San Antonio in 2013: A Year of Promise and Progress

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View of downtown San Antonio from UTSA Downtown Campus. Courtesy photo.

View of downtown San Antonio from UTSA's Downtown Campus. Courtesy photo.

Robert RivardIf San Antonio were a stock market, 2013 would go down as a bull market with many winners and relatively few losers. The momentum gained in recent years and continued these past 12 months portends well for 2014.

Everyone has his or her top story of the year. I prefer to look at the transformative events and projects that are contributing to a smarter, more ambitious San Antonio – a city that preserves its history, celebrates its culture, stays comfortable in its own skin, yet sets new expectations for our future.

The opening of 8.5 mile Mission Reach of the San Antonio River gives the city a unique linear park that restores a river, reconnects its to the Spanish colonial missions and serves as a new artery through a resurgent Southside. The coming Confluence Park will help underscore the Mission Reach’s value as more than a park, but also a learning laboratory.

A young boy curiously admires the Mission Reach during its grand opening ceremony. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

A boy curiously admires the Mission Reach during its grand opening ceremony on Oct. 5, 2013. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The decision to restore San Pedro Creek through the center city promises to be an equally dramatic improvement to the cityscape, and while it will be years before the project is completed, we only have to remember a decade ago when the San Antonio River improvements north and south were still on the drawing boards.

Read More:
In Speech and Play, a City Reclaims the San Antonio River’s Mission Reach
Series: A Rising Southside
Confluence Park: Nature’s Learning Laboratory Atop the Mission Reach

Last month’s City Council vote that paves the way for H-E-B to build a new grocery store on the southern edge of downtown should accelerate downtown residential growth, and remove a major barrier for some to moving into the urban core.

South Main Avenue residents have placed signs on their lawns in protest of H-E-B's request to close the street. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

South Main Avenue residents have placed signs on their lawns in protest of H-E-B's request to close the street. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The debate over the grocery store, the closure of South Main Avenue in front of the H-E-B Arsenal, and other aspects of the company’s long-term, $100 million campus expansion provoked significant opposition in the neighborhood. It wasn’t the only development to do so.

A few blocks away from H-E-B, a handful of protesters grabbed front-page headlines by getting themselves arrested for trespassing as construction crews demolished the Univisión building at Césár Chavez Boulevard and Soledad.

While the sale of KWEX-TV to Greystar, a multifamily developer and property management company from Charleston, S.C., will bring a new $55 million, 355-unit residential complex to an undeveloped stretch of the River Walk connecting downtown with King William, many felt the 1955 building that housed the nation’s first Spanish-language television studios merited protection. The network’s owners didn’t share that reverence and to date, no alternative plans have been made to preserve the history other than a site marker near the broadcaster’s antennae, which will remain on the property.

Eugene Simor’s Alamo Beer broke ground on the new Alamo Brewery at the foot of the Hay Street Bridge in Dignowity Hill, one of the city’s redeveloping neighborhoods – but it, too, has been met with minor protest and even a legal challenge.

The accelerated pace of change in San Antonio brings with it growing disagreement on what constitutes historically significant buildings and places, and what merits redevelopment. In particular, different forces seem to be taking shape over San Antonio’s body of mid-century architecture. I side with those who find it a darker period in contemporary American design unworthy of celebration, but others feel strongly otherwise.

The small protest that erupted over conceptual designs for the new Hemisfair Play Escape suggest a larger battle to come over the future of the HemisFair ’68 buildings that remain on the southern edge of the Park. If and when funding is approved for the new federal Courthouse on Nueva Street, the federal buildings that revert to the City of San Antonio will undergo redevelopment or demolition. But first will come the community debate.

An artistic rendering of Play Escape by MIG, Inc.

An artistic rendering of Play Escape by MIG, Inc.

A different kind of opposition has taken shape over VIA’s modern streetcar project, a proposed north-south, east-west transportation strategy for spurring economic development and reducing vehicle traffic and bus congestion in the urban core. The project has shaped up as a suburban versus urban fight. Downtown advocates are tired of seeing tax dollars support costly highway expansion projects, such as the U.S. 281-Loop 1604 construction, while suburban interests seem indifferent to center city investment. Selection of a new chairman able to replace outgoing Chair Henry Muñoz III and build broader consensus for the project could prove critical.

The project’s most forceful advocate has been Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, who faces a Democratic primary challenge from Prec. 4 County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson, a vocal opponent of toll road lanes on U.S. 281.  It will be interesting to see how transportation policy plays into the debate.

Change and protest seem to travel hand in hand, the latter being the price of the accomplishing the former. If so, the advent of even more new development and redevelopment projects means more change and with it, more protest.

With Mayor Julián Castro stepping into a new role of urban mayor with a national profile and strong contacts in the Obama administration, 2013 was a year where Castro was often absent from the city on weekends, and maintained a low profile on hotly debated projects, such as the Univisión demolition. With three years or less remaining in his mayoral career, potential candidates to succeed him are entering the public conversation with no clear heir apparent, while speculation grows that Castro is on the short list of names Hilary Clinton would consider for vice president if she wins the Democratic Party’s nomination for president.

San Antonio now expects to make every national list and survey measuring urban growth and improvement, and it happened again last week with an analysis published in Forbes and on The Rivard Report, "The Metro Areas With The Most Economic Momentum Going Into 2014" by Joel Kotkin. We ranked number two, just below Austin.

Some of the other notable rankings that included San Antonio can be foundin a summary report "San Antonio: A City on The Rise" by the 80/20 Foundation.

Read More:
County Judge Bullish on San Antonio
A RR Primer: VIA’s Modern Streetcar Plans
San Antonio Makes the Lists, Which Makes Us Happy
The Metro Areas With The Most Economic Momentum Going Into 2014
Hemisfair Park: A ‘Brutal Redesign’ or the Bulldozer?
San Antonio: A City on the Rise

If many were waiting for a grocery store to move downtown, many others were waiting for improved inner city schools.  The dramatic decline in the dropout rate in recent years in the San Antonio Independent School District, and the rising number of high performance, in-district charter schools seem to indicate one of the city’s most challenging problems – poor education outcomes – can be tackled with success. The rise in independent charter schools has undoubtedly created a more competitive environment and more choice for young professionals with children.

Philanthropic gifts in 2013 make it the Year of the Children. A $20 million gift from Charles Butt, chairman and CEO of H-E-B, has laid the foundation for a national-class Children’ Museum, whose walls are now going up on Broadway across from Brackenridge Park, what will be a six-acre, indoor-outdoor learning experience for the city’s children.

Model of the San Antonio Children's Museum by Lake | Flato architects.

Model of the San Antonio Children's Museum by Lake/Flato Architects.

Silver Venture’s founder Kit Goldsbury made a $20 million donation to help create the city’s first, free-standing children’s hospital. The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio operated by Christus Santa Rosa Health System is under construction on the western edge of downtown. A second children’s hospital is still in the works for the South Texas Medical Center, a tentative joint venture of University of Texas Health Science Center and Methodist Hospital. With the downtown children’s hospital now a reality, however, the often-bitter debate between those favoring inner city medical facilities and services and those favoring the northwest sector of the city has been quieted.

As the Children’s Hospital takes shape, plans by the University of Incarnate Word to establish a medical school downtown on the Fox Tech High School campus will depend on UIW President Lou Agnese Jr.’s efforts to raise $50 million in philanthropic funds to add to city and county investment in the project. Some doubt the project’s viability, but I would not bet against Agnese, a proven fundraiser and now one of the nation’s longest serving university presidents.

Read More:
Inner City School Success: San Antonio’s Best-Kept Secret
School Competition – The Rising Tide That Lifts All Boats
Amid the Dust and Rubble, a New Children’s Museum and a Resurgent Broadway
A Downtown Medical School Moves One Step Closer to Reality

The Pearl continued to serve as the catalyst for a redeveloped Broadway. New multi-family development, including The Mosaic and 1800 Broadway, opened for business, joining the Can Plant and 1221 Broadway. Other projects, including The Brackenridge behind the Children’s Museum, and River House overlooking the San Antonio Museum of Art, broke ground. The Tobin Lofts on North Main Avenue gave San Antonio College students and others a near-campus alternative to the Broadway projects.

Pool and courtyard at Tobin Lofts. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Pool and courtyard at Tobin Lofts. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Economic recovery brought the first new condo developments into the urban core, meaning young professional and empty nest Baby Boomers can choose to buy rather than  lease newly-constructed units, ranging from Steve Yndo’s East Quincy project just steps from The Pearl, to the Casa Blanca Lofts on North Alamo to the Davis Sprinkle-designed project on Roosevelt Avenue in the Lone Start district on the site of the former Rolling Home Trailer Courts.

Read More:
Where I Live: Tobin Lofts at San Antonio College
River House: Rooms with a Museum Reach View
East Quincy: For-Sale Townhouses coming to River North’s ‘Renters Reach’
Lower Broadway’s New Low-Density Housing
One of the Last Inner City Trailer Parks Going Condo

Geekdom, Rackspace Co-Founder Graham Weston’s tech incubator and co-working space, finds a permanent downtown home next year at the newly-acquired Rand Building, now undergoing an interior facelift. Many other historic buildings in the downtown space remain empty or underutilized even as the inventory of available commercial real estate space remains high. The desire of CPS Energy CEO Doyle Beneby to vacate the two current buildings the energy utility occupies on the River Walk could prove to be the most interesting downtown real estate play in 2014.

World Heritage Site status for the Missions lost momentum when the United States stopped UNESCO dues payments during a dispute over the status of Palestinian authorities at the United Nations. The delay is an unwelcome one, but it also gives the city and TxDOT the opportunity to contemplate serious street improvements linking the center city and the missions. While the Mission Reach offers a splendid natural connection to the Missions via bicycle or on foot, the vast majority of visitors will continue to reach the Missions on surface streets, which are marred by blight.

A family admires the recently restored Mission Concepcion during a recent Something Monday bike ride. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

A family admires the recently restored Mission Concepcion during a Something Monday bike ride in July 2013. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The SA2020 initiative will reach the halfway point in its existence between its launch and the end of the Mayor Castro era. Progress on several of the 11 vision goals has been so strong that 2014 might be good time to set even more ambitious goals.

Next year also will see the opening of the Tobin Center for Performing Arts and a few blocks away, the renovation of Travis Park and a restored St. Anthony Hotel.

The San Antonio Book Festival, the surprise newcomer to the city’s arts and cultural calendar, is expected to draw an even more impressive lineup of authors in its second year on April 5, the last Saturday before a newly-extended Fiesta opens.

The New Year also will bring heightened interest in politics as state Sen. Wendy Davis takes on Attorney General Greg Abbott in the governor’s race, and state Sen. Leticia Van De Putte takes on the Republican winner of the lieutenant governor’s race. Van de Putte’s place on the ticket should swell the San Antonio turnout.

Read More:
San Antonio’s Missions Nominated as World Heritage Site
SA2020 Then and Now: Brainstorm to Reality to Report Card
Inside and Outside, Tobin Center Aims to Bring Performing Arts to the Whole City
An Activist Celebrates Official Kick-Off: Sen. Van De Putte Joins Davis Ticket

The Rivard Report turns two years old on Feb. 13, and we anticipate a new site design to help celebrate the occasion, one that reflects our development from our initial launch as a blog to what has developed into a platform for many community voices. In addition to our growing tribe of freelance contributors, we published more than 100 people from all corners of the community. Many of our best stories, and certainly our most widely-read and shared articles came from the community.

Readers make the real difference when they accept our invitation to become center stage actors or simply step forward with their own writing proposals. The conversation is often insightful, always passionate, sometimes divided, but always civil and respectful. We like it that way and you tell us that you do, too. Thanks for helping us double our traffic in our second year. December, like most months in 2013, was a record traffic month. We will work even harder in 2014 to connect and showcase the city’s most creative and dynamic people and endeavors. We’re bullish on San Antonio.

Here's a list of our most read stories written in 2013:

  1. Mr. Mayor, Please Stop Calling San Antonio the 7th Largest City by Lew Moorman
  2. San Antonio: A City on the Rise by Lorenzo Gomez
  3. San Antonio’s 2013 Día de los Muertos Celebrations: Something for Everyone by Iris Dimmick
  4. Fourth of July: Firework Shows at Hemisfair Park and Woodlawn Lake by Iris Dimmick
  5. Why I’m Stubborn About San Antonio by Nicole Goodman
  6. The Return of Cool Crest and Vintage Miniature Golf by Annette Crawford
  7. Lies in the Sand: A Look Behind The Alamo Gun Rally by Leslie Kelly
  8. Franchise Primer: Why the Spurs Unite San Antonio by Robert Rivard
  9. A Local Millennial To Atlantic Cities: Next Visit to San Antonio, Dig a Little Deeper by Kevin McCullough
  10. Kayaking in King William and Along the Mission Reach by Garrett Heath

*Our all-time most-viewed post remains to be one published in 2012: Left Behind: Why People Leave San Antonio by Callie Enlow.

 

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

 

Related Stories:

A Freelancer’s Look at 2013 in San Antonio

The Metro Areas With The Most Economic Momentum Going Into 2014

San Antonio: A City on the Rise

Lower Broadway’s New Low-Density Housing

Inside and Outside, Tobin Center Aims to Bring Performing Arts to the Whole City

San Antonio Makes the Lists, Which Makes Us Happy

 

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