be,” Puckett said.

Segal would tell us to pay close attention to people like Puckett. Take what is working and accelerate it, and before long, San Antonio will be a slide in Segal's presentation as he takes his urban renaissance message to other cities.

Coming next: Creative class centers, San Antonio's "literate city" ranking.

11 thoughts on “Urban Renaissance for San Antonio? Keeping Score in a Fast-Changing City

  1. Great article. You hit on a lot of the things that seem to be helping change the residential environment of our city’s core. One thing that could also help demonstrate the difference is the walkability of center city neighborhoods. Take the area around the Vistana. According to the Walk Score website (www.walkscore.com), that area gets a score of 89 due to the various amenities around it. Move up to 1221 Broadway and, while the score does drop to 72, it’s still pretty acceptable. If you look at the apartment mecca right across from USAA that gets a walk score of 42. Looking at the overall heat map of San Antonio, you can see that the center city is the best of the entire city (http://www.walkscore.com/TX/San_Antonio). Makes sense.

    Hopefully, these new developments in the Pearl Brewery area will help start the avalanche of more development. River North is so primed for it and could serve as a great gateway to downtown. In fact, many of the arterials could take that route and change the dynamic of sprawl.

    Finally, the best benefit from this type of change is the reduction in support costs by the city and utilities. After all, most things are already in place with some upgrades needed only.

    Congrats on the launch and looking forward to more great pieces.

    • Randy, Thanks for the kind words and the interesting link, which I will use in a future posting. I hope you will keep reading and replying, or better yet, author a piece for TRR. And tell your friends to give us a try.

  2. Robert, you don’t how ecstatic I am to come home to San Antonio one day to start my career. I’m a junior urban planning major at Texas A&M and the fact that I am passionately enthusiastic about making my hometown the greatest city in the world, barely scratches the surface. I just found your website tonight from your personal twitter (which I started following long ago, while you were with SAEN) and I will definitely be passing your articles along to my fellow students in our program and to my own followers on facebook and twitter. Keep up the great articles! This stuff is great!

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