UTSA Downtown Expansion Could Add 10,000 Students to San Antonio’s Urban Core

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The UTSA Downtown Campus master plan.

Courtesy / UTSA

This rendering shows the UTSA Downtown Campus master plan.

University of Texas at San Antonio President Taylor Eighmy says it is time for ambitious changes at the university's downtown campus. He wants to triple enrollment downtown over the next 10 years.

The downtown campus serves 4,500 students – down considerably since its heyday eight years ago, Eighmy said, when some 8,000 students took at least one class there. The downtown location opened in 1997.

Since that time, enrollment has declined, and some student services offered downtown have moved to UTSA's main campus just inside Loop 1604. Eighmy, who was hired last fall, hopes to increase enrollment downtown to 15,000 students over the next 10 years, with an expansion plan that he says will require major partnerships with the City of San Antonio, Bexar County, and downtown developers.

"The presence of a major downtown campus would be catalytic for sustainable development of the city," Mayor Ron Nirenberg said.

An infusion of 10,000 people learning and potentially living downtown will result in significant updates to UTSA's academic and residential operations. University officials are currently interviewing four campus master-planning firms that would direct the process. Once selected, the firm would collect community input and create a master plan for UTSA's main, downtown, and Hemisfair campuses that would largely define the future of the university in the next decade, according to Eighmy.

Some downtown initiatives, however, can't wait for the plan to be drafted. Eighmy said the university will take action now to make the downtown campus more residential and its colleges more autonomous. As a result, plans are taking shape to build a large-scale residential development on a UTSA-owned parcel of land adjacent to the downtown campus.

The property, Cattleman's Square, now serves as a parking lot. In a few months, Eighmy said, the university will issue a request for proposals so developers can start the process. The planned facility would include underground parking, retail and dining on ground floors, and about 15 floors of residential living space.

"It will all start to [fall into place] the minute we issue the [request for proposals] for the Cattleman's Square project," he said.

This facility could take up to two years to design and construct, so Eighmy said UTSA must begin exploring other residential options in the meantime.

The university also will begin work on making the three colleges currently located on the downtown campus self-contained. The colleges of architecture and public policy are located entirely downtown, but the college of education still has components on the main campus.

University of Texas San Antonio President Taylor Eighmy.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

University of Texas San Antonio President Taylor Eighmy.

Eighmy said reinforcing this autonomy will be a priority in the next year so that students don't have to travel back and forth between campuses. He wants to see significant progress by August, but anticipates it will take a year to complete the process.

Eighmy's most influential inspiration for his San Antonio endeavor is Arizona State University's campus in downtown Phoenix, upon which UTSA's downtown expansion plan is modeled. Over 15 years, Arizona State developed its downtown campus into a self-contained, autonomous area Eighmy describes as transformational to the city of Phoenix.

In his previous higher education experience, Eighmy visited ASU's campus to learn about its downtown model. Before UTSA, Eighmy was the chief research officer at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, Texas Tech University, and the University of New Hampshire.

A helpful connection in the proposed expansion is City Manager Sheryl Sculley, who is familiar with Arizona State's campus in downtown Phoenix, where she worked for 16 years as assistant city manager.

Sculley said it will be important to build consensus with the community and with vested stakeholders, as she did in Phoenix. She recommends a workshop with City, County, and university leaders so that all can be on the same page about capital needs and necessary financial commitments.

Sculley said she is optimistic about the downtown campus expansion working in San Antonio. "Young people want that urban experience," she said. "That is the trend we are seeing."

In the next month, Eighmy plans to travel to Phoenix with his senior leadership team to learn from Arizona State's experience.

Three New UTSA Colleges

A new academic officer will guide the development of three additional colleges for UTSA's downtown campus.

Mauli Agrawal, interim provost and vice president for academic affairs, announced Tuesday he will be leaving UTSA for a new role as chancellor of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, effective June 20. Eighmy said UTSA is in the process of hiring a new provost, and hopes to have a new candidate in place by June 1.

The new provost will have a hand in determining the content and structure of the new educational programs. Though not finalized, Eighmy says the new colleges will focus on urban education, urban science, and entrepreneurship.

The university is in preliminary discussions with the San Antonio Independent School District to collaborate on an urban education institute.

The institute would, in theory, allow UTSA education students to learn from SAISD teachers in their classrooms. The details are still pending, but Eighmy said this could result in a "living laboratory" that would foster an environment in which UTSA students studied best education practices through the academic progress of SAISD students.

"Why don't we make San Antonio the Silicon Valley equivalent for K-12 educational innovation?" Eighmy said. "In a perfect world, I would love to have a high school embedded inside our college of education."

The urban science institute would follow a similar model, treating San Antonio as an urban case study. Eighmy said this institute could tackle San Antonio's "grand challenges," including economic disparity, urban growth, and health issues specific to the city's population.

The third addition to the downtown campus, a school focused on entrepreneurship, would likely develop as the result of a partnership between UTSA and Tech Bloc or other downtown tech partners.

With three new schools, and an addition of 10,000 students, Eighmy acknowledges his plans are lofty, but he thinks UTSA is in an advantageous position with willing partners.

"It took Arizona State 15 years to fully mature their downtown campus, but we have a head start in some ways in our path," he said.

Funding for the downtown campus expansion remains uncertain. Eighmy said the university can finance some buildings through bonds or state funding for academic buildings. UTSA will also explore leveraging public-private partnerships to develop the Cattleman's Square property, he added.

A woman walks through UTSA Downtown Campus with downtown visible through the trees.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

A woman walks through the UTSA Downtown Campus.

Westside Development

Developers are eager to help, looking toward an influx of new downtown area residents and shoppers. With this many additional bodies in San Antonio's urban core, Eighmy said the growth could evolve into "a bit of a neighborhood" surrounding the school.

Leonard Rodriguez, president of the Westside Development Corporation, said the campus expansion will likely result in a "different vibe" for the western edge of downtown San Antonio.

"I think that developers avoid the Westside because of some of the elements currently here," Rodriguez said. "The downtown campus appeals to a different demographic from a youth standpoint. I think it would be very welcomed [by developers]."

The near-Westside has historically higher rates of poverty and crime than other areas in the city.

While development could usher in elements of gentrification, Rodriguez said, it may also help bring equity to the Westside.

"If you look at the Eastside ... Broadway ... Southtown – you already see that kind of development occurring. I think this vision to build out the campus accomplishes the same in the Westside," he said.

Nirenberg said he established the Mayor's Housing Policy Task Force to address the gentrification that could arise with influxes of new development, like the kind that is likely to occur near UTSA's downtown campus in the coming years. He said the timeline allows his working group to develop solutions in advance so no longtime residents are displaced.

"We are getting ahead of the problem before major development begins," Nirenberg told the Rivard Report.

Some residential projects have already been completed in anticipation of this expansion, Rodriguez said. He speculated that the Peanut Factory Lofts, an industrial building that was converted into apartments in 2015, was developed with the understanding of a downtown campus expansion.

Rodriguez said this future development will be in line with what Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) has been trying to ignite within her district.

Gonzales called the expansion "transformative for the Westside." She said it would bring not only physical change through added buildings and facilities but also, "the population needed to support small businesses and neighborhood revitalization."

Transportation and Land Acquisition

Some elements, such as transportation, are beyond UTSA's control. Eighmy is an advocate of the oft-discussed light rail system that could connect the city from its northernmost points to the Southside.

The UTSA president mused about a potential route from UTSA's main campus to its downtown campus, through to Texas A&M-San Antonio in the southern part of the city. Based on his experience in his hometown of Boston, Eighmy said this kind of connectivity is especially attractive to students.

"[Students in Boston] don't have cars, and they don't want to [use rideshare], and they like public transportation," he explained.

Nirenberg agreed, saying a connected transportation system is important for UTSA's future. However, he said this should be broader than just a proposed light rail system.

He said light rail would work in the context of a larger transportation system with other distinct elements. If a plan for light rail was presented in this way, Nirenberg said,  it would likely be approved by voters and make a difference for students.

Should the university successfully expand to its full capacity of 15,000 students downtown, Eighmy said UTSA would be open to expanding beyond current university land holdings.

While the university isn't directly pursuing a land acquisition at this time, Eighmy said he has started conversations with neighboring property owners.

"By year 10 we are going to need some additional property, but for now we have all the property we need under our control to proceed," he said. "You have to grow into your space, but you can't grow if you don't have space."

13 thoughts on “UTSA Downtown Expansion Could Add 10,000 Students to San Antonio’s Urban Core

  1. I agree with UTSA President Eighmy and Mayor Nirenberg that a transportation connection should be developed between the campuses. A light rail line would be something to pursue not only to connect UTSA’s Main and downtown campuses but to connect with the UT Health Science Center (which may eventually merge with UTSA). Some major components of this rail system already exist. This line could go from UTSA Main to UTHSCSA down Fredericksburg Rd to near IH10 to the existing VIA Westside Multimodal Transit Center. One line could shoot south to Texas A&M University San Antonio while another could run to UTSA’s downtown campus. From there it could continue east down Cesar Chavez Bv and by the UT Instute of Texan Cultures on the way to the existing Robert Thompson Transit Center on the north side of the Alamodome. The line could then head north on Cherry street before crossing back west across IH37 to Alamo Street up by 9th or 10th Street. It could then run north on Alamo and New Braunfels Av to The University of the Incarnate Word. From there it could run north on New Braunfels Av ending up at San Antonio International Airport. It could eventually be expanded by continuing east on Wurzbach Pkwy before turning north to a line running to New Braunfels, San Marcos and Austin. This is a no brainer because the ridership will already be built in because of the large number of students: 30K at UTSA, 3K at UTHSCSA, 15K at the downtown campus, 10K at UIW, and 7K at TAMUSA. I’m sure a lot of students would use it to get to the Alamodome for football games as well.

  2. Sounds great, and will certainly help to revitalize downtown and the West Side, but where’s the parking? It’s kind tight now, and plans are to build on one parking lot. Is parking included in these high-rise buildings?

    • Hi Jim,

      Initial plans for the Cattleman’s Square project include underground parking. In the next few months, UTSA plans to release more details about the project. This will likely include more specific details on how much parking will be available.

  3. Great news for San Antonio! This university always should have been downtown.
    In the 1970s many of us were disgusted when the UT regents decided to locate San Antonio’s long-denied university in a remote goat pasture. (Look into John Peace and the land deals if you want to really feel sick!)

  4. Anything to compete with Texas A&M University-San Antonio for higher ed students is good news. TAMU-SA had a great opportunity to become a transformational university entity when it was created in 2009. However, it quickly marched to the drum beat of its counterparts in the A&M System and is no different from any of them. They lost out on a great opportunity. UTSA has the opportunity to restart its efforts to bring higher ed to the downtown area. It has the core infrastructure to grow to a 15,000 student body. However, it needs the right leadership to bring the right services to students who want to engage in upper level and masters degree level education within the downtown area. I applaud President Eighmy’s vision.

  5. Please tell me St. Mary’s University is missing from your map of “Top Tier” universities due to a production error instead of a value judgement of the map maker.

    • Will, a production error indeed. We’ve updated the header and included St.Mary’s (my alma mater). Thank you for the constructive feedback!

  6. While I’m excited by the latest commitments to UTSA Downtown, I am disappointed with the rendering that leads this story. It doesn’t thrill or suggest how the area will be transformed into a thriving, inspiring and truly 21st century urban campus better integrated with the rest of downtown. Specifically, it does not seem to aspire to heal the divides caused by 1950s urban renewal/elevated highway development, including the erasure of a walkable and bikeable street grid in this area (which once formed part of San Antonio’s historic Sporting District, or red light district) — and that is essential to university and connected and thus vibrant urban life. The rendering, instead, seems to simply color in between the lines of the current segregated and car-dominated reality of painful walking, biking and bus conditions around UTSA Downtown (why build a new high school at UTSA Downtown when Lanier is only a mile away?), and which seems to have shaped downtown UTSA’s undoing since 1997.

    Related and not addressed by the rendering or reporting, the roughly mile long area of vacant but well-lit parking underneath the elevated I-10/I-35 — let that sink in, roughly a mile long strip of mainly vacant and covered parking lot in the center of downtown that most never talk about and most local reporting ignores — running from S. Laredo to Martin and severing the West Side from downtown, is likely the most interesting and essential property for UTSA to improve to allow downtown UTSA to flourish. This includes to better connect the main part of the downtown campus with UTSA properties near Market Square and further east at Hemisfair Park, and assisting West Side residents with improved downtown access in the process.

    TXDOT thus should be considered a key partner in revitalizing UTSA offerings and presence downtown — including addressing the ‘wall’ and embracing the opportunity offered by the unused space underneath the I-10/I-35 that UTSA, in part, leases as auxiliary parking. As various cities have demonstrated, this could be a much more vital pedestrian space and right-of-way, noting similar pedestrian amenities or underpass parks and pedestrian commercial areas and even housing anchoring if not defining other urban university districts and neighborhoods in the US and globally, from Miami to Toronto to Sydney.

    Instead, various pedestrian rights-of-way and street crossings and vacant spaces in and near UTSA downtown have been eliminated or allowed to fall into disrepair, including beneath the I-10/I-35. They could be restored and improved with a downtown UTSA master plan that focuses on healing the physical divides that purposefully separate and isolate parts of the inner West Side from the rest of downtown for people on foot or bike — in other words, for students, but also locals and visitors.

    The well lit and vacant (currently chained off by UTSA) and surprisingly architecturally beautiful space underneath the I-10/I-35 links downtown UTSA with the City’s Cafe College on El Paso Street (the City’s college center “in the heart of downtown”), some of San Antonio’s legacy food practices (Sanitary Tortilla Factory) and other history and offerings (Peanut Factory Lofts, Sanchez Ice House, etc.) — as well as with development further east and south (HEB on Flores, King William via El Paso Street/Arsenal etc) and north. It currently represents some of the most peaceful and generous walking and biking space and conditions in this part of downtown, even if it does not currently map as a Google route. People who walk or bike around UTSA downtown are already familiar with this space or quickly discover it. I’ve shown various visitors including artists and reporters this downtown UTSA connector, and I would be happy to take a walk with President Eighmy from Sanchez Ice House some afternoon or evening if he is up for it.

    Regardless, it’s exciting that there is once again interest in downtown UTSA offerings and presence and active transit for students — noting how solid VIA express bus services currently are between UTSA campuses, but the 93-17 express route could be improved with stops on the east side near the Alamodome/at St Paul Square and with better walking and crossing conditions between UTSA downtown and Centro Plaza. Likewise, VIA facilities at UTSA North could be improved with better foot and bike paths and cut-throughs connecting the campus with La Cantera shopping. Overall, students and downtown visitors would also be better served with Megabus and a clear and frequent VIA link to our airport at Centro Plaza (I imagine a frequent VIA or City van between North Star and SAT, similar to services at LAX and other airports). In addition, affordable dockless bikeshare at and around UTSA Downtown and other campuses seems only to require returning some phone calls to new private operators in Texas, including noting these linking options in other US cities and on other urban campuses currently.

    Meanwhile, local reporting seems to oscillate between downtown San Antonio parking shortage and light rail fantasies. Light rail between San Antonio college campuses — if it ever happens — is so far off as not to be relevant to most current or aspiring students. Regardless, San Antonio deserves and any future light rail requires more immediate and dramatic improvements to the pedestrian (including bike and bus) grid around UTSA Downtown and elsewhere, to fix 20th century development patterns that prioritize cars, isolate sections of the inner West Side and stigmatize active transit — and that seem to relate to and continue the city’s history of segregation.

    San Antonio is ready for a better 21st century today that I hope UTSA will help to achieve.

  7. You have the UT Health Science Center located in the wrong place on your map. It’s on Medical, outside of the 410 loop.

  8. The more I look at maps of this area and the rendering above, the more I wonder where is the plan — or attention to existing past public plans — to better connect the inner and historic West Side/the greater UTSA Downtown area with the rest of downtown for pedestrians?

    And how could reporting about UTSA Downtown (where architecture and urban planning studies are based) and its master development plan not reference the campus’s best natural asset, the potential access to Alazan Creek from Monterey or Matamorros?

    UTSA Downtown and the West Side could and should have its own Hays Street Bridge or better. Elevated Buena Vista is not enough and, as designed, will never be bueno for pedestrians or urban development (it seems like the City is about to repeat this costly mistake on Zarzamora).

    An elegant pedestrian bridge could connect with the new Monterrey Street grand walkway (to nowhere?) rendered above — imagine students walking or biking to Tafolla, Lanier and Brackenridge — and it would align with the 2011 plan for Westside Creek Revitalization, which will serve various public schools and the Mission Reach. In contrast, it seems like Bexar County and the City have ignored the SARA approved and voter endorsed plan and vision for Alazan Creek as a linear park and major public improvement investment addressing high flood risk andneighborhood isolation. It is equally not clear from the rendering above that UTSA is considering a better Alazan Creek and more connected West Side.

    Unfortunately or deliberately, the Bexar County Detention Center South Annex parking lot built after 2011 obscures if not removes the historic public right-of-way of Monterey Street — where a pedestrian bridge across the rail lines to the UTSA campus could still be built; see the Google streetview from 2011 and 2016 below. There’s also potential for such a pedestrian crossing of the rail line and link to Alazan Creek at Matamorros, where the historic public right-of-way is obscured or removed by Municipal Court/Bexar County auxiliary parking (there is a theme here).

    A new pedestrian bridge — beyond potentially showcasing UTSA’s engineering and design prowess and center city commitments — could assist with any future light rail plans, improving neighborhood access to public transit and the UTSA campus and vice versa.

    You can see Alazan Creek in the upper left corner of the rendering above, although it is not labeled or brought into focus, and it begs the question: why does the County and Council (and local reporting and maybe UTSA by default) seem to hate this particular creek line so much? The current Council voted to delay and further reduce the budget for the Alazan Creek linear park project with the Tricentennial year annual budget. How does this support downtown UTSA revitalization, the cultural heart of San Antonio or the desire for more active transit in greater downtown?

    Looking at San Antonio’s inner and historic West Side seems to be a lesson in how recent public architecture and decision-making has hurt the city in regards to historic and potential public rights-of-way and pedestrian qualities, creating dead and non-urban spaces in the center city. It isn’t about the uses (jails, homeless shelters, warehouses, bus stations etc. exist alongside universities, housing and walkable commercial districts in other US cities), but it is about San Antonio’s recent public architecture and urban design that stresses and creates car-dependence — including in in some cases by removing or denying better pedestrian options. It is definitely not for lack of public spending or resources, but it does seem to be about the allocations and applications.

    Much of the beauty — beyond the way of life — of the inner and historic West Side/the greater UTSA Downtown area exists in the street patterns and structures that predate the public architecture and poor or deliberately segregating site planning of the last twenty years. UTSA Downtown master planning should reference and enhance the historically walkable, bikeable and green street grid of this area and still observable in neighborhoods south and west of the campus.

    It’s just another way of saying that President Eighmy and campus and City planners need to consider different student and staff approaches to UTSA Downtown beyond the parking garage and perhaps light rail some day. In addition to regularly walking or biking the area surrounding UTSA Downtown right now (maybe starting at the Peanut Factory Lofts and Centro Plaza), he and planners should walk the mile from Austin’s downtown Megabus station to the West Campus neighborhood — and with a tape measure. They should imagine what steps could be taken to have or exceed some of these qualities and access in downtown San Antonio beginning this year.

    To make UTSA Downtown work, the focus needs to be on improving pedestrian connections and conditions (including pedestrian block sizes) and creating new bridges or crossings. The 1990s Downtown UTSA planning and the public architecture following shows that ‘autonomous’ buildings and parking aren’t enough or what is missing.

    https://www.google.com/maps/@29.4242174,-98.5079113,3a,53.3y,94.38h,96.3t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1s5g2RJ57dKlUb7PSo-RPoTQ!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

  9. Mayor Nirenberg’s description of UTSA Downtown area development as catalytic seems inadvertently to evoke SARA’s 2011 Westside Creek Revitalization Plan, which envisions “catalyst sites” along Alazan Creek and as connected with new trails, neighborhood trailheads and pedestrian bridges. It really is time to blow the dust off that plan and consider what residents, voters, planners, students, the Army Corps of Engineers, etc. have wanted for Alazan and the greater UTSA Downtown area since at least 2011. Alazan Creek should be at the center of President Eighmy’s vision of an “urban” UTSA Downtown innovatively connected with SAISD and other campuses and learning centers. There is Alazan (and Martinez and Apache) Creek work budgeted for 2018 but once again the public awaits real progress towards better neighborhood and UTSA Downtown connections.

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