Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
For nearly two years, the role of city architect for the City of San Antonio went unfilled, an anomaly in cities of similar size, which use that position to oversee major construction projects – of which San Antonio has plenty.
Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), an architect by trade, saw the position as a necessity and worked with the city manager’s office to reestablish and fund it again during the 2019 budget cycle.
“[City architects] allow a city to have very thoughtful discussions about how design can innovate operations, how design can bring the community together,” Treviño said.
Gopinath “Gopi” Akalkotkar – who has worked in India, Switzerland, New York, and San Antonio – was hired by the City’s Transportation and Capital Improvements (TCI) Department in August 2019. His main role as city architect is overseeing $500 million-worth of projects included in the $850 million 2017 municipal bond and other capital projects – from libraries to police substations.
“My job is to ensure that we are doing what we promise in the bond program … and that we’re being good stewards of the taxpayers’ money,” he said.
As the City prepares to move several departments into the former Frost Tower, Akalkotkar said he’ll be looking at ways to make the building’s uninviting ground floor more welcoming.
“[We will be] trying to open up the facade on the ground floor,” he said.
As those projects are implemented, Akalkotkar also has his eye on prospective projects for the next five-year bond program in 2022.
Akalkotkar obtained his bachelor’s degree from Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT) University where he was selected as one of five students to participate in an exchange program in Zurich.
He received his master’s of architecture degree from the University of Texas at Austin in 1997 and has worked for various private firms throughout the world since, including Kell Muñoz Architects (now Muñoz and Company) in San Antonio, and has served as a Technical Advisory Committee member for the City’s Planning Commission.
The city architect doesn’t design every building or structure the City funds but rather oversee the design process and act as an advocate for the public interest in how buildings are constructed.
“I’m the [property] owners representative … the owner being the citizens of San Antonio,” Akalkotkar said. “[The City] hires an architect as a consultant. If they don’t have anybody on their side looking out for them as a project manager – between the user group and consultant – there’s a gap [in oversight].”
“All public projects have to be robust and have to be long-lasting,” he added, and it’s his job to make sure that happens.
It’s a little like hiring an information technology expert to help the city navigate a complex IT contract, Treviño said. In a sense, Akalkotkar was hired to be an architectural advocate for the City as it deals with third-party designers.
For instance, Treviño said he recently met with Akalkotkar and Razi Hosseini, interim director of TCI, to go over plans for a police substation in Tobin Hill.
“We’ll take the values of our city and combine them with the values and the operations of our police department,” Treviño said, noting the building didn’t have to be windowless with a parking lot. Instead, it could be a substation that’s designed to serve as a kind of meeting space or “maybe a pocket park and public art.”
“The opportunity of this substation – helped through design – is to encourage community-police relationships,” he added. “A city architect isn’t just about architecture. A city architect is about innovation.”
Akalkotkar will need to work with various departments to make that happen, Treviño said. “We need that in-house; helping to bring people together.”
While he’ll mainly be working with TCI, Hosseni said Akalkotkar’s expertise can be used citywide.
“I hope that we can empower the city architect and give [him] as many resources as needed,” Treviño said. “If I had my way, I would give the city architect more autonomy.”
Akalkotkar also brings a wealth of international and city planning experience to San Antonio, Hosseini said. “He has more than 30 years experience working in private consulting in the U.S. and overseas … We are very lucky we found him – it’s hard to compete with private industry.”
For Akalkotkar, who was working for a firm that required half of his time spent in India when the city architect position opened up, it was good timing.
He and his wife are empty-nesters and he wanted to spend more time with her.
“When this position came about, I really thought hard about it,” he said. “It was a time to kind of give back to the place I call home.”