Without Infill Development, There’s No ‘Decade of Downtown’

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Big Tex Apartments

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The Big Tex Apartments in Southtown.

After living in San Antonio for nearly six years, it is obvious to me that mixed-use urban development doesn’t sell well here. In fact, I’m pretty sure there’s a movement against new urbanism in our car-centric city.

Yet, a growing segment of the metropolitan population desires vibrant, mixed-use, urban neighborhoods, proven by the success of dense, new urbanist developments. Urban housing is selling well – and at a premium. However, despite the market popularity of areas such as the Pearl District and Southtown, no clear political constituency and support for infill has emerged. Nowhere is this more evident than in the success of the Tier One Neighborhood Coalition, an association of more than a dozen inner-city neighborhood groups, in stymying developers in zoning decisions.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg publicly states commitment to SA Tomorrow, the City’s comprehensive plan; however, there appears to be limited support for meeting goals of a revitalized urban core in recent zoning cases. Multiple ordinances state the City’s commitment to revitalization inside Loop 410. These laws clearly identify target infill zones, incentivize the application of this policy, and, in turn, promote redevelopment of stagnant properties and obsolete industrial zones.

It’s outrageous that this body of law is politically discounted and that developers are forced to defend the City’s own policy. What happened to the political commitment to the “Decade of Downtown?”

It appears the Zoning Commission is neither framing land-use decisions equitably, nor considering the strategic needs of our city. Zoning decisions shouldn’t be based upon answering the singular question of whether an infill project fits in with the neighborhood.

Rather, decisions should also consider how an infill project supports increased density and how well it supports City-legislated goals for infill redevelopment.

Other questions to consider when framing decisions to be equitable to the city at large include: Is an increase in downtown on-street parking and neighborhood traffic better or worse than increased suburban traffic congestion, infrastructure costs, vehicle miles travelled, and air pollution? Does limiting infill development and density in the urban core have a positive, or negative, effect on the growth of suburban sprawl– sprawl that we know threatens the Edwards Aquifer and natural integrity of the Texas Hill Country?

Recent zoning decisions such as the Deansteel and Oden Hughes projects have focused on downsizing project proposals to appease residential complaints about side effects of infill development such as more on-street parking, more traffic, more people, and taller buildings. But what is more of a nuisance to livability in the city? A four- or six-story massed residential building, or its corresponding residential form in urban sprawl?

Medium-density housing in the urban core comes at a 10-to-1 savings in land use. Every small block (200 feet by 200 feet) denied zoning for a four-story apartment is roughly equivalent to 10 acres of new sprawl, according to my own urban planning analysis. Zoning decisions against infill buoy greenfield development – literally the development of large, green, rural tracts – while stymying the redevelopment industry that has organized to achieve the City’s legislated density goals. With so few infill development zone (IDZ) approvals, the protest over IDZ is a tempest in a teapot.

Current geospatial data from the City’s open data website indicates that out of more than 50,000 acres of land inside Loop 410 targeted for revitalization, only 405 acres are zoned IDZ. That tells me that the “nuisance” of infill is an exaggerated problem. This is not to dismiss the advocacy role of organizations like the Tier One Neighborhood Coalition, but rather a call to reconsider land-use decisions within a strategic framework while balancing the interests of longtime residents.

Like it or not, growth is coming – and fast. San Antonio needs mixed-use, medium-density housing with walkable commercial and public spaces far more than it needs its excess of underutilized and socially sterile center-city industrial zones. Infill brings revitalization. Mixed-use, medium- to high-density urban redevelopment is proven to increase the social fabric and create local economic energy – just look at cities such as Portland, Denver, Phoenix, Sacramento, and Detroit.

Single-use downtown zoning is an archaic construct and proven economically unsustainable. One only needs to look back in time 15 years to clearly see the case for infill. Have we, the citizens of San Antonio, already forgotten?

To participate in a public conversation on infill development, please join us on Wednesday, June 13 at 6 p.m. at the UTSA Downtown Campus in the Aula Canaria Room. For more information, click here.

18 thoughts on “Without Infill Development, There’s No ‘Decade of Downtown’

  1. SA Tomorrow is not law, and had zero industry or community input. Just more bureaucrat-led busy work!

    Why do people not want to live downtown? Because the schools are garbage and the crime is ridiculous. Fix that first. Oh wait, whenever we do that, they whine and call it “gentrification”. Oh, and do they have any of that “social fabric” on sale at JOANN’s? LOL

    • Your ignorance hardly warrants a response, but here goes anyway.

      SA Tomorrow was a multi-year process that involved many many committees comprised of, and generally chaired by community and industry groups, with city staff provided a mostly facilitation role.

      Most of SAISD’s new choice schools have long waiting lists – there are lots of people wanting to go to these great schools.

      The fact is tons of people want to live close to downtown – why do you think housing prices are going through the roof? There is a lot of demand, and we’re not supplying enough housing to meet that demand.

      • You are ignorant about the community outreach and education on the SA Tomorrow plan most inner loop neighborhoods and businesses have no idea what it is and what the plan includes . The more they become informed the more input they want to have in this “revitalization” and ” density” discussion concerning planning and development in our inner loop neighborhood’s
        Which leads me to the question of how long have you lived in the inner loop area? There is absolutely nothing wrong with some of us wanting to fight to protect our neighborhoods, and our rich diverse community, we are a big city with small town connections, we have a very strong deep culture inside the loop, and it’s unfortunate that you don’t seem to understand it. We don’t mind responsible infill development. We just don’t want our neighborhoods to be collateral damage in the process. The discussion and the development should include the people that have lived here in the inner loop for decades in some cases generations. And I think it’s so incredible that our city council had been taking that into consideration.

    • This is pure ignorance and a trolling type rhetoric that isn’t welcomed here. Crime is ridiculous downtown? Prove that with facts and data. You can’t because it’s not true.

      Everything else you state is just barn yard aroma filled garbage.

  2. If there were an alternate zoning classification that allowed the mixed use and flexibility of IDZ except that left the front setback in place, I think that would alleviate a lot of the complaining from the neighborhoods. Developers who are adding small (1-4 units) of mid-block housing in residential neighborhoods, but make them stick way out toward the street, are going to hurt infill development in the long run because the design lacks any context with the neighbors, and just annoys people.

    But right now, IDZ is the only game in town because traditional multifamily zoning is designed for suburban garden apartments.

    If the zoning code is based on units per acre, and says you can only do two units on a tract, the incentive is for the developer to build 2 giant units. The resulting structure could end up being far larger than a 4-plex of 1 bedrooms offering more affordable rents, but which wouldn’t be allowed in the X unit per acre limitation.

    I think the form-based code in River North is a bust. I don’t know anyone who can figure out what can or can’t be built on a particular site, which defeats the an important purpose of zoning: predictability for both neighbors and developers.

    Having an option for an IDZ-lite zoning, that would preserve the neighborhood scale (with setbacks and height) but still be more flexible than R-5, would be a good step for neighborhoods, and might be a good compromise for developers who will otherwise be completely blocked from developing inside neighborhoods.

    Larger parcels along commercial corridors (like Dean Steel) could still do IDZ as exists now.

    ok, that’s my idea… now talk amongst yourselves.

    • Joe, thanks for contributing to the dialogue. I welcome you to participate tomorrow at the SA Forum (the link is in the article). Very good points, and I believe that is exactly what the IDZ Task Force is doing. My concern with limiting density, specifically in the urban core, is that we will not achieve the density necessary to prevent continued sprawl which threatens Edwards Aquifer. What you propose, is very similar to how Zoning Commission is downsizing infill development. It’s done with good intention, but will end up capping density around 4,000 people per square mile – roughly the current density of Alamo Heights. That’s a good number, if we want to be like Salt Lake City.

      • I agree with the premise of dense inner-city development, but I also believe in free enterprise, and that the person earning the profits should shoulder the burdens.

        I’m tired of being forced to vote for perpetually high taxes via bond issues in order to make San Antonio livable while developers avoid their responsibilities; i.e. I have to specifically volunteer to pay more for more sidewalks, better drainage, and purchasing land over the recharge zone – while simultaneously paying for a water pipeline in order to subsidize sprawl.

        Meanwhile, Oak Village (a suburban location, yes, but it’s a concrete example) got HUD funds after modifying their engineering study to tout walkability – through a ditch and on the road – and the taxpayer is now footing the bill to pay for sidewalks and a narrowing of the road — via bond money.

        Inner-City Alamo Brewery installed a 62,000 sf asphalt parking lot that drains into 8 sf of drain (not typos) – and exacerbates inner city flooding. Does that actually meet code, or was stormwater FILO requested, and then possibly not paid due to beneficial zoning? According to the owner, he was told he also didn’t need to build sidewalks on Lamar, because the taxpayers had already planned for them – via bond money.

        I agree that IDZ (or any prudent, flexible zoning change) could be a great tool when used appropriately, but the City needs to come to grips with the abuse of the designation and hold developers responsible.

        I wish it weren’t about money, but was about strategic development and coherent policy; but we don’t do that here in San Antonio.

        At only 6 years here, I appreciate your idealism. I felt that way too, once.

        • Joe, I think what you say you value would lead you to slightly different policy outcomes than maybe what you suggest here.
          First, you say you believe in free enterprise and that those earning profits should shoulder the burden. This is interesting because it assumes that free enterprise is what we have today when it comes to development; however, that is far from reality. Residents say they move where they move because of “choice” but the fact is that our choices are limited by all kinds of factors, like artificial caps on density, off-street parking minimums, and the immensely skewed veto power that neighborhood groups are often awarded against almost any development that is outside the status quo (whether infill or greenfield). That is not to mention the powerful lobby efforts of groups like the National Association of Home Builders, who pay our legislators to ensure the rules work best for production builders who build sprawl. And that is partly why, today, the general public believes that single-family housing is good and denser housing is bad, even though density is fiscally much more prudent for cities. The very fact that we jump from bond proposal to bond proposal to pay for our infrastructure needs is precisely because our infrastructure is spread so far across a limited number of taxpayers, forcing us to pay a larger share of every pipe, roadway, and electrical wire. San Antonio, therefore, has significantly more paving and utilities per capita than more compact cities…and someone’s gotta pay the bill. We have done this to ourselves.
          Additionally, your viewpoint suggests that profit ends with the developer, which couldn’t be further from the truth. For starters, every building that is erected across our city pays the salaries of hundreds of workers to pour foundations, frame walls, run electrical wiring, plant trees, and so on. We must quit the myth that some Monopoly-like character plops a building down and scurries away with a bag full of cash–that world does not exist here. Moreover, once a building is completed, there is plenty of profit to be made along the way by homeowners and the owners of other buildings. Every time we sell a house for more than we owe, we profit.
          Blaming infill development for our flooding problems and our traffic congestion, and calling it abuse of the system, is a red herring.
          Larry is right: “the protest over IDZ is a tempest in a teapot.”

  3. Good points in the article and so many.more reasons to support higher density infill that could.fill many books.

    One point I take issue with regards balancing strategic needs of the city with the interests of long time residents. This perpetuates a myth long time residents’ interests being divergent and split from.new residents or future residents or the whole community. Plenty of long time residents want a lot more high density infill, and plenty of recent arrivals have bought into their neighborhoods and are now actively advocating to.prevent more people from being able to live and work close by in the future. I think the divergence is.more between people who tend to think short term and close to home vs long term and farther afield. Openness vs closedness. For example if i think of what’s in the best interests of someone who will be born in 5 years and in need of housing and employment and quality of.life as a 25 year old 30 years from now, encouraging a lot more.housing and jobs in existing developed areas makes sense, even If some is.next door to me. If I think about myself in the next two years, I don’t want a 3 story building.built ten feet from my one story house, although it would.probably be ok. That is to say, we can all decide what we care most about and what is right and.moral to value and advocate for, regardless of whether we arw a new or long time resident.

    What is the scope of the.community that you are responsible for?

    • Great points, and I appreciate the critique. You’re absolutely right, the existing residential composition is dynamic and multifaceted, I was simply capturing the popular narrative. And the law backs your position entirely. All residents, regardless of length of residency have exactly the same rights and we have a moral obligation to account for the variety of perspectives.

      You illuminate another, often over-looked, dynamic that many people change residential preferences as they age. A person’s preference for housing changes as their life changes which is why a wider variety of housing types in a neighborhood can contribute to social cohesiveness. A wide variety of housing options allows for mobility within an district or neighborhood, and allows extended families the ability to live closer to each other despite differences in household unit composition. Single-use suburban housing separates and isolates families.

      I’m not sure I understand the context of your final question, as I’m not an elected official. I’m simply a planner.

  4. Good article, Larry. But I think SA has made some serious headways for infill development within the last decade. Don’t get me wrong, we are not there yet, but so many infill developments took place within the last decade as well. And first few years of that decade were during the financial crisis of 2008 where there was no development at all. So, realistically, last 6-7 years should count for the decade of downtown and I think we are in a better place compare to when we established the goal of decade of downtown.

    What I think we have been missing during this period is making the public space more walkable. Even if developers come inside the loop and do infill, if we can’t stich those places together and create meaningful, functional, and walkable urban places, then we will end up with traffic, parking and car-centric places with high density. I suggest we should adopt policies which would deter car usage in downtown and immediate surrounding areas while we make them more walk/bike/transit friendly.

    • JO,

      Thank you for your reply. I absolutely agree – the downtown core needs more connectivity, and more day-to-day walkability. The Riverwalk and Pearl are indeed walkable, but daily needs of life require movement outside those areas. I believe we need more day-to-day walkable market areas in San Antonio. When I lived in Ghent in Norfolk, I was able to walk out of my condo to go to the bank, the post office, the dry cleaner, the barber, the drug store, the hardware store, the grocery store, the bar, the theater, church, schools. My vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) per week was 20 miles, here its 200 miles. Better than that, I had more time because daily market chores were more convenient and enjoyable – no traffic!

      Yes, I agree we have some spectacular place-making going on in SATX, but we need to add 200,000 people to the inner-core. The housing goals for downtown are good, but a tenth of what is needed to make a dent in curbing sprawl.

      I sounds like you are passionate about connectivity, walkability and bikeability. You might consider helping out with Bike SA or SA-NE. Cheers.

  5. I agree with the need for infill housing from a different perspective. I would love to live at the Pearl or other amazing areas, but I refuse to work only to pay for my housing & personally want to retire early! In other words, not everyone can afford those options. My target population is different.
    I’m about to purchase my first home specifically to be used as LTR-1 & STR-1 purposes. Each property I’ve viewed, & trust me, there’s been tons, have had to meet certain criteria with one of them having access for infill housing. Besided yard space, others are parking; VIA access; drivable alleys for rear entries; proximity to universities; etc. Once this home is secured, then I’ll purchase LTR-2 properties. This is on a much smaller scale than what you’re describing, yet it can assist in reducing the 60,000 unit gap for available housing we now face.
    I work with housing the at-risk homeless; working poor & homeless every day. At one point in our coordinated entry process there was 69 senior adults who needed housing. With the recent San Pedro Creek expansion
    & renovations of Soap Works & Towne Center apartments, the displacement of residents will cause that number to rise.
    In the past 6 months, I’ve met with the President & staff of SAC & they had recently performed a poll. They determined to have 7 homeless students living in their cars attending college. Students would utilize the campus gym for bathing & study in the library until they had to leave, then sleep in their cars. Then the number of couch surfers were unbelievable. For whatever reasons, they wouldn’t live in shelters & were determined to complete school. I applaud this group for their determination, problem solving abilities; tenacity & resourcefulness. These are the employees our workforce needs. They are also the answer to break the cycle of chronic homelessness. Secondary education is essential, but they have to graduate!
    According to a recent article, UTSA is projected to add 10,000 new students to the downtown core. At one of our previous Mayoral Task Force meetings, the city confirmed that number to be closer to 15,000. This was not factored in to the “1 million new residents by the year 2040 projection.” In fact the East Side explosion wasn’t either.

    For the record, I’m not anti-gentrification. There’s numerous areas in the city I’d raze to the ground & rebuild. There’s also others I’d repurpose into work-live loft style buildings. I believe people should have suitable options for safe housing as gentrification occurs.

    Some residential yards are large enough to add container homes, convert existing sheds to efficiency apartments or have both options. Many have casitas, but we need much more. With all the beautiful parks we have around the City, I’d quickly sacrifice yard space for safe, secure housing. It’s more acceptable & appeasing to neighbors if family or friends host get togethers somewhere beside their bedroom window! Voice of experience speaking!
    Providing incentivization to local small business owners & developers is a must. This subject was discussed numerous times during the Task Force meetings. By the time a 4 story or larger apartment building is approved & built, downtown residential infill housing could successfully provide shared student housing; house those being displaced; or are at-risk for homelessness.
    Infill, on every level, is necessary.
    Zoning has to evolve & accommodate the needs of city-wide projected increase. Incentives must be equally distributed.
    We’re better together & together everyone achieves more.

  6. We are not at consensus with regards to Southtown being Downtown. The Deansteel project is asking for 130 residences per acre. This is a ridiculous and unreasonable ask. Southtown is not Manhattan. We need to determine more reasonable limits, somewhere in the 40-60 range. We can’t ignore the impact on restricted roads, especially when we do not have the mass transit options that cities like NY and Chicago have with subways and elevated trains. Let’s be sure we are considering what will work best for San Antonio and its communities, not just developers.

    • I am a san antonian, not a developer, and I support Dean steel.
      Density is usually needed to support transit to come, not the other way around (the other way around is too costly for transit to make it and takes too long). So, we need to build like we are getting transit or we will never get it!

  7. I’ve lived off Broadway below Hildebrand for 20 years. This is definitely the decade of Downtown. I’ve seen some smart infill and not so smart. I’ve seen first hand how cohesive neighborhood groups welcome, retard and shape infill within their realms. Code compliance is a joke and I’m not sure I believe that SA Tomorrow is comprised of community layers of input. Just because neighborhood representatives are there for these meetings, does not mean their input is considered. San Antonio is and, since the middle of last century, has been behind the times. Perhaps looking towards the mistakes of more progressive (infill and design issues) cities, we can learn from them and make better choices. SA is not Houston or Portland but it’s the people that live through these growing pains and not necessarily the culmination of data that guides them. We are still new at this. We will get it soon and some harmony may once again be restored. Sadly, it has to be at an aged, single-family dwelling neighborhoods expense. PS. I still get pissed that the light rail proposed many years ago- traveling up Broadway- would already have been completed almost a decade ago. Imagine how things would be now…

  8. Nice column Larry, but where are the facts? 400+acres of IDZ inside 410 out of 50k… but where are those 400? And infill doesn’t have to be IDZ. It could be MF-33 or other designations. And what about the numbers of people moving into the downtown area? How full are the condo/townhome developments that already exist? I know lots of places for rent and for sale. Larger problem is affordability. If wages continue to stagnate and there aren’t businesses paying people enough to live in a $250k condo, there will be no decade of downtown.

    As it stands, there’s still plenty of former commercial and industrial land plotted that could be turned into infill. It hasn’t been.

    And the idea that Tier 1 is styming development efforts is laughable. Theyre literally just a group of concerned neighborhood residents — they wield no entrenched political power. And frankly, neighborhoods amd residents should be involved. As soon as you get cities and developers backslapping each other behind closed doors, all the important stuff that is supposed to benefit the people goes out the window. Environmental impact? Who cares. Traffic impact studies? Not our problem– its yours. How will the development affect nearby communities and their cost of living? We dont care — we’re here to buy and sell land and make money.

    There’s an important thing in American government called checks and balances. Don’t try and undermine it.

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