Council supports developing new center city plan: ‘Every decade can be the Decade of Downtown’

The “Decade of Downtown” ended in 2020. As the coordinated push to invest more public and private dollars into San Antonio’s urban core came to a close, both local officials and the public were left wondering what’s next.

On Wednesday, the City Council discussed an approach to figuring that out amid an ongoing effort to complete the wide-ranging SA Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan.

Assistant City Manager Lori Houston announced the city will develop a new strategic framework plan for downtown, covering everything from housing to public safety, through a partnership with the two local agencies — Centro San Antonio and Visit San Antonio— charged with promoting the city center to residents and visitors.

Houston said the timing is right to update the plan because while the COVID pandemic has subsided, some of its effects on the economy remain.

The planning process is estimated to cost more than $500,000. Centro SA has hired urban development consulting firm HR&A to develop the plan in conjunction with Visit San Antonio, with both groups contributing $255,000 for the project.

The City of San Antonio has committed $45,000, funds that will go directly to supporting the housing study component of the plan.

“That is because we’re interested in all [topics] but we’re specifically focused on that housing piece,” Houston said. “How do we make sure that we keep housing in balance? How do we make sure that we protect the affordable housing in downtown and allow affordable housing to continue to grow, but also market rate, because it’s a demand-and-supply issue?”

The original plan, developed in 2012, focused on a housing-first strategy that led to the Center City Housing Implementation Policy and 9,000 residential units added to downtown.

The earlier focused investment in downtown also led to public-private partnerships like Hemisfair, the Zona Cultural and San Pedro Creek Culture Park, Houston said.

The leaders of Visit SA and Centro SA said their board members are investing a significant amount in the project because they recognize that what happens downtown affects the entire city, a sentiment echoed by council members representing districts outside District 1.

Marc Anderson, president and CEO of Visit SA, said the tourism bureau is partnering on the project for the benefit of the entire city, its tourism industry and hospitality employment. “Success is a centerpiece to the prosperity for all of San Antonio,” he said.

Trish DeBerry, CEO of Centro SA, called the Decade of Downtown a “blessing and a curse.”

“Why? Because when the decade was over, it put an expiration date on downtown investment,” she said. “So my feeling is we never stop ideating, innovating and investing in downtown because downtown is everybody’s downtown.”

A strategic plan, developed with the help of outside experts, is needed, DeBerry said. “I think instinctively we can tactically think what we think downtown should be, but if we don’t have a strategy, I think we’re all kind of shooting from the hip,” she said.

Improved mobility and getting around the center city is one aspect of planning the future of downtown, DeBerry said as she announced a new transportation project.

Centro is embarking on a pilot project, she said, that provides weekday shuttle services via electric golf cart-type vehicles for faculty, staff and students attending UTSA’s downtown campus. Each of the four enclosed vehicles seat four to six passengers, and while circulating through downtown, drivers will collect ridership data that could be used for planning purposes.

Councilwoman Teri Castillo (D5) said her constituents are more likely to support a downtown plan that results in more housing. Otherwise, “it is going to be a hard sell,” she said.

Castillo also encouraged the planning consultant team to include labor unions like Unite Here, which represents hospitality workers, and the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA), representing construction workers, in developing the plan.

“No doubt the hospitality industry and workers are the backbone of this entire downtown economy,” she said. “As well as LIUNA who are retrofitting and building the buildings that help create all this economic development and investment in downtown.”

Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6) asked DeBerry if the plan would also address the concept of a sports and entertainment district in the downtown area.

“There’s been a lot of chatter about that,” DeBerry said, noting that the plan’s original scope included a section on sports but it was eliminated due to the costs associated with it. “But they were very, very interested, obviously, in that topic, yes, because they saw a huge opportunity for downtown.”

Havrda asked if there is room for such a district. “Absolutely, yes,” DeBerry said.

Houston told council members the plan will be based on an economic impact study for downtown and a housing study addressing demand, supply and development costs. It will also dovetail with a Transit-Oriented Development Plan and the Downtown Regional Center Plan, a subset of the SA Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan.

The planning process starts this month and continues with outreach and input through August, DeBerry said. “We hope to have preliminary findings regarding housing strategies and community benefits, economic development and connectivity and partnership strategies by September with the hope to have a final report by November.”

Councilwoman Sukh Kaur (D1), whose district encompasses downtown San Antonio, welcomed the effort to develop the plan and thanked her council colleagues for recognizing the value to all of San Antonio of investing in the center city.

“The Decade of Downtown, that term, is going to continue,” Kaur said. “Every decade can be the decade of downtown.”

The council also discussed next steps for completing the SA Tomorrow Plan, adopted in 2016 to manage the city’s growth with distinct plans created for 13 regional centers, 17 community areas and 30 sub-areas.

Rudy Niño, interim director of the city’s planning department, told the council that sub-area planning began in 2017 and is expected to go through 2028. So far, nine sub-area plans have been completed, including areas such as Brooks, Midtown, downtown and the South Texas Medical Center, and the same number are in progress.

Work has just begun on plans for six other sub-areas, including the Southwest and West Northwest Community area plans, Niño said.

In addition to developing corridor and rezoning plans, growth policy and extra-territorial jurisdiction planning, the city’s planning department is also tasked with developing the policies and goals of transit-oriented development, for which a task force began meeting last week.

“The focus of this plan will be to reduce barriers to development, incentivize and encourage a variety of housing options and ensure multimodal connectivity specifically to and within station areas,” Nino said.

Councilman John Courage (D9) was eager to see the plans completed. “We need to get those plans done but more than that, we need to implement the plans,” he said.

Courage said that as a former member of the city’s Planning Commission, he became frustrated that city staff would make recommendations based on the approved plans, “but the developers would come out and say we want to do something different on that piece of land and the commission would say OK.”

Mayor Ron Nirenberg said the effort has been time-consuming but is now at a key stage. “It’s taken literally a decade to get where we are now, but we’ve gotten further and further, more granular, into the plans that are actually dealing with land use,” he said.

This article has been updated to correct the year that the SA Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan was developed.

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