Courtesy / UTSA
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.
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.
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."