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Cityscrapes: Development Dreams

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

A slide from VIA’s Modern Streetcar Board Workshop presentation in June

But while downtown property and development interests are busy salivating over the rewarding prospects of a streetcar, what about the rest of us? Will this grand streetcar vision really provide any transportation alternative? The proposed north/south route along Broadway wouldn’t reach the Witte Museum or the new Children’s Museum, just stopping at the front door of the Pearl Brewery. It wouldn’t reach the Central Library, Baptist Hospital, or San Antonio College — all activity centers that would benefit from the “connectivity” and “mobility” promised by the streetcar, all locales that would likely serve San Antonio residents rather than tourists. Instead, Alternatives 5 and 6 (the two possible routes presented by VIA last month) list connections to HemisFair Park, the Tobin Center, Lower Broadway, UTSA Downtown, and El Mercado. There are vague plans to extend the route up Broadway, toward SAC, and deeper into neighborhoods to the west, east, and south, but no funding as of yet.

Yet even as a means of spreading tourists and their dollars to a host of “Potential Redevelopment” areas around downtown, the streetcar scheme is seriously flawed. We’ve seen projects like Fiesta Plaza and Sunset Station, the former Museo Alameda, and Houston Street fail to blossom into the hubs of activity city leaders sold them as. What tourists appreciate is the concentration of people, activity, and visual interest along the River Walk. It’s proven enormously difficuly to move visitors off the River Walk, even just a few steps or a short elevator ride up to Houston Street. The notion that a streetcar will somehow do what the existing downtown trolley service hasn’t, and what a whole host of public development efforts have failed at, seems implausible.

What our community needs at this juncture is not a streetcar scheme that reflects no real public input and no opportunity for a public vote, but a true conversation about the future of our downtown core, and what we need to achieve it. The rhetoric of “world class city” is grand. If that’s truly our goal, we need a serious discussion of the meaning of “world class” and what it will take to achieve it.

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