Most major cities in America are afflicted by dying downtowns. At best, the downtowns are a collection of office towers surrounded by dilapidated storefronts. At night, those downtowns can look like the remnant of a nuclear winter.
Nighttime on San Antonio’s downtown is better than most other cities because of two of Texas’ major tourist attractions, the River Walk and the Alamo, that serve to populate the downtown every night. San Antonio, however, wants to do even better. It wants to populate its downtown with yearlong residents. But this objective, which Mayor Julián Castro has sloganized as "The Decade of Downtown," raises two issues:
- Why should San Antonio intervene against the free market to develop its downtown?
- Can San Antonio efficiently intervene against the free market to develop its downtown?
The answer to the first question has a financial component – i.e., infill of San Antonio’s existing footprint is more efficient than providing the necessary infrastructure for more suburban sprawl. But the major consideration seems to be emotional – almost akin to the erstwhile desire to save the family farm in rural areas.
Downtowns have been dying since the 50s and 60s, and modern planners pine about a return to “walkable urbanism.” Ironically, however, this nostalgic concept is most attractive to the young. The following rationale was provided in a Brookings paper, “Turning Around Downtown: Twelve Steps to Revitalization,” that lobbied for more urban development:
"Downtown revitalization can bring additional economic development benefits as well. With increasing demand for walkable urbanism and a dearth of such neighborhoods in most metropolitan areas, cities with vibrant downtowns have a better shot of recruiting or retaining the “creative class” of workers economists, like Richard Florida, have shown is key to future growth. When the strategy for downtown Albuquerque was being crafted, for example, a senior executive from Sandia National Laboratory spent many hours volunteering in the process. However, the laboratory—employing 5,000 scientists, engineers, and professional managers—is located five miles from downtown. When asked why he spent so much time on the downtown strategy, he replied, “If Albuquerque does not have a vibrant, hip downtown, I do not have a chance of recruiting or retaining the twenty-something software engineers that are the life’s blood of the laboratory.” If 30 percent to 50 percent of the market cannot get walkable urbanism, why would they come or stay in a place without that lifestyle option when Austin, Boston, and Seattle beckon? A purely suburban, car-dominated metropolitan area is at a competitive disadvantage for economic growth."
Robert Rivard, a former editor of San Antonio’s daily newspaper, currently publishes articles here at The Rivard Report relating to urban development in San Antonio, and he provides a more personal perspective for why San Antonio’s downtown needs to be revitalized:
"We launched the Rivard Report in mid-February of 2012 to become part of the public conversation at a time San Antonio is at a crossroads. Both our sons, Nicolas and Alexander, left San Antonio to attend college and did not come back. While they hold San Antonio in their hearts, there was never any questions about their departures. The opportunities and lifestyle they each sought were to be found elsewhere. That bothered us, as did frustrations we heard again and again from business colleagues struggling to recruit smart, educated people to come live and work here. The Rivard Report seeks to become an accelerator driving the kind of change in our city that reverses the outflow of educated young people and increases the number of individuals who want to come here. …. The Rivard Report is all about urban renaissance, the movement to build a better San Antonio. We hope to be a catalyst for urban transformation and progressive economic and cultural development. Transforming a central city is not a quick or easy process, but it’s been done elsewhere and is now happening here. That gives us plenty to write about as the city heads toward its 300th birthday in 2017 and Mayor Julián Castro seeks to achieve the ambitious goals of his SA2020 initiative."
These rationales for developing downtown San Antonio make sense to me. Not only does infill of the downtown make short-term financial sense, it makes sense for the long-term attractiveness of our city for our children.
But the more difficult question is whether San Antonio can successfully intervene in the free market. As an economic conservative, I am skeptical of the City’s ability to efficiently and effectively redirect the free market. Not only is the city woefully unskilled in development, but the cost of effective measures will likely render them inefficient.
A recent extensive article in the San Antonio Express-News, "Heart of downtown doesn't feel like home," provided a broad overview of the city’s recent efforts toward downtown development. According to the article, there has been some residential development on the extreme northern and southern edges of downtown, but almost nothing in the middle. The reason for “almost nothing in the middle” is surprising, and it relates to the two great downtown tourist attractions:
"'San Antonio does have a wealth of historic office buildings that are really cool and great buildings to be converted (to residential),' Cross said. 'But the hotel business has done so well for so long that those buildings never really became available at a price that an apartment conversion would work.' One idea floating around is for the city to regulate hotel development in certain parts of downtown. That would force down land prices because landowners wouldn't have the option of selling their properties at a premium to hotel developers."
The thinking by developer Ed Cross is why I am generally averse to trying to redirect the free market – i.e., government planners simply can’t evaluate all of the factors that the market does automatically. So I would be in favor of making it easy for developers to move into downtown and to provide moderate financial benefits for cost-effective infill, but I don’t think the rest of the city should subsidize an emotional sentiment.
For a contrary argument, I refer you to an article from April 2012 on The Rivard Report titled, “The End of Subsidized Sprawl: Why Council Should Support Downtown San Antonio.” Its lead sentence reveals its thesis – “Moving from the long era of city government-supported sprawl to a new era of tax-supported inner city development could prove to be the issue of our time.”
Mike Kueber is a former farmboy, a father of four boys, a retired insurance lawyer, an amateur blogger, and an aspiring politician. He grew up on a farm in North Dakota, graduated from UT Law, took early retirement from USAA in 2009, ran for Congress in 2010, and has maintained a blog ("Mike Kueber's Blog," from which this this article is re-published) ever since. He is currently running for the District 8 seat on the San Antonio City Council.
Related Stories on the Rivard Report:
Urban Renaissance: Taking Stock of 2012, November 2012
The Economics of Placemaking, November 2012