Making the UTSA Downtown Campus the Westside Gateway

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The intersection of Buena Vista Street and Leona Street.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

The intersection of Buena Vista Street and Leona Street at the UTSA downtown campus.

The prospect of 10,000 more college students living and attending classes in and around UTSA’s Downtown Campus is akin to the moment in The Wizard of Oz when the film turns from black and white to color.

It’s a transformative and long-overdue vision for the uninviting mini-campus, encircled by a moat of busy vehicle traffic and stuck in the shadows of an elevated expressway on downtown’s near Westside. With the Bexar County Adult Detention Center and Annex and Bail Bond Row as its nearby neighbors, and the underpasses used for university parking also home to day laborers and street people, it’s no wonder that so few students attend classes there and so little urban renewal has occurred nearby.

The UTSA Downtown Campus master plan.

Courtesy / UTSA

This rendering shows the UTSA Downtown Campus master plan.

As of last week, the 242-unit Vitré multifamily development at Cattleman Square first announced in 2014 by the project’s local partner, 210 Development, went to foreclosure and auction. There are indications a new partnership will soon be announced to resurrect the project, but the fact that the original project fell so short of expectations underscores the challenges developers face in crossing Interstate 35 to invest in the underdeveloped Westside.

Despite those challenges, UTSA President Taylor Eighmy appears to have come into the job less than six months ago with a clear plan to focus on making more first-generation college students successful, and doing so – at least in part – by making it easier for them to get to and from classes. It takes hours for daily VIA commuters to travel between the Main Campus and their inner-city neighborhoods.

President of UTSA Taylor Eighmy introduces the Rivard Report Conversations with the Council series.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

President of UTSA Taylor Eighmy introduces the Rivard Report‘s “Conversations with the Council” series.

Former UTSA President Ricardo Romo focused on Tier One aspirations, directing most resources to Main Campus development as the Downtown Campus student population declined by half during his long tenure. Eighmy, like Romo before him, is committed to elevating UTSA as a research university, but the Downtown Campus development plans signal a whole new direction.

Time will tell whether the University of Texas System, the Texas Legislature, the City and County, and downtown developers all buy in. Yet it seems unlikely Eighmy would have rolled out such a plan without such support. Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City Manager Sheryl Sculley have both voiced strong support for Eighmy’s vision.

For all its promise, however, Eighmy’s plan should be seen as a conceptual work in progress. It will benefit from the participation of all stakeholders, including various local government entities, the UTSA faculty, and Westside residents and community leaders.

For the City, this could include adopting a Complete Streets model for West Commerce, Buena Vista, South Pecos-Trinidad, and Frio streets in the campus zone to slow traffic and improve pedestrian and cycling options, which today are nearly nonexistent. Add  to that accelerated extension of the 65-mile long Howard Peak Greenway Trails System so the Westside creeks connect intelligently to the campus. Making the streetscape safer for cyclists in and out of downtown, and connecting the greenway trails to San Pedro Creek and the Mission Reach will make it a real transit option.

Courtesy / City of San Antonio

The Howard W. Peak Greenway Trails System Plan.

The plan to give UTSA’s School of Architecture its own downtown building hopefully includes giving its faculty and students a significant voice in adopting the highest standards of sustainability for the entire project. The San Antonio River Authority could serve as an important partner in stormwater management and low-impact development.

The biggest challenge will be convincing Bexar County to move the 4,566-unit detention facilities elsewhere, thus opening up the near Westside to redevelopment and removing the average daily jail population of 3,500 from the community. Westside residents deserve better. While costly, the move would generate serious economic development, and County officials could design a new campus that is both secure and focused as much on rehabilitation as incarceration.

County leaders appear reluctant to even consider such a move. Eighmy, working in concert with City officials and community-minded developers, can change that. A decade from now, the near Westside could be a center of higher education surrounded by livable neighborhoods rather than a no-go zone for most residents. That would be a real legacy for Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and his fellow commissioners.

It’s taken the vision of a newcomer – Eighmy – to turn a pipe dream into the first real plan for transformation in this long-neglected sector of downtown. For years now, San Antonio’s civic and business leaders have said great cities have great downtowns. That vision has not included the near Westside. The mantra should be expanded to note that great downtowns have great universities.

A decade from now, UTSA’s Downtown Campus, Texas A&M University-San Antonio, and the three Alamo College campuses of San Antonio College, St. Philip’s College, and Palo Alto College could have more students attending classes than are now enrolled at UTSA’s Main Campus and the suburban community college campuses.

That would be a very different and far more equitable San Antonio.

18 thoughts on “Making the UTSA Downtown Campus the Westside Gateway

  1. I agree with you that this vision is long overdue but be careful of the streets you choose to close. When 35/37 are congested in the morning due to an accident I use those streets to get to work. Alamo/Frio is under construction. Flores is always being worked on leaving only Zarzamora. If you start shutting down streets how do we get from the South Side to the nortthside. I find it ironic that education is the pathway to prosperity but in your vision my pathway to prosperity is blocked.

  2. Another big hurdle to this plan will be the Republican-led Texas government. Only once in more than a decade (the last 13-15 years, I believe, with the once being 3 years ago) has the legislature approved funds for academic buildings to be constructed. That was 3 years ago, and only one building per university was approved. I doubt they will approve a building for one university (a new architecture building for UTSA’s downtown campus, for instance) without approving buildings for all universities, and this seems to go against their nature.

  3. Great article with one exception. You introduce the concept of moving the county jail both as if it could happen and as necessary to achieve this vision. I disagree with that. In my opinion, the jail, while not the best architecture, is not an obstacle to this area redeveloping. The abundant bail bond offices are, however.

    • The bail bonds are there because of the jail and the municipal court. The jail is THE prominent edifice and visual as you enter the Westside via Commerce Street, the designated gateway to the community. It also sits in a near downtown neighborhood. It most definitely is an obstacle for those looking westward. Prospect Hill residents know this and it is why moving the jail out is a widely supported concept.

    • I agree with David. At least the people in the jail are locked up and I don’t think the architecture of the jail is all that bad. If you want to get rid of a real detriment and eyesore where the criminals do run lose, get rid of the Haven for Hope facility and move that somewhere else.

      Also, how many college campuses does this city need? Geez, you can almost drive a golf ball and hit SACC, St. Mary’s and OLLU from the UT downtown campus. Does anyone see the absurdity of having two UT campuses in the same city? Let’s fix our city’s high schools first and solve our dismal graduation rates.

  4. Good insight- the Westside- not just the gateway area has long been underserved and overlooked. An expanded campus and all that it could contribute to energizing this area and changing some longstanding misconceptions about one of the Westside. The jail compled is a huge physical barrier and the homeless, transient and loitering activity is getting worse. All said, the Westside is unique- I am all for the expansion and look forward to being part of the change.

  5. I hope that the powers that be move forward on supporting the proposed vision stated by UTSA President Taylor Eighmy for this long forgotten area.
    It’s great that there’s positive movement on the near eastside and hopefully this effort by President Eighmy will help make this near west side area a mirror of that development.
    The one thing that you did not address in your article was security for the area. As a former student and now staff member at the downtown campus, I’d be lying if the safety of students was not concern. The VIA transportation center, although a few blocks away may as well be a few miles. Walking over there at 8:30 p.m. after class is not something that fills me with confidence. As we hope to grow this segment of the urban core with education, transportation, retail and housing efforts let’s connect these dots in a sensible and safe manner for all those attending and visiting the downtown campus.

  6. I did not know we needed to move our county jail, for any reason. Is it falling apart? I’ve heard it’s bursting at the seams sometimes, but I thought citations for minor drug offenses will take care of some of that problem. I agree with focusing more of the facility as a rehabilitative place.

    Are we also willing to take a hard look at Haven For Hope, and move that campus too, if it falls into the same above category as a hindrance to good growth for the Near Westside and UTSA, along with our county jail?

    Both would cost a lot of money to move. Why not keep them in their county-centralized place (near the courts and connected to the major highways) and focus on any needed repairs for security, expansion, and rehabilitation purposes? How about getting more county help with pushing forward a usable, safe, and extensive VIA BaRT system here, and a rejuvenation of the Lone Star project to Austin and Houston?
    I’m just a little skeptical of this big idea right now, but it is definitely worth considering and researching. Looking forward to more good talk about this vision for UTSA, the Near Westside, San Antonio, and Bexar!

  7. A few things that could happen to improve the area around UTSA that are quicker than moving the jail:

    Improve east-west access across the railroad tracks, the interstate, and Alazan Creek. Why not find a few more old truss bridges a la Hays Street and put them up? Reconnect El Paso Street all the way across, look into reconnecting San Luis and San Fernando streets as well.

    Reconfigure the I-10 Cesar Chavez exit so the exit ramp doesn’t take up a whole city block.

    Relocate the municipal court, city motor pool, and police station on Frio. They are all in small, cheap-looking buildings, but together take up as much space as the county jail. They also are directly adjacent to UTSA.

    • There has been talk for some time regarding moving those City buildings; Municipal Courts, Motor Pool & Police substation, to make way for future UTSA’s expansion. President Romo was not focused on the downtown campus but now that President Eighmy is maybe those discussions will be resurrected.

      I’m happy to see that a new Architecture building is a priority. The building they are in now is an embarrassment.

  8. Bob I applaud your enthusiasm for making downtown a more vibrant and livable area. Your articles are always informative. I attended a few classes at the downtown campus and never felt threatened by the area but I could see where others might. UTSA would need to expand campus police patrols at the downtown campus to alleviate student concerns. Regarding a readers concern about funding for another building, the legislature will make that happen if needed. Texas A&M University-San Antonio has received a tuition revenue bond each of the last three sessions to accommodate their growth. TAMU-SA also entered into a public private partnership to build its new dorm. Unfortunately, for TAMU-SA students there is no restaurants/shops within a 2-3 mile radius of the campus. Verano Land Group, the company that donated the land to the campus, could not develop the surrounding area.

  9. Great article Robert.

    As former Planning Director for the City of San Antonio from 1997-2007, there was an effort to make Frio Street to be more pedestrian oriented with a mixed use development that would house students, professors, university employees and others to have a place to live, work and play.

    It would be a great addition to the concept if the campus jumps the tracks and create opportunities and a new vision for Westside community. This would bring economic and educational opportunities to an area that is in need. This could address the issues of poverty and social issues in this part of the community.

    Thing of linking the neighborhood with a mixed use center that I could use stairs or elevators that would link up with the university campus, thus linking the neighborhood with the campus. You could develop Accessory Dwelling Units in the neighborhood for students, thus making them part of the community.

  10. The only time Alazan Creek — observable in the upper left corner of the rendering above (more accessible from UTSA with a new pedestrian crossing of the rail lines) — is named is in the comments. Far out.

    And contrary to the view suggested with the op-ed above, San Antonio’s Westside is already a center of higher education surrounded by livable neighborhoods — even if City planning, VIA, SARA the Rivard Report etc. ignore the university and school campuses, research and employment centers, residential density (the highest in San Antonio), cultural and tourism resources, neighborhood restaurants and businesses and the connected creek network (and high flood risk) here.

    Read through the SARA approved Westside Creek Restoration Project Conceptual Plan (2011) — to gain a better sense for this area and to work out for yourself what happened in the last seven years to the $79,600,000 suggested for Alazan Creek compared with $43,300,000 for San Pedro Creek (p. 63), where spending has somehow ballooned to $175m+.

    Try also to figure out what happened to the continuous and safe pedestrian paths (and bike patrols, shops and tours) along all the Westside Creeks — Alazan, Martinez, Apache and San Pedro — as the understood and agreed to first-order work of the voter and SARA endorsed project, and what we should be celebrating the completion of, in part, with the Tricentennial.

    Moving the jail is a tired and likely outrageously expensive and zero-sum concept (trotted out like a new minor league baseball stadium or airport every few years) that is disconnected from the City’s long-range Westside Reinvestment (2009) planning — which also stresses Alazan Creek linear park and path work — and that distracts from the robbing of sizeable public investment in Alazan Creek improvements.

    I’m hopeful that President Eighmy and UTSA’s School of Architecture will see the value of an innovative connection with Alazan Creek and the numerous SAISD campuses and other resources located along or near this creekline. I picture something like a pedestrian/bike spiral bridge connecting the School of Architecture near Medina (what a street!) and Buena Vista with Salado (optimistic that the City and County will do right soon by Alazan Creek trailhead, bridge and path work), but who knows what students and faculty might design?

    Likewise, there is the chance with Eighmy’s UTSA downtown master plan for the School of Architecture to connect with their historical roots at Urban Loop Studio (their first designated downtown building) — just east of the elevated I-10/I-35 and situated within part of the City’s historic Sporting District where the City’s Cafe College is located (with great connections with King William via El Paso / Arsenal).

    Ideally, President Eighmy will be able see past some of the ideas, personalities and slanted perspectives distracting from the need to prioritize stronger UTSA connections with and across Alazan Creek (say it with me) and the mile of primarily vacant TXDOT space underneath the elevated I-10/I-35. It’s an exciting time for new outside leadership in the city who can hopefully grasp the past community-based planning for the greater UTSA Downtown area and the pedestrian improvements and campus porosity and “stickiness” that have improved other university cities.

    See:

    http://www.edwardsaquifer.net/pdf/Westside_Creeks_Restoration.pdf

    See:

    http://zipatlas.com/us/tx/san-antonio/zip-code-comparison/population-density.htm

    https://www.sanantonio.gov/Portals/0/Files/Planning/NPUD/Westside_ReinvestmentPlan_FINAL.pdf

    http://cacp.utsa.edu/explore/history-of-the-college/

    https://abertaytle.wordpress.com/2016/03/24/the-sticky-campus/

  11. Move the Campus to the Core of downtown. In the Heart of downtown where even 5000 students would make difference, feel much safer and enjoy themselves.

  12. The UTSA President is correct, downtown campus has been neglected to the brink of extinction. And, the new proposal will make parking difficult for those who need handicap spaces near the buildings for students, public visitors conducting business and employees. The individuals presenting changes and plans don’t attend UTSA DT Campus or work here for them to determine what is actually needed.

  13. The County Jail is not a major problem for those of us who live in the neighborhood since the inmates are in their building and are under constant observation. They County is NOT goiong to move the jail anywhere else in San Antonio because neighbors would organize to keep it away.

    The problem is the Haven for Hope becauxe of inadequate police in the area and because the CIty of San Antonio purposely placed it where it knew would be the last resistance by poor residents. The City still continues to place new facilities to service the homeless in this area. Exsmple: the soon to open SAMM psychiatric facility of Commerce street and the Grayhound station. The area is very dangerous for students will desert the UTSA downtoan campus until it closes. Sad but true.

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