City Scrapes: Downtown development still lacks core strength
Published: October 2, 2013
Aschman’s recommendation was the development of “anchor projects” which would “confine future commercial development to the existing core,” further containing strong employment and economic activity in the central area, as “new commercial building would be built in closer (and thus more convenient and efficient) relationship to existing buildings and to each other.” What Aschman sought for Chicago’s Loop, and what that city ultimately achieved, was a dense, high-rise concentration of office buildings and employment. Transportation played a role—the Loop was well served with an elevated transit system, a subway and commuter rail—but it was policies that supported dense development that kept Chicago’s core vibrant and functional.
What we need for San Antonio is a public and private commitment to a dense downtown core, and local plans and policies that support that goal. What we’re doing is almost the opposite. Development is spreading out, to just that “cheaper peripheral land” that Aschman described. New housing at Pearl Brewery and along Broadway may be more attractive than abandoned car dealerships, but it won’t aid the development of a dense, walkable core. New housing along South Flores or at the Big Tex site south of King William will just mean more spread-out development. And even the promise of a new school of osteopathic medicine near Fox Tech is just too little, too far. Take, for example, the Loop district Aschman helped create. It’s 1.58 square miles total. Now think of walking from the Pearl to Main Plaza, that’s 2 linear miles in itself, through a long stretch of Broadway desolation. Blue Star fares a bit better, that would be a 1.3 mile hike down the pleasant River Walk (you could also take Main Street as a surface road alternative, though this will be hampered if HEB succeeds in closing a portion of that street to pedestrians). Residents and businesses on Flores Street, while closer in, suffer in the walkability department south of Cesar Chavez Boulevard.
VIA’s proposed streetcar system isn’t an answer to our downtown spread—just the opposite. The chosen route that twists and turns to accommodate everyone and everything, from Market Square and the new transit hub on the West Side to HemisFair Park, from Pearl Brewery to Southtown and the Tobin performing arts center, may well help some favored interests and developers make profit out of promises. But it will just exacerbate our local version of the problem Ted Aschman sought to fix in Chicago.