Ten years ago, San Antonio’s bond program dedicated a mere $10 million to downtown improvements. In 2012, that number had jumped to $90 million, and the most recent bond initiative, passed in May, earmarks $170 million for downtown projects.
“In 2007, people weren’t thinking about downtown. It wasn’t a priority,” Lori Houston, assistant city manager of San Antonio, said at the ULI Texas Forum in San Antonio.
As noted in the original SA2020 report, which in 2011 laid out goals for city development, the city’s downtown “is not a boarded-up ghost town,” as is the case with some other urban downtowns. “But better downtown business and job opportunities will be created only if the city’s urban core becomes a primary gathering point for its residents, in addition to being a haven for tourists.”
Altogether, hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested to transform San Antonio’s urban core from sleepy to vibrant. At the ULI Texas Forum, Houston and Andres Andujar, chief executive of the Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corp., outlined a number of revitalization projects in progress in downtown San Antonio.
A $450 million plan to restore the Alamo and reimagine the site has buy-in from state officials, local government officials, community leaders, and local residents. The revamp—designed to mark not only the Battle of the Alamo in 1836 but also the site’s history as a mission—is set to be finished in 2024, when the 300th anniversary of the mission’s founding will be observed.
Houston said a series of studies going as far back as 1988 had gathered dust rather than sparking rejuvenation of the Alamo, which today is surrounded by urban development.
“The one thing that’s never happened—and the reason why none of those plans has ever worked—is because we did not have a strong partnership with the state of Texas,” she said.
That changed after George P. Bush, son of former Florida governor Jeb Bush, was elected Texas land commissioner in 2014. Before he was sworn in, he committed to rehabbing the state-owned Alamo, Houston said.
“The vision for the Alamo is to engage locals and tourists with the story of the Alamo—make sure that it’s relevant to them and connected to that experience,” she said.
“Another” River Walk
Every year, the River Walk in downtown San Antonio draws millions of visitors, making it the city’s top destination. Shops, restaurants, hotels, and other amenities line the San Antonio River to form this pedestrian-friendly experience.
Now, a project is underway to turn 2.2 miles (3.5 km) of San Pedro Creek—located between the San Antonio River to the east and Interstate 35 to the west—into “another” River Walk and change the fabric of downtown.
One highlight of the $175 million San Pedro Creek project is that it will make 40 acres (16 ha) of floodplain land available for housing and other developments, Houston said.
The project, undertaken by Bexar County, the San Antonio River Authority, and the city of San Antonio, is intended to “transform San Pedro Creek from a concrete-lined drainage ditch into a natural creek habitat and world-class linear park,” according to the project website. “The project will improve the creek’s function in flood control, revitalize natural habitat and water quality, and catalyze economic development.”
The project is scheduled for completion in May 2018.
In 2019, downtown San Antonio is set to welcome its first new office tower since 1989—the 23-story Frost Tower, with San Antonio–based Frost Bank as anchor tenant.
Construction of the $142 million, 460,000-square-foot (43,000 sq m) tower began in March in an area of western downtown “burdened with too many run-down buildings and parking lots,” the San Antonio Express-News reported. The site is adjacent to the segment of San Pedro Creek that is being revitalized.
“When I look at the skyline and see this new building, I’m going to think about what this one building did for all of downtown San Antonio,” Houston said last year.
HemisFair ’68, the name of that year’s world’s fair, was a “coming-out party for a new San Antonio,” according to the SA2020 report. “Hotels and pavilions were constructed in record time. A new sense of civic pride was instilled in the community. . . . Its imprint is still visible on the downtown skyline, which would be unrecognizable without the Tower of the Americas.”
To be sure, the 750-foot-tall (229 m) tower dominates the skyline of 2017. But local leaders want the tower and surrounding property to be much more than a physical reminder of an event that happened nearly 50 years ago.
Work is underway to redevelop the area around the tower into an urban district populated by parks, residences, and businesses. Already, the amount of dedicated parkland has been brought to more than 19 acres (7.7 ha) by the Hemisfair initiative. (As part of the area’s rebirth, the capital “F” in HemisFair has been dropped when referring to the emerging Hemisfair District.)
“Since 1968, even though there have been a series of master plans for the area, there has been no funding to back it up. As a result, we’ve had a fairly abandoned area of our downtown,” Andujar said. “But that has now changed. There is a vision for the area and there’s funding.”
In 2011, then mayor Julián Castro proclaimed the “Decade of Downtown” in San Antonio. The foundation of that proclamation was a push to boost the number of downtown dwellers, targeting an increase in the number of residential units from about 7,000 in 2011 to 14,500 in 2020.
The city is on track to reach that goal of 7,500 additional units, Houston said. This year alone, about 1,000 residential units are scheduled to come online. In all, nearly 6,300 units have been built, started, or planned since Castro issued his challenge, she said.
So far, $110 million in public incentives for downtown housing have unlocked about $1 billion in private investment, she said.
Houston credited San Antonio’s Center City Housing Incentive Policy, adopted by the city council in 2012, with helping spur the downtown residential boom. The policy has reduced risks for residential developers, she said.
Any developer interested in building at least two residential units downtown can receive a 15-year rebate of city taxes, along with a waiver of city fees, water hookup fees, and sewer hookup fees, Houston said. If a highly desirable element such as retail or affordable housing is part of the project, the developer can receive a cash grant that the city will forgive over five years, as long as terms of the deal are met.
A huge bonus for developers is that once an incentive contract is signed for downtown housing, the deal is done. “It does not go to the city council. You do not have to lobby your city council members. It’s automatic,” Houston said.