9 thoughts on ““The Decade of Downtown” From a Northside Perspective

  1. I appreciate the tenor of this article. However, I think it is important to point out that many downtowns are not dying. Hardly. To frame a discussion about the “death of downtown” is to coop talking points that were at a feverish pitch beginning decades ago, in the 1980s. At that time, many cities undertook bold moves — some failed and some brilliantly successful. There is a lot to learn from those cities. But, suffice to say, some of the discussions that occur in San Antonio seem to be 10-20 years behind the social curve.

    I don’t think urban planners “pine.” They fight institutional, governmental, and marketplace factors that are often slow to get what works and what does not work. They have solid and sophisticated ideas, again ones we should look to in other cities and not seek to reinvent the wheel here.

    The private market drives housing and related service and retail in developing any economically and socially diversified downtown areas. But, to ever suggest that that is done in some pure sense, as some do, is absurd. There is and has almost always been (in contemporary times) a public role is aiding in the creation of an urban core that is balanced and well-executed. That includes well-planned and executed public financial support. And, as many cities can prove over and over, it is the smartest strategy. A strong and successful urban center reaps disproportionate direct and indirect financial benefit, over and over again, for both the public and private sectors alike. Again, when well done. A strong urban core runs laps around the most successful and supposedly well-done of suburban areas in terms of social financial efficiency any day of the week. We’re only beginning to understand the short- and long-term economic inefficiencies, social costs, and subsidization of a suburban development model. We have to maintain open minds.

    Folks in places like Portland, Atlanta, Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis … on and on … turned about the “death of downtown” decades ago.

  2. To say that we are only investing in downtown on emotion is short sighted and irresponsible in my opinion. We are humans and emotion plays a role in every decision we make and I for one want the future of or city to be decided by those who are passionate about the opportunity in front of us if we do make the investment in downtown. Passion and emotion combined with educated risk taking will certainly be a plus as we build our city, regardless if it is in downtown or in the suburbs. The creative class and the knowledge/technology economy want vibrant downtowns/cities and if we decide not to invest to capture that leading free market we will certainly be wishing we had 10 years from now.
    Engage. Lead. Transform.
    “Go. Make something happen.”
    Zac Harris

  3. It’s a mixed economy, not a “free market.” There is significant demand for walkable communities, among Boomers and Millennials alike, and city government policies should accommodate rather than frustrate this demand.

  4. I agree with the author’s point. And the commentators are correct in saying that densely populated areas are more efficient in terms of capital projects and infrastructure. Some points that MUST be considered:
    One of the main reasons there is little demand for downtown housing for families: A broken school district. If you want to families to live in the downtown area, force a merging of school districts.
    If you want to control urban sprawl, control the growth of infrastructure or at least don’t subsidize it so heavily.
    As long as we are a car society with relatively cheap gas, people will prefer gas over asphalt as yards for their children.

  5. In countless studies, the best way to revitalize a community is to build solid public-private partnerships. The city seems to be taking the initiative and leaving the private side out of the conversation. Businesses downtown recently decided against using their money for the new street car system. The city then made the decision to continue and fund the whole thing without their support. That kind of decision making is faulty because the city shouldn’t carry the weight of downtown revitalization on its shoulders alone. COSA has made those kinds of decisions several times in the past and it is unsustainable.

    An interesting article from the Brookings Institution –

  6. Look at what Oklahoma City did to revitalize its “Bricktown” area–even patterning it after the San Antonio Riverwalk. Major successes, even bringing in an NBA team to a market that did not have one, creating an urban center of renewal, and seeing young families move into the inner city with their MAPS for Kids program. Of course it can be done. Similar things happened in Kansas City. If they can do it, we can do it too.

  7. Good instincts Mike. You are right in your hunch that city planners cannot guess the market. That task is extremely difficult even for developers who carefully invest their own money. But when someone is putting the faceless taxpayers’ money at risk, they are wont to get much more wrapped up in emotional theories and the dreams of new urbanists. I know many stories of developers who wanted to invest in revitalization of downtown but were thwarted by senseless land use regulation and bureaucratic stubborness. City planners are happy to stop all kinds of helpful development if it does not exactly fit their vision. A friend of mine on the west side finally abandoned an old warehouse he was going to revitalize because he never could get approval from the city. Today, that block is blighted and dead. Who knows the fortunes the owner and the neighbors might have enjoyed if the city had simply gotten out of the way.

    Instead, they are now heavily subsidizing downtown living units because development is too expensive to be affordable. The city makes it expensive and so they subsidize it. Totally insane.

  8. I agree with Jeff. City planners have no idea how to move towards Sculley’s plan of making the cities investments sustainable. The city gets locked up in a “who’s on first” loop and the politicians continue to make empty value judgements about a project when their shortsightedness keeps them from making real progress. I propose that city leaders and planners each develop a real relationship, collaborate and develop metrics with business leaders, community leaders and neighborhood associations to get something done.

    One example of the COSA’ failure:

    Brooks City Base – proposed research and development site(nonexistent not counting DPT). Proposed Solar plant (negotiation limbo) faulty due diligence and a slim chance of increased employment opportunities for five or six years. Toyota put up way more of an investment and all the city has to look forward to is a consortium of suppliers with a consortium of temporary placement companies. The availability of dwellings is slim in the area (Toyota) which makes it worse because most people have to commute which means less money which means little savings and spending which hurts instead of helps the economy. That is the outlook for Nexelon at Brooks. A guided approach to the creation of a research consortium would have been a better investment in my mind. Research and Development, from what I understand, helped Boston renew itself and recover from the highs and lows of the national economy.

  9. I appreciate your willingness to have an open conversation, Mike. I disagree on your idea of what a “free market” is, however. You speak of it as though an economy is an untouched thing out of the control of the people live in it. On the contrary, this mixed economy was created by people and should therefore be manipulated when it does not fit our needs as a society. Do hotels fit the needs of San Antonio’s citizens? Not in my opinion. Governments manipulate markets all the time and everywhere. They manipulated the market when creating the GI Bill that set a foundation for the sprawl you see today. They continue to manipulate it by providing billions in subsidies to oil companies and for highway infrastructure. I wouldn’t worry about manipulating the market – it has never been pure.

    In accordance with SA2020, we need downtown to be an urban core for the people who call San Antonio home, not simply a place for tourists. I am one of those “20-somethings” and as a result, the lack of people my age in this city is all too jarring. The youth go to other cities because they provide for our progressive values: public transportation and alternatives to cars, green spaces, a fast-paced work environment, efficient and ecologically responsible lifestyles, and creative development.

    To use the old adage, “If you build it, they will come”. City development cannot be controlled solely by those who have the wealth to own the “free market”. I’m afraid that doesn’t sound like freedom at all. Diversity is important for cultural and economic development.

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