The San Antonio Challenge: Balancing Growth and Heritage


When the 23-story Frost Tower opened in downtown San Antonio in 2019, the eight-sided glass reel represented a resurgent decade of downtown development. It was the city’s first new office tower in three decades.

For Randy Smith, Managing Director of Weston Urban, one of the developers behind the project, it was the start of a new wave of business. Now that the offices have arrived downtown, a new influx of residents comes next.

One of the company’s next big projects, a 32-story brick residential tower block a few blocks away, begins this year. “The Frost Tower is this tall, tall, visible symbol of a new downtown era,” Smith said. “And the residential tower will be the same.”

But community advocates oppose some of that growth, saying new office and apartment towers are encroaching on the city’s historic neighborhoods that have formed a cultural core of Mexican-American heritage.

“San Antonio has a wonderfully preserved historic downtown, a park of historic buildings and the River Walk, and this is the image the city projects to the world,” said Ian Caine, director of the Center for Urban and Regional Planning Research at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “And then on the other hand, it’s one of the fastest growing American cities, renowned for its biculturality and minority majority, and one of the most segregated and poorest cities in the United States. United”

“As San Antonio moves forward, it tries to make sense of these competing stories,” he added.

Often overlooked compared to other major cities in Texas, San Antonio has been one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the United States for years. Its population has grown by 8.1% over the past decade, with predictions that it will host a million more by 2040. Developers are moving at a similar rate.

Several large-scale projects will support the recent growth of the city center. The $ 700 million Lone Star District is expected to lead the way this year; Essex Modern City, a $ 150 million mixed-use neighborhood, has finally overcome funding and regulatory hurdles; and the second phase of the redevelopment of Hemisfair Park will begin this fall. Other notable projects include a solid wood office tower called Soto, a $ 450 million renovation of the historic Alamo Plaza, and the development of new parks and green spaces along San Pedro Creek.

“San Antonio is always under the radar and in my opinion America’s best-kept secret,” said Jake Harris, Managing Partner at Harris Bay, a Sacramento-based developer who is behind many projects. in San Antonio, including the modern city of Essex. “Growth is not yet built into real estate, and you can still get a good deal when institutional capital starts coming in. “

The tie that binds these threads together may be the significant expansion of the University of Texas at San Antonio downtown campus, which staged a groundbreaking shovel in January. Planned to attract an additional 15,000 students over the next decade, the university is adding streetscapes and academic facilities, including the $ 90 million School of Data Science and the $ 90 million National Security Collaboration Center, to spur growth industries of the future.

The ability to develop this site is like creating a “complete neighborhood,” said Corrina Green, associate vice president for real estate, construction and planning at the university.

The expansion has the potential to be an incubator for development, but it is also likely to catalyze other commercial and residential developments in the downtown area, which worries some community groups.

In recent decades, the relatively small, pedestrianized downtown area of ​​San Antonio – in part thanks to the streets that trace the path of the Spanish colonial-era irrigation canals called acequias – has been overtaken by growth and development. from the suburbs. Even today, the wealthiest suburbs offer 26.4 million square feet of office space, compared to 4.9 million downtown.

Early projects highlighted the region’s potential, in particular the redevelopment of a brewery by Christopher Goldsbury, a former managing director of Pace Foods, which has become the Pearl District, an entertainment destination. But investments started to grow dramatically in 2010, when former mayor Julián Castro launched the Decade of Downtown initiative.

It changed the traditional calculation of downtown building, said Kamil Alavi, partner at GrayStreet Partners, which develops the Lone Star site. Projects requiring the demolition and replacement of old buildings were not profitable, nor were some with undeveloped land, although these limits encouraged adaptive reuse which accentuated the architectural heritage of the city.

Now there are more opportunities, with 2.4 million square feet of real estate under construction downtown, said Ryan Metz, brokerage advisor at ECR.

“There is a mismatch between the demand for real estate and what is currently downtown, which will not be filled anytime soon,” Alavi said.

This demand and the need for new housing worries advocates and community members of the Westside, a neighborhood of small shops, or tienditas, and tight-knit single-family homes that are a source of affordable homeownership for low-income earners. to medium. residents, with houses often handed down from generation to generation.

“This is where people have lived for generations, where the Chicano movement started, and there is so much rich history,” said Levar Martin, program director for the National Association of Community Asset Builders. Latinos, based in San Antonio. “It’s not just about preserving the building stock. It is about the culture and the life of the people.

The Esperanza Center for Peace and Justice lobbied for affordable housing and recognition of historic architecture and is restoring 11 historic casita houses and buildings and building a museum showcasing the history of the Westside, to create the Rinconcito de Esperanza, a historic cultural district.

The Decade of Downtown initiative has invested in housing for newcomers, but not for those who have lived downtown for generations, said Graciela Sanchez, director of the center.

“This neighborhood is Ellis Island for Mexican Americans,” she said, and she fought to protect it, joining community protests last year against plans to demolition and reconstruction of the Alazán-Apache Courts, a historic social housing project.

City and housing officials grapple with what comes next, especially when it comes to access and affordability. The previous development focused more on increasing the total number of housing units downtown, said Mia Loseff, policy analyst for Texas Housers, a nonprofit focused on low-income housing. New policies and incentives need to be more tailored to encourage housing for all income levels, and realize that “the most affordable housing is the structures we already have,” she said.

Half of affordable housing in San Antonio is not subsidized, so it is more subject to market forces. Groups like the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center and others have encouraged the development of land trusts as well as targeted investments to help homeowners.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg and his administration have created ways to invest in housing, including setting aside funds for affordable housing and creating a $ 1 million risk mitigation fund in 2019 to help residents displaced by development, who will receive an additional $ 4 million in funding this year.

The city is seeking to complete a new strategic housing plan, which includes proposals to provide incentives for private sector development and to create 28,000 units over the next decade that will primarily support low-income residents. And in May, the city will vote on a planned $ 250 million affordable housing bond measure that would fund the construction, preservation and set-aside of land.

Now is the time to find the right formula to preserve the city’s heritage and maintain affordable housing, said Martin of the National Association of Latino Community Asset Builders.

“I understand that the city wants to take advantage of the culture, but this has to be followed by preservation that is fair for the people who are there,” he said.


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