When friends ask how I like living in downtown San Antonio, I let the walking do the talking, especially for tourists. On a recent Saturday, we started at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse for mimosas. Then to the Esquire for lunch.
Our visitors from Houston dropped into the Buckhorn Saloon and Museum, purported home to the oldest continuous-operating bar in Texas. Next up was Pat O’Brien’s for a free, energetic, two-hour set by a talented father-son duo, Generation Gap. At dinnertime, we dress for Ostra, where ponchos and flaming gas heaters soften a crisp, clear evening on the riverside.
More music, anyone? We drop into the Davenport to rock the night away. Was Lenny Kravitz on stage? Sure sounded that way.
Returning home, we passed by one of the big-screen TVs at the Grand Hyatt’s Bar Rojo. It’s visible from Market Street and, wouldn’t you know it, the Cowboys were losing again as the New York Jets kick a last-second field goal.
Oh well. Can’t win ‘em all.
But on this day (and night), downtown was a winner all the way around.
We head upstairs to our condo atop the Grand Hyatt and call it an evening. For all our travels, my car never left the underground garage. It hasn’t gone out for a week, which is typical.
While my car is ensconced in a gated private garage under the hotel, I live on the 31st floor. With a pool on the roof and a 6,000-square-foot fitness center on the fifth floor and 24-7 concierge service, there are days I don’t leave the building.
The Alteza, Spanish for “highness” in a literal and figurative sense here, is as pricey as it sounds. Penthouses go for more than $3 million. The 750-square-foot one-bedroom units started at $300,000, and they’re sold out.
In a city whose median household income is $50,000, Alteza’s ethereal heights are out of reach for most. Yet compared to downtown Austin, San Antonio is a bargain.
Retired couples and business executives recognize a deal when they see one. A few of my neighbors purchased units to lease out for $4,000 to $5,000 a month.
Andy, an Air Force officer, is a renter and loves the lifestyle. “You have so much spare time – no yard work, and everything is close by,” he said.
He particularly enjoys Southtown’s eclectic restaurants, a 15-minute walk away.
The golden pedestrian path downtown is the River Walk, which urban expert Charles Marohn of Strong Towns calls the best metropolitan park in America.
Running through historic San Antonio, the River Walk offers truly green mobility to residents and tourists alike.
Anyone doubting its enduring popularity is welcome to trace our winding trek through downtown any day or evening.
On this night, hundreds of people are queued up for barge rides. Whenever crowds reach capacity, our party heads upstairs to street level, where foot traffic moves more briskly. Cars are another story. Key downtown arteries can, at seemingly random intervals, feel more like midtown Manhattan.
Well-policed and clean, San Antonio’s downtown is a refreshing departure from other urban centers that are crime-ridden, derelict, or both.
Walking downtown San Antonio is a sure-fire antidote to cookie-cutter suburbia. It’s an endlessly entertaining exercise – especially during the holiday season.
Festive lights and music fill the streets and titillate the senses. Think of the best parts of New Orleans, Chicago and San Francisco, and you get a glimpse into my life.
And it’s not just at Christmastime or New Year’s. Living and working from my apartment, I step outside every day to a transforming Hemisfair Park, to cafes, to theaters, to museums and, now, to a new neighborhood H-E-B.
My daily routine proves that high-rise downtown living is vastly more intimate and expansive than any 6,000-square-foot McMansion in Stone Oak or the Dominion.
But there’s a cautionary note. For all its charm, the urban core has too many vacancies. Eyesores by day, black holes at night, empty buildings sap San Antonio’s potential. Generating little or no tax revenue, they drain a community struggling with debt.
San Antonio has become America’s seventh largest city via aggressive annexation of outlying areas. But bigger is not better. This strategy carries a tremendous price: diverting precious resources and hollowing out the urban core.
Tech Bloc, a grassroots organization dedicated to activating San Antonio's tech industry, declared on its homepage:
“Educated young people have made it clear, in surveys and by voting with their feet, that they will not move to, or remain in cities that don’t have vibrant urban areas. Put bluntly, we fear that never-ending annexation and suburbanization will keep San Antonio from achieving the urban density necessary to attract talent, foster ideas and capital and ultimately compete in the Internet century.”
I can say the same for upscale retirees who are exiting suburbia to invest in walkable, amenitized downtown digs.
Anchored by the River Walk, downtown is the city’s cash cow. The Alamo remains the top tourist attraction in Texas. Neglecting these jewels in pursuit of far-flung sprawl will surely tarnish San Antonio – prompting visitors and would-be residents to take a hike elsewhere.
*Top Image: The Alteza condominiums occupy the 25th-33rd floors atop the Grand Hyatt. Photo by Kenric Ward.