District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal addressed two floors of a packed St. Anthony Hotel ballroom during the inaugural State of the Center City Luncheon, but not once did he stand behind the podium. Instead, he traversed through tables of dining city leaders, planners, developers, and other downtown denizens and stakeholders.
Bernal offered an energetic overview of the center city’s assets and what projects need to be nurtured for San Antonio to fully realize its “emerald city” potential. Housing, transportation and attracting business downtown were the centerpieces of conversation – as usual – but Bernal placed emphasis on student and low-income housing.
“There is a tension between moving forward … and respecting where San Antonio comes from,” he said, walking toward developers in the audience. “Any plan that we make moving forward has to include the students.”
Applause from the crowd seemed to indicate that they agreed.
He used the old Peanut Factory, an “iconic eyesore” just south of UTSA downtown campus as an example of the kind of projects he’s interested in seeing pursued.
“If we can solve (that eyesore problem),” he said, then we can help District 2 Councilwoman Ivy Taylor work something out for the Friedrich Building. “All neighborhoods (and districts) need something … We’re going to get it done, we just need to make sure it’s done right.”
UTSA’s flourishing downtown campus and nearby universities justify more housing according to an October 2012 study commissioned by the City [PDF]. Up to 550 beds will be needed. With the expansion of the Southwest School of Art‘s programs and Texas A&M‘s takeover of Museo Alameda for an Education and Cultural Arts Center, the need for student housing is more than justified, Bernal said.
Lori Houston, director of the Center City Development office said that San Antonio is “well on our way” to the SA2020 goal of 7,500 housing units, with 2,300 units currently underway or in the planning process.
“It’s key to getting the people of San Antonio to feel like they have ownership of downtown,” Bernal said. “The main challenge is time. But no doubt we can do it.”
Downtown Association President Ben Brewer opened the presentation, and said the City “has been touting the need for downtown residential development” for more than a decade, adding that we’re starting to see some real progress, thanks to city leaders like Mayor Julián Castro and Councilman Bernal.
“Residential capacity adds vitality and that ’24/7 character'” that San Antonio wants, Brewer said.
More downtown residents will demand reliable, effective public transportation – a need that’s already apparent for the current downtown population.
“Transportation is the next frontier for the city,” said Bernal. A solid transportation system will facilitate the most change by essentially “making the city smaller” with respect to residential access to work, goods and services like grocery stores, shops, and doctor’s offices.
Bernal also touched on the need for more business to move downtown and cited the $7.9 million in incentives to retain downtown employment as a carrot to do so, but that another challenge lies in the way: getting the owners of vacant buildings to start maintaining, restoring and leasing their space.
While the X Marks the Art program brings new life and light to these vacant store fronts, it’s a band-aid for a deep wound and shines a light on the underlying problem.
“They (the buildings) are assets that people (building owners) are holding on to because they’re waiting for the right incentive … we need to find a way to work with them to get that to happen sooner,” Bernal said. “Downtown San Antonio shouldn’t be a stock yard of empty buildings.”
His presentation and thoughts about center city development, however, are not reserved for those who attend luncheons on weekdays. “I like the opportunity to explain myself,” Bernal said, adding that he’s available to talk to any organization that will have him. He’ll be presenting for the Downtown Neighborhood Association in March.
Related Stories on the Rivard Report:
Out Of Town Attack on Streetcars November 2012
Urban Renaissance: Taking Stock of 2012 November 2012
Downtown Tuesday: “A Worthwhile Experiment” November 2012