In Defense of Downtown Investment: A Core-Periphery Vision

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Pearl Farmer's Market

City amenities like Farmer's Markets appeal to 'geeks' and 'greys,' says Ozuna. Photo via Pearl

The Rivard Report has invited various elected officials and civic leaders to add their voices to the many individuals who have written for publication here. Today's posting is the work of District Three Councilwoman Leticia Ozuna.

District Three Councilwoman Leticia OzunaBy Leticia Ozuna

Long live the Alamo? Absolutely! But while we want to honor the Cradle of Texas Independence and other popular downtown sights, we also have to give ourselves the liberty to move beyond them when defining what makes San Antonio so appealing.

We can keep our roots and plant new trees simultaneously. At the same time, we have to introduce programs that complement such downtown-focused initiatives, so that the surrounding neighborhoods retain their own dynamism and attractiveness.

City of San Antonio Forester Michael Nentwich demonstrates proper tree planting technique.

Ozuna: Holding on to our roots doesn't mean we can't plant new trees. Photo courtesy City of San Antonio

Young in spirit and old at heart. A multi-generational approach must be part of what we do downtown and elsewhere. Both groups can be served by the basics, like public transit, farmers’ markets, grocery stores, pet-friendly spaces and outdoor activities. Both also can benefit from more tech-oriented developments, which should go hand in hand with cultural activity and vibrancy.

Downtown-focused initiatives, once proven effective, could serve as models of what needs to happen in other areas of town. These areas, many of which are hurting as younger residents move out, have a great need for such reinforcement (while requiring more specific solutions, as well).

Urban Core

Why support investment inside the city? The national trend of divesting from the core city has gone on for decades, as sprawl encourages residents to leave core areas.

Yet, great cities have an urban core with a permanent population, such as Los Angeles. And these areas need development that can boost the level of home ownership, along with education and cultural dynamism–smart growth, in other words.

Such growth could strengthen San Antonio’s appeal as a great city by attracting both young professionals and older residents, for instance, and could make downtown more of a magnet of local dynamism, so that the level of activity and excitement for residents matches those of tourists. In other words, make downtown more of a destination for everyone–a la Austin.

The expansion of the San Antonio Riverwalk to the North and South is already producing such results. Around the Pearl Brewery, for instance, new housing is being developed. At the same time, innovative restaurants and shops are cropping up.

Pearl Farmer's Market

City amenities like farmer's markets appeal to 'geeks' and 'greys,' says Ozuna. Photo via Pearl

City South has also succeeded in bringing events, entertainment and other hot spots to that community. And it can certainly be considered a model in many respects for this type of transformation.

Look at Los Angeles, which along with cities like Seattle, San Diego and Portland, boosted its downtown population by more than 50% from 1970 to 2000. It’s still growing, many experts say, thanks largely to the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance of 1999.

The ordinance features an expedited approval process and ensures that older and historic buildings are not subjected to the same zoning and code requirements that apply to new construction. It’s shown that historic preservation can serve as a powerful engine for economic revitalization and the creation of new housing supply. Plus, between 2008 and 2011, some 400 new restaurants and shops have come into the area as a result of this policy and the associated renaissance of L.A.

Across the United States, homeownership in downtown areas more than doubled between 1970 and 2000 – growing from about 10% to 22%. Chicago tops the charts at about 40%, but Austin is not far behind at 35%, according to the Brookings Institute.

In Los Angeles, pro-development policies downtown facilitated the conversion of dozens of historic and under-utilized structures into new housing units. These measures proved so successful that they were extended into other neighborhoods in 2003.

Such an approach could be duplicated in downtown San Antonio, as it should be in other older neighborhoods of our city, such as in the Highland Park area or the Mission Reach Area on the Southside. The revitalization of older homes should also be complemented by improving investments in our educational system, so families have long-term reasons to stay in their historic neighborhoods.

Forward March

When I first went to work as a young urban professional, I experienced the ultimate horror in city living – being based in Maryland and commuting to Virginia for a start-up tech business, a daily one-an-a-half-hour commute. In the greater Beltway area, I chose to have a long commute to improve my family’s lifestyle (or so I thought). My time in the car exceeded the time I spent on community activities, and many days my travel time exceeded the amount of time I spent with my family.

I gave up regular exercise, and I was late retrieving my children from after school activities more times than I care to remember.  There was and is a cost to commuting that is more than vehicle wear and tear and the price of gas.

The truth is that commuting from one end of a large, multi-city metropolis to another can dramatically hurt your quality of life. Rather than being a city that some use as a base to reach high-tech jobs in Austin, we should find ways to boost that base in our own city. Housing and other projects that aim to improve the dynamism of our young-adult community can go a long way toward achieving this goal.

As the downtown area comes to be more acceptable to the city’s geeks, it can also improve its attractiveness to its grays, or seniors. As former-Mayor Henry Cisneros writes in his latest book, Independent for Life, “We need thoughtfully created communities–both existing and new neighborhoods–that feature safe streets, usable sidewalk, stores offering groceries and pharmaceuticals, public parks, churches and services.”

Successful public transit meets the needs of seniors, yuppies, and everyone in between, says Ozuna. Photo by Carolina Canizales

The same needs are generally true for seniors, yuppies, geeks, families and lots of others. Smart-growth strategies that include steps like LA’s Adaptive Reuse Ordinance and similar measures can make downtown San Antonio a more popular place for homeowners, renters and visitors. Coupled with complementary policies in other historic districts, the city can enjoy a more widespread renaissance of which we can all be truly proud.

Find Councilwoman Leticia Ozuna on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter at @lettiefromd3.

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