Progressive Development Will Help SA Finish the ‘Decade of Downtown’ Strong

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Weston Urban CEO Randy Smith looks at the Milam Building from the 11th floor of Frost Tower, which is under construction.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Weston Urban CEO Randy Smith looks at the Milam Building from the 11th floor of Frost Tower, which is under construction.

As a native of San Antonio, I grew up loving all our city has to offer. Mine was a wonderful childhood here, and I enjoyed a history with the city that came from being a fourth-generation San Antonian surrounded by a large family and longtime friends. As my childhood came to a close, I headed off to the University of Texas at Austin for the next four years.

Despite my history here, moving back to my hometown after graduation did not appeal to me as I began to consider where to live and start my career. It was where my family lived, and I knew that it was a wonderful place to have kids, but not a place where I planned to begin my adult life.

Large, dense cities were more attractive. They offered the social interaction and lifestyle that comes from living in urban communities, as well as different career opportunities than the ones I was finding in San Antonio. Most of my peers felt the same way, and almost all of us dispersed to places like Austin, Dallas, New York, and San Francisco.

I ended up in Washington D.C. and fell in love with the city. I sold my car. Walking to the grocery store, restaurants, or nightlife was part of my daily routine, and almost every day I’d run into a friend on the sidewalk. I became more and more appreciative of living in a place where the people you enjoy, things you need, and your job are all nearby.

Like many Texans, I eventually felt called back to the Lone Star State. But where to live? The natural choice for me was Austin, with a thriving job market and lots of fun things for a 20-something to do.

But my attention diverted as I became reacquainted with San Antonio. Something was happening in the urban core.

The Museum Reach had opened and the Mission Reach was under construction.

The vision for Hemisfair was gaining traction, and the Pearl was already established as a world-class destination.

Mayor Julián Castro had declared the Decade of Downtown.

In my eyes, San Antonio was moving in an exciting direction, and I wanted to be a part of the changes to come. I took the plunge and moved back to my hometown to become part of the city’s transformation.

It’s been five amazing years back in San Antonio, and during that time so much has happened to further the vision for a robust urban environment. The Hemisfair redevelopment is underway, San Pedro Creek is under construction and its Culture Park is set to open in May, and the passage of the 2017 municipal bond paved the way for transformative improvements to our downtown and the entire city.

New multifamily housing has exploded, with many more in different stages of development. We’ve taken strides toward creating the urban environment that will attract our city’s youth back home again, or maybe even encourage them to never leave in the first place.

However, this momentum seems to be in jeopardy. In the five months since December, attitudes and decisions made by both civic leaders and residents have me questioning the likelihood of this revitalization and transformation continuing throughout the city, or if it will stay isolated in places like the Broadway corridor and the Central Business District.

Council placed a moratorium on the Center City Housing Incentive Policy program, which encouraged multifamily development in and around downtown.

Opposition to The Bridge apartments on the near-Eastside threatens to leave a blighted block permanently underutilized.

And just last week, the Zoning Commission voted to deny a zoning change for the seven-acre Deansteel property on South Flores, which proposes a dense, mixed-use project on San Pedro Creek.

Perhaps the greatest issue is the viewshed corridors currently under consideration by the Office of Historic Preservation and City Council, which threaten to limit areas of our urban core to any dense development. In my opinion, these are the areas in which we should be encouraging density, not restricting it.

The changes to the viewshed designation process that are being proposed also have the opportunity to become a “weapon of mass obstruction.” If the changes pass, City Council could temporarily suspend development in an area to study a viewshed, adding great cost and risk to developers and creating an overall environment of uncertainty and polarization.

This is not to mention the economic effect on private property owners unfortunate enough to own property in someone’s view, or the impact to our future tax rolls from lost investment opportunities.

The Tower Live building is visible from the Johnson Street Pedestrian Bridge.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

A proposal under consideration could extend viewshed protection to more than 20 eligible sites, such as the Tower Life building, visible from the Johnson Street Pedestrian Bridge.

There are different, strongly held perspectives on these issues, and they are worthy of consideration and reasoned discussion. However, I fear that we are creating an environment in which it becomes so difficult to build a new project in San Antonio that we to lose our appeal to those who wish to do business in our wonderful city. I worry that we are publicly encouraging investment and densification in our city, while actually making it harder to achieve those goals. I’m also troubled by an attitude held by some who seek to prevent the addition of new residents to their neighborhoods.

The Decade of Downtown, as declared by Castro, is fast approaching its close in 2020. My hope and challenge to the leadership of our city, whether elected officials, business leaders, or community and civic leaders, is this: “Finish Strong.” Keep San Antonio moving in a direction that attracts more of its youth to return to work, start new businesses, and grow their families.

San Antonio has come such a long way since I originally decided to take a risk and invest my career in our urban core. The vision of the future that attracted me to move back to my hometown is still appealing, and I cannot wait to see what is next for that. Let’s keep promoting that vision and inspire the next generation to invest in the future of our city.


29 thoughts on “Progressive Development Will Help SA Finish the ‘Decade of Downtown’ Strong

  1. I completely agree with everything you said. I worry to that SA may be treading in the wrong direction with the discouragement of development in the downtown core. I’m in Dallas this week and there are cranes everywhere. It’s exciting to see all of the new things that are being added here. We are just barely starting to see this momentum begin in the SA downtown area, let’s not wither it away with ridiculous viewshed rules. Let’s renew our commitment to downtown with the century of downtown.

  2. I’m from Austin and have 3 years in San Antonio.

    Guess what I don’t care to see every time I go home? The capitol building with umpteen viewshed corridors around it.

    You know what I do like? Watching the transformation that takes place giving me a new skyline since I left for college 14 years ago. It’s fun to come home to an exciting place. Things that don’t change usually just die.

    Only since moving to San Antonio was being from Austin ever a negative thing. Everyone else in the country is like , wait, you’re from Austin? I love Austin! How cool is that I never meet anyone from here! The city is not only exploding, but everyone who visits falls in love with it. You even get to be more special than you really are for a second because your parents decided to raise you there. Automatic coolness for nothing. Come on San Antonio if there is one thing you love it’s being “lame” in other words, almost disgustingly cool. As for Austin I don’t want to live there anymore and I don’t feel like I ever ‘owned’ it.

    Austin belongs to my teenage days, tearing up barton springs road with my friends still dripping wet from Barton Springs, headed to the Taco Cabana to pile together $10 in random change to buy as many tortillas and queso as possible. That’s my memory of Austin and not a developer, architect, or Californian import personality can ever change that. I still think there is room in Austin for kids to have a similar experience today.

    The difference between Austin and San Antonio. Austin rolled with the changes and benefits all along (still).

    You come to San Antonio and it’s: you’re from Austin? Then why are we even talking right now you are lowering my social standing just by talking to you. You represent change and I hate that. Stop breathing my air.

    Y’all have got it all backwards. Accept the development and the change. Accept the celebrity status of being the current city under these developments…let people in! Share! Stop hoarding something for yourself that isn’t really even ‘yours’ anyways.

  3. Whine, whine, whine. Listen to the developers whine. I lived in Austin for ten years, and sure, for a liberal like me, it was fun—for awhile. I certainly would never move back, not if they gave me one of their million-dollar shacks in one of their ill-planned, gentrified neighborhoods. Not a lot of actual planning has gone into Austin’s development—government was hijacked by development interests so long ago that their wishes rule, period. The heck with historical neighborhoods. The heck with affordability. And the heck with the interests of residents who seek to continue to live in the places their families have lived for generations. San Antonio can be better than Austin—it can build upon its own story, weaving a rich tapestry of hundreds of years of human-centered history into a tomorrow that celebrates all of us, not just those who are white and privileged. Look at what we have to build on—look around at the jewels that nature and history have given us, see what we’ve achieved using them as centerpieces and respecting the people, the experiences, the life that existed before these spaces were under consideration for redevelopment. Counting the number of t-head cranes is not tantamount to counting the steps to heaven. And you can have over-priced, over-gentrified, lily-white, traffic-jammed Austin. It’s not for me, and it’s clearly not for the millions of people who have made my hometown their home.

    • To say that Austin has been “hijacked by development interests” shows complete ignorance not just of how development works, but how development happens in Austin. Their government has created some of the most obstructionist rules of any large city that makes development more expensive rather than less. Want to build an addition on your house? Expect to wait 12-18 months. Want to build apartments downtown? Sure, they’ll be shiny in the end, but the end will be many years in the future. The reason people still invest in Austin isn’t because the city is beholden to developer interests, but rather the demand for real estate still exceeds the brain damage a developer must undergo in order to build it.
      And, in case you were wondering, no I’m not a developer.

  4. I love context.

    1) Council temporarily raised the standards for the taxpayer funded, developer-incentive program known as CCHIP to require Council approval. “Moratorium” was a term applied by a Rivard Report writer to describe the 6-month pause because “There have been some unhealthy consequences of the Housing First model in its current form, which is the subsidization of housing that the general public can’t afford,” Nirenberg said. “We want a downtown for all people, and so the benching of the CCHIP is intended to help us refine the policy.”

    2) The “blighted block” at the heart of “The Bridge” controversy has already been subsidized by taxpayers with the developers seeking additional taxpayer handouts to continue development. Half of that blight is a brand new sea of asphalt from a developer with nary a tree or plant or any beautification in sight. Grading was changed and insufficient drainage (but potentially weak-Code-compliant) was installed that exacerbates existing flooding problems rather than improving or beautifying the area. The owner/operator appears to dig holes in his fenceline to let the water escape onto the street. What is described as “blight” could equally be described as “bad development”.

    3) The denial of a zoning change request is hardly the end of the world for a developer – at least one that does his or her homework and planning. The change request sought an IDZ designation that exempts the developer from addressing many items, including: Traffic Impact (para d) , Parks and Open Space (para h), Buffering, Landscaping and Streetscape Planting (para j), and Parking (para k). While light on many details, the attorney was clear on one thing: the number of units on the site: “130 units per acre, a maximum of 975 units, is a key goal of the project.”

    4) The author seems to have omitted the unanimous approval of the mixed use development of the Friedrich Building, after it was removed from the register of historic places; and despite the poor layout that shows the apartment parking lot exiting directly into a school zone near the Carver Academy – and streets that cannot exist. This project is receiving tax incentives via TIRZ funding.

    5) Likewise the author omits the County’s approval of an incentive-subsidized luxury 13-story apartment complex with rents that are, according to the County Commissioners who approved the incentives, “astronomically high” and “pretty obscene.”

    It is not doom-and-gloom on the commercial property scene, but every setback or disapproval or pause-to-reconsider is painted as an attack on growth, investment and the future.

    I hope that the author’s view that the gravy train for unrestricted and taxpayer-subsidized development in San Antonio is slowing down is correct. As a latecomer to the San Antonio commercial real-estate scene, his observations sound more akin to sour grapes at missing the boom than a well-thought out commentary on smart development.

    • Thank you for your informed and educated response. It really isn’t a doom and gloom situation. And while I really hope young people see a reason to stay in SA, we should not steam roll those who chose to never leave SA. Those of us who stayed here took an equally dangerous risk as those who choose to come back to SA.

    • Context:

      I am working on developing a mixed use project in downtown. Construction costs for apartments have inflated 12% annually over the last three years while effective rents have grown 2-3% over that same time period and are negative over the last year for downtown. With the new supply downtown, occupancy is hovering around 89% for market rate projects with more supply coming (93% is what most developers project/need). Also, land prices for workable sites have gone from $20/sf to $60/sf in fringe areas. This creates a market that has now become undesirable to develop in (unless you are Pearl, which has an owner/developer that doesn’t actually need to make money; it would never have happened if he did). And that doesn’t even include interest rate increases or horrible property tax practices.

      Downtown is not self-sustaining yet, but needs continued city and county investment. The River Walk expansions, Hemisfair, and San Pedro Creek are fantastic and should be commended. But we absolutely need continued public revitalization of certain areas and for the city to make it as painless as possible to develop. Outsiders of the development community have no idea how many issues the sites downtown have ranging from reciprocal parking agreements, environmental contamination, irregular shaped sites, access, existing utility placement, etc.

      San Antonio has only just begun to grab the attention of developers outside of south and central Texas, but is immediately destroying that momentum and turning them away through poor city and county decisions to increase governmental controls. If you don’t like new development, fine. But don’t complain when you get what you want and end up with a dying downtown (again).

  5. Ahhh…at the end of the article I finally got why Drew loves crane ridden cities…he’s got a selfish self interest-he’s a developer by trade and soul…Drew…go back to D.C! I’ll help you pack!

      • We will continue to invest in our city, and will give developers wonderful infill spots to push up well-built and reasonably dense living quarters. We just want to make sure important cultural landmarks will still be available to the public’s view, and that existing neighborhoods can retain some, or maybe even most of their charm and livability. Instead of “heaven forbid”, I propose forbidding the hell of unreasonably-dense development blocking out our public gems and causing traffic snarls in urban streets.

        Also, check Google Maps: I bet most of those million still head out to the Far West and Far Northwest areas (1604 areas around I-10, Hwy 151 and 281) Cars will be king for awhile more (or not, if we SAers start to invest much more in VIA and a BaRT)

  6. Thank you for this! I experienced the same life cycle many young people have. I am born and raised in S.A and in my early twenties moved to New York City looking for that urban lifestyle. I am in my late thirties now and I love being here witnessing this transformation. It’s exciting and inspiring but our leaders need to wake up and finish this strong! Great article.

  7. Great discussion! Just one observation: the photo of the river and Tower Life Building is, in itself, a great argument for viewshed protection.

  8. I grew up in downtown DC and chose San Antonio because it’s not Austin, Dallas or DC. It’s more laid back and friendly, but still celebrates its history. Have you tried to build in downtown DC? Tons of restrictions and height restrictions. I loved living in Capital Hill in DC but like many who grew up there was priced out of returning to what I had. Modern downtown San Antonio is also very pricey. I can’t afford those prices but I can live close. We want to improve but not become Austin, Dallas, or God forbid Houston with no zoning. So if we take a step back to look at it again it’s a good thing. Just a pause a tweak to the rules. We want to include more people in downtown but with thought to what is there.

    • And there’s chunks of land that look like they’re just waiting for reasonably-dense development, further south along the Mission Reach, around the Texas A&M / Palo Alto campuses, around Brooks and Hot Wells … not too far from SA-City Center and that urban life style younguns’ seem to crave!

      Now, Uber and Lyft are also around, but how about VIA setting up a BaRT, with a full cent dedicated from us, so as to move in and out from these areas?

    • agreed, thanks for writing it, Drew.
      I am also concerned on the recent council/city dedication to those that don’t want development in or near downtown. I just spent the weekend in Atlanta and the beltline is a great example of how dense development can work quite well, if we don’t let ‘not in my backyard’ voices impede housing, transportation alternatives and commercially diverse projects. And, the beltline seemed to be enjoyed and accessible to all! San Antonio Council can learn from the politicians of Atlanta and their dedication to making this trail development work.

  9. Ha! What a load of crap this opinion piece is. I’m from San Antonio and went to college in Austin just like Mr. Smith. But, unlike him I moved back to San Antonio after graduation and have since invested 10 years of my life and hundreds of thousands of dollars into the downtown core with my home and taxes. What have you done to invest in the betterment of downtown San Antonio Mr Smith? Looks like you’re only looking out for yourself and investments.

  10. Most folks in San Antonio recognize the need for incremental development, but downtown isn’t the sole purview of developers. Some people who live in and around our urban core have not benefited from the “Decade of Downtown.” We need to do more to help those long-term residents who have seen property taxes and rents balloon as a result of SA’s policies. Rep. Bernal’s proposed plan to ease financial pressure on people who have lived in their homes for at least fifteen years could be a start. Increasing VIA’s funding and encouraging affordable housing options in the Comprehensive Masterplan’s Regional Centers would provide more housing alternatives and alleviate the price escalation we have seen in downtown. Fixing the IDZ zoning category would help avoid the fights that we see around downtown’s perimeter. We don’t have to leave people behind to make progress.

    • These aren’t either-or propositions. The idea that we should restrict or stop growth in order to help people that are vulnerable is a false dichotomy, and dare I say even damaging to your stated goals of helping our vulnerable. I absolutely agree that we should be finding ways to ease the pressure of rents and property taxes on people who have lived in our communities for many years or generations, and particularly those who struggle to make ends meet. But slowing development doesn’t slow growth and, therefore, it is critical that these other efforts be combined with a housing strategy. While people see the cranes and construction sites seemingly everywhere, the level of housing growth we’re seeing today barely comes close to what we built in the 1970s when Boomers were entering adulthood. I hear this said backwards over and over, but the development isn’t causing prices to increase by itself; it’s that we cannot match the supply to the demand.

      • Very well put Ray. Where is Julian Castro when you need him?

        The irrefutable law of supply and demand will always dictate. It seems like a lot of people just don’t understand basic economic principles. Gentrification has already happened. All anyone has to do is go to BCAD’s website and type in random address of downtown properties. In the past five years all have double and a lot have have tripled. There is no way to prevent change and progress, it’s going to happen like it or not. View shed protections are the dumbest idea this city has ever considered and I honestly don’t think our city council is dumb enough to allow them to go forward. The single reason the view shed idea was proposed was because of the Hays Street Bridge development and a weak councilman. Now poor city staff has to hold meetings, waste time and tax payer dollars because Councilman Shaw doesn’t understand his district and caves to any sort of conflict. If there was a mouse in the kitchen Councilman Shaw would be the first person standing on the kitchen table with a broom in his hand. Weak leadership doesn’t help anything.

        But as an advocate of free markets and supply and demand I don’t think developers should get any incentives or tax breaks. They will come regardless because the market is there. Of course if the city is going to give away stuff for free then you can’t blame the developers for taking it. What really irks me is that the city has a non-profit that helps developers avoid their entire tax bill. All you have to do is partner with this non-profit city entity and “whalaaa” you don’t pay any taxes at all. That adds up to a ton of money.

        Here’s another joke about affordable housing. All a developer has to do is rent to someone who meets a minimum income requirement but he doesn’t have to offer low rents and he won’t. It just makes the renter pay a very large portion of his income in rent. This is another huge injustice and the city sponsors it. I could go on forever about this but will probably get fired if I don’t get back to work.

  11. I live in Austin and the development process (aka gentrification) has been a disaster for poor and working people, particularly people of color. Long time Austintes are leaving the city in droves, moving to cities such as Kyle and Pflugerville. Houses that used to be less than $100k in East Austin are now easily valued at half a million.

    We now have hipster places in east Austin such as Blue Cat café that replaced long time mom and pop businesses. It’s OK for new people to move to San Antonio but they should not expect public subsidies to have a cool and hip lifestyle while working place are forced out. Sounds like a modern day version of conquest and occupation.

    Beware of the Trojan Horse that promises benefits for all but instead brings deprivation and displacement for the local population. It is not too late for San Antonio to learn from the mistakes of Austin.

  12. I think the author is on to something here in the sense that things look to be going off the rails in terms of the development process in the city. But the answer isn’t just to blindly approve any project or zoning proposal put forth (like Dean Steel). Rather, what is needed is much more clarity in city planning for the future and a regulatory system that is fully consistent with that vision and fully up to date.

    This requires eliminating the need for multiple discretionary approvals for significant new developments. If you want to build something consistent with the vision for our city, you should be able to build it without applying for IDZ zoning or going to HDRC. It should be a building permit, period, for a development that conforms to the comprehensive plan. If the city’s land use plan calls for high density housing, the city should rezone that property instead of waiting for the trench warfare between developers and neighborhoods to decide how that works out.

    The other side of the coin is being confident in our future and worth as a city. Do not let the rules be bent to enrich individual developers. Do not believe the lie that having high standards will drive investment elsewhere. Have high standards but make them clear and eliminate the discretionary approvals. Viewsheds CAN be protected without causing problems but doing so requires being smart and having the guts to make real decisions about what you are protecting and what you are NOT. Don’t leave the door perpetually open.

    The dirty secret is that there are many in government and the private sector that benefit from the current system where WHO you knows means a lot more than anything else. Councilmembers like the power the current zoning system gives them as do the various commission members that use those positions as stepping stones to run for council or to augment their private business interests. Developers and neighborhoods need the councilmembers on zoning case and return favors through campaign contributions and votes. Entrenched interests in the private sector enjoy the influence campaign contributions and longevity in the community buys them and how this keeps the competition out. Some members of neighborhood associations like the power it gives them. While these small number of people profit from the current system, the community as a whole suffers from increase costs for new development and an unpredictable system that forces residents to spend hours of their time trying to ensure that the city doesn’t wreck their neighborhood as well as developers who may spend months or years (in the case of the Hays Street Bridge) trying to develop their property.

    The other dirty little secret is that the city staff is generally more interested in self-preservation than actually moving the city forward aggressively and intentionally, which would require some bold and controversial actions. Change there would need to start at the top so people know their jobs are not dependent on avoiding political controversy. San Antonio will lag in relative mediocrity until the passive and safe mindset of reserving power for a future date changes. Instead, set the course and go.

    In sum, the system is not designed to function well from the perspective of the entire community but rather for the benefit of individual policians and developers. This should change and if it does you’ll see as much urban growth as the market will support.

  13. View protection really? The majority of people living in this city have lived here so long that the Skyline is engraved in our brains. Besides this only protects specific views from a single spot. or location in particular. And unless many people go to that specific spot no one really cares. I’ve lived my whole life in this city and seeing the Frost tower going up has me so excited. I say the time has come to get rid of those empty parking lot eye sores, and garbage run down buildings going from The San Pedro Creek to the Pearl and down Broadway towards Travis park. The Thompson Hotel and CPS HQ are already in the making. So Grab a hard hat, Move some dirt. and lets get the job DONE!!

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