In Praise of Downtown Development…and Remembering Our History

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Elan Riverwalk Apartments. Rendering courtesy of Michael Hsu House of Architecture.

The 350-unit Elan Riverwalk apartment complex. Rendering courtesy of Michael Hsu Office of Architecture.

Robert RivardWhen the dust soon settles on the former site of Spanish-language KWEX-TV, and images of a handful of protestors become old news, those who support San Antonio’s downtown development and its history can come together and find common ground.

Univision occupied a nondescript, ’50s-era building erected for utility rather than posterity. Its owners showed no interest in its preservation, nor did anyone else for most of the time the property was on the market. The property’s frontage on the San Antonio River was ignored. Broadcast executives did not mount a campaign to celebrate KWEX-TV as the nation’s first Spanish-language television station.

Univision_CommunicationsUnivision and the site’s new owner, Greystar, a multifamily developer and property management company from Charleston, S.C. with a big presence in San Antonio and Texas, could work with other entities to memorialize Spanish language broadcast history.

A physical memorial can be erected on the former Univision site, of course, but it will be a marker, not an attraction that brings a bygone era back to life. We can take a page instead from those who have worked to preserve English-language broadcast history.

Less than one mile from the demolition site is the former Museo Alameda, now in the hands of Texas A&M University-San Antonio, which has established the TAMU-SA Education & Cultural Arts Center there. The center would make an ideal home to display San Antonio’s pioneer role in Spanish-language broadcast media. The Institute of Texan Cultures is an alternative venue.

The former Museo Alameda, now Texas A&M University-San Antonio's Education & Cultural Arts Center. Courtesy photo.

The former Museo Alameda, now Texas A&M University-San Antonio’s Education & Cultural Arts Center. Courtesy photo.

The Paley Center for Media in New York, formerly the Museum of Television and Radio, attracts large crowds of visitors each year that can access more than 50,000 programs and broadcasts and view thousands of 20th century broadcast artifacts. The quality of a San Antonio Spanish language media center would depend, of course, on the availability of historical artifacts and broadcast tapes, and the level of investment in creating a museum-quality presentation. The community would have to support such an endeavor.

Much of our cultural and political history is preserved and recreated in curated environments, whether it’s space flight at the Smithsonian, or the Oval Office through time in various presidential libraries. LBJ’s White House can best be experienced today not in Washington D.C. but at the University of Texas-Austin.

Meanwhile, anyone who envisions a more vibrant downtown San Antonio should welcome the Greystar project with open arms. The project is exactly what we as a city have been clamoring for in this Decade of Downtown. What some protest, in fact, many more celebrate.

A few years from now, San Antonio’s center city and the River Walk will be considerably enhanced by Greystar’s $55 million, 355-unit multi-family development. The company’s roots are in Houston and its Texas presence is considerable. What you won’t learn in media reports of protests is that Greystar employs nearly 200 people in San Antonio, and already manages a large portfolio of properties here, including such showcase projects as 1800 Broadway and the Steel House Lofts.

Greystar’s first San Antonio development project is designed by Austin’s Michael Hsu Office of Architecture. Click on the link to see the firm’s impressive work. Unlike the site’s now-demolished building, the new development will include considerable design elements linking it to the River Walk. What long has been a vacant expanse between the downtown River Walk and the King William neighborhood will now become something much more inviting and attractive.

Elan Riverwalk Apartments. Rendering courtesy of Michael Hsu House of Architecture.

The 350-unit Elan Riverwalk apartment complex. Rendering courtesy of Michael Hsu Office of Architecture.

A project of this scope will employ hundreds of construction workers and dozens of contractors. When finished and leased, the apartments will be home to 500-750 educated professionals and affluent retirees whose spending will add considerably to the downtown economy and the vibrancy of local businesses, cultural activities and street life. Residents would be able to walk to the proposed H-E-B grocery store, Southtown and downtown restaurants, bars and shops.

It’s evident that San Antonio’s accelerating urban core growth and development is causing some strain among different groups and individuals discomfited by change. That’s understandable and every accommodation should be made to develop with great sensitivity to the past and the present. But San Antonio can’t become a better city if it doesn’t change. Not every building has historical value, at least not enough to justify its preservation at the expense of imaginative new development.

What played out this week at the former Univision site, protests and subsequent arrests, is likely to happen again as other important downtown projects come before city boards and staff for final approval. We can build a better San Antonio much more quickly if people meet each other halfway in a spirit of compromise rather than an atmosphere of confrontation and protest.


Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.


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[UPDATED] Lone Star District: The City Needs Another Billionaire

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13 thoughts on “In Praise of Downtown Development…and Remembering Our History

  1. I don’t actually know the specifics of this development, but I must say that my most favorite city in the USA is San Antonio. It’s beautiful, colorful, welcoming and any other adjectives (good ones) that I can express. I’ve spent many, many lovely moments in SA. I contend that SA is Americas’ best kept secret.

  2. Ben Olivo’s blog gives us all the same info but does not try to be nearly as persuasive as the RR. It enables me to trust what he reports instead of wondering if he is just trying to make the city look as good as possible. There is this unrealistic level of love affair with the city and it is convenient that you support HEB, SAWS, those city officials who have been found to have clear conflicts of interest, etc. And at the same time Ben reports all the downtown revitalization happenings so it makes the city look just as good on its own without the persuasive bias (I do not know Ben personally, btw). You say this is the people’s publication but it seems just one man’s, and I know others (very wealthy young professionals) who take your reports with a grain of salt because it is reported as news but it is indeed laced with opinion. I laud the RR’s efforts but these are the flaws I see.

  3. I had a feeling I’d see an article about this here. It was awesome seeing people defend what they view as precious and historical. However, if it takes up space, uses electricity and doesn’t serve a purpose then it has less value. Using the space and placing a historical designation and a plaque – the city is doing this – is probably the best move forward.

  4. The hidden agenda in this article is glaring. It is in the title! In Praise of Downtown Development! Finding the author’s opinion within the text should not then be much of a surprise. I need to stay away from comments sections.

  5. I get you, Bob, and I share a progressive outlook; but not all teardowns are the right choice and not all new developments are improvements. Perhaps the best case in point is the tradeoff of the Broadway condos for Earl Abel’s Restaurant. As a private business move, it made sense. But for the community, what did we get? We lost a historic place that had charm, character and culture … and it was a part of all our pasts. We gained a monumental, “What’s that doing there?” tower at the corner of Broadway and Hildebrand. Great. Years ago a big company tore down the historic San Antonio Country building. And what did they put there? A surface parking lot. The Pearl is another example. So cool in its concept and its initial phases. But, such an overbuilt stack of boxes blocking the historic landmark as it nears completion. Anyway, that’s my point: We should take more of a public interest in what is actually happening in San Antonio and other cities. The downtown, the history, the culture … all the things we claim to cherish … are getting torn down or buried. I love the fact that Broadway is being revitalized, but if all we create is a canyon with apartments looking out at apartments, what have we achieved? Those apartments and condos will be much more appealing with scenic views and interesting, unique and genuinely local places within walking and biking distance.

  6. It’s nice to be positive when positive is deserved. However, the city, its leaders, and its attorneys acted irresponsibly during the duration of the fight to save Univision. Compromise is impossible when the citizens are treated like enemies instead of the true reason for government and development. Yeah, this tragedy is about to be repeated.

  7. Adaptive reuse could have been considered and encouraged by the OHP. It was not. In the 70’s and 80’s we saved stuff, with a few notable exceptions of course. I worked for a firm that did 33 major rehabs in the CBD, including the Crockett Block, City Hall, the old Bexar County Courthouse, the Staacke Stevens, the Book Building. Without those projects and what we’ve done to preserve King William and other inner city historic districts, no one would want to visit SA and none of the millenials would want to come hang out in ‘The KWill’. Why doesn’t someone write about the choices we have to make adaptive reuse a first discussion? It’s laughable that some people want to take the Alamo back to 1836 and tear down buildings this city spent considerable money rehabilitating. #newpotemkinera.

  8. I have no problem with the tear down of Univision, it didn’t seem to have historic value, at least as a building. However, I am concerned about the kind of hideous and thoughtless buildings being built in SA, especially the apartment canyons on Broadway and the horribly ugly new hotel on the riverwalk north. The sketch-up in this article does not help that feeling. It’s just not in line with the aesthetic of San Antonio, which has some of the most beautiful architecture in the country. Shoddy construction slapped together with cheap materials made into apartment complexes that blight the skyline is not the answer (see also Refugio Place). Thoughtful development (an oxymoron?) should be a concern of the city council and the mayor when they give the green light to building on such a scale. Downtown development at any cost? San Antonio could be a visionary leader in responsible development in terms of aesthetics, environmental responsibility, and sensitivity to the culture and community, but so far, I’m not seeing it. I’m just seeing the same kind of developer greed and quick, shoddy construction that blights the entire country. Perhaps this is just where we are going, but we can be and do better. And I don’t trust RR, his opinions are of course his to voice, but he has proven that he may be in certain local corporation pockets and his “opinions” are perhaps more than just that.

  9. Corina

    The Express-New garbage didn’t hurt me or the Rivard Report when it was published and your recycling it won’t hurt us now. I am disappointed that you are so easily misled by a reporter and newsroom with such an obvious agenda. You will note that we let your comments stand here. Beyond our Comments section, which is known for respectful disagreement among intelligent, thoughtful people, over the last 20 months we have opened our home page to more than 200 people in San Antonio who have authored original articles and opinion pieces or published their videos or photography. No other local media offers the same voice or access to people, and certainly no other media is confident enough to let readers publish their own personal attacks, however unsupported by actual facts. Thanks for reading and commenting, however much we disagree. –RR

  10. Are we building ‘green’? Are we encouraging adaptive reuse? Are deals done long, long before the razzle dazzle of public process? Are universities threatened and students censored by HEB calling the Board of Regents to have them call The UTSA President so that no student question and answer session could be held after an intellectual discussion of urban planning? Are private citizens’ jobs being threatened by HEB calling their employers? Are CoSA employees threatened that if they speak out against HEB, they will be fired? Were canvassing forms rejected by the Center City Development office and sent back to certain departments to fall in line with the plan? Find the answer to all these questions and have someone write about that. Some of this background info is not going to look so rosy on public officials’ calling cards for higher office down the road.

    If our neighborhood association had its act together and did not abrogate its charter so readily, we would have been prepared at least 2.5 years ago (when those ‘bogus’ canvassing forms went out) to deal effectively with corporate institutional encroachment. We would study Monte Vista’s long track record of success. Instead we see a helter-skelter response that pits neighbor against neighbor. This happens time and time again on large projects. Our review agencies have turned into rubber stamps. Where is the hell the old Riverwalk Advisory Commission used to give developers? All gone now. Go to the 3 hearings this week on HEB’s construction of ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ and look at all the sincere faces of those commissioners, some whom I consider friends. Then watch it be unanimously supported no matter what visionary alternatives are put forth by serious urban planners and architects. We can do better by having a more open process and by getting more honest dialogues about real transparency.

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