About a year before the University of Texas at San Antonio unveiled a plan to rouse its sleepy downtown campus with new buildings and academic programs, entrepreneur Graham Weston and other downtown stakeholders met with newly appointed university President Taylor Eighmy with a proposition: Sell the campus to another university who would make it a significant part of downtown.
“I felt like the campus downtown was orphaned. It didn’t really have a mission of its own,” Weston said. “And as long as it didn’t have a mission of its own, we preferred it to be in the hands of another institution and someone who really wanted to be here.
“But Taylor said, ‘No, thank you.’ He came back with a plan that was really exciting to us that had to do with not only salvaging what was there but also building on top and actually giving it a critical mass it’s never had before. … We’re going to find industry, a startup scene, and housing for these young students all in one place. It’s going to be transformative.”
On Monday at the city’s annual tech-centric conference San Antonio Startup Week, Weston and Eighmy revealed fresh details about the genesis of the deal as well as the infusion of ground-level retail and restaurant development in a planned transformation of UTSA’s downtown campus from a small operation serving 4,500 students to an 8-acre nexus with a doubled student population.
In September, the university announced a 10-year, $200 million-plus plan to build a School of Data Science, a cybersecurity-focused National Security Collaboration Center, and a new home for the UTSA College of Business.
Weston contributed a $15 million gift to the school for the completion of the project, $70 million came from the University of Texas System Board of Regents, and the university is using $5 million of its own funds to move the projects forward. The School of Data Science and National Security Collaboration Center are scheduled to be built in time for the 2020-2021 academic year.
Revitalizing downtown San Antonio has been a years-long effort sparked by former Mayor Julian Castro’s “Decade of Downtown” plan in 2009 and followed through on by Weston and other downtown real estate developers.
But over the years UTSA’s campus has seen its downtown student population decrease by about half, some student services have moved from the downtown campus to the main campus, and there has been little capital improvement.
“I think [having a vibrant downtown campus] is going to activate our downtown and make it more fun,” Weston said. “Fun is really important to a city. Who doesn’t think that?”
With quality-of-life improvements and adding density to downtown, Weston believes San Antonio can overcome its unfashionable and suburban reputation. He said the city has made encouraging strides toward emerging from the shadow of Austin, a smaller city with lifestyle options that have been critical to the development of its tourism, hospitality, and technology industries.
Although they may annoy some, dockless electric scooters have made it easier to traverse San Antonio’s downtown, new coffeeshops and restaurants have opened, and the Houston Street tech corridor continues its buildout, Weston said.
As part of its 10-year plan to revitalize the downtown campus, UTSA is set to issue a bid to redevelop a 2-acre plat in the Cattleman Square Historic District. A 1,500-unit residential tower will be constructed at the site just north of the UTSA downtown campus. Plans also call for erecting a housing facility for faculty at the former Continental Hotel on West Commerce Street. UTSA will also use space at the historic Alameda Theater to host music department performances.
But these won’t be nondescript academic buildings, Eighmy said.
“We want to put those things down on the street level that activate that part of the city,” he said, referring to ground-level retail, restaurants, and other commerce. “If we all are doing that in these six buildings, now we’re starting to talk about critical mass and momentum that can make a difference.”
San Antonio has all the ingredients, including one of the fastest-growing populations in the country, to strive toward what has been produced in places such as Austin, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, said Eighmy, who took the helm at UTSA in September 2017.
“What I’ve noticed here is that we’re afraid to be big about how we think,” he said. “If we sit here and say we’ll never have the components of what an Austin is, or a Cambridge is, or a Bay Area is, we’re going to limit ourselves. Rather than limit ourselves, I’d rather we strive to do something way bigger than we’ve thought of and just do it well, try hard, work together to do it, and hope for the very damn best you can hope for. And you’d be surprised how far you can go with that.”