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Cityscrapes: International urban scholars converge downtown

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

“Where are all the people?”

From March 19 to 22, more than 700 international urban scholars will convene in San Antonio for the annual meeting of the Urban Affairs Association. We’ll discuss the most current research in the urban field, from planning and development to culture and society. We’ll also share the lessons that we’ve learned from cities around the world.

San Antonio has its share of lessons as well. Urban affairs researchers will no doubt enjoy our oft-visited attractions such as the River Walk and the Alamo, as well as the variety of historic buildings downtown and in inner-city areas like Southtown and King William. Most of these scholars and researchers will be familiar with, if only by reputation, the stories of our successful investments in tourism, such as the River Walk and HemisFair. They’ll be able to see our more recent public investments, including the $325 million expansion of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center and the 1,000-room Grand Hyatt hotel financed with Federal empowerment bonds backed by city hotel tax revenues. And they may learn about VIA Transit’s downtown streetcar plans. Yet, while they will recognize the abundance of hotel rooms and tourist-oriented shops—all the trappings of tourism success—they might also notice some other things.

A few years ago, visiting downtown San Antonio, our late colleague Judith Martin from the University of Minnesota asked me, “Where are all the people?” Despite the throngs along the River Walk and clustered in front of the Alamo, downtown streets can be remarkably devoid of people on a regular workday. San Antonio’s Downtown, while home to a variety of attractions and the seat of city and county governments, has a remarkably modest volume of private employment. Our downtown skyscrapers are usually hotels, although many started out as bank or office buildings. The total private employment in downtown zip code 78205 for 2011 was just 26,121—a fraction of the comparable number in the Medical Center area of 42,054. And where the Medical Center area employment has grown from 33,120 in 1994, the downtown employment was little changed from the 24,735 of 1994. The limited scale of the downtown office economy is also evidenced by figures on office space and vacancy. As of the end of 2013, the downtown area included 5.7 million square feet of office space, or just 22 percent of the citywide total. Much of that downtown space was also empty, with a vacancy rate of 29.7 percent.

With only modest office space and employment, the retail activity at the city’s heart is also limited. An April 2012 consultant study described center city retail as “dominated by visitor-oriented offerings, with about 60 percent of retail being restaurants, bars, clubs and souvenir shops.” Even with that visitor focus, one-third of center city retail space was vacant.

It’s not that the city hasn’t tried to change things. A 1980s Federal Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG) helped finance the Rivercenter Mall, with a vision of creating the city’s “high end” mall. But the anticipated Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue failed to arrive, and the mall struggled, ultimately losing one of its anchor department stores, Dillards, in 2008. It was much the same along Houston Street, where in 1999 Federal Realty Investment promised a major revitalization comparable to its Bethesda Row in suburban D.C. and Santana Row in San Jose, adding such major national retailers as Bath and Body Works and Barnes and Noble. Neither store has made an appearance, although Federal Realty did produce another new hotel, the Valencia.

More recently, Mayor Julian Castro has proclaimed a “Decade of Downtown,” with new efforts to subsidize downtown housing and boost development. Yet even these plans have to cope with the reality that property owners see far more potential reward in filling hotel rooms than office space, and that city subsidy policies have long aided new office development in outlying areas rather than focusing on the urban core.

Tourism “success” hasn’t yielded a vibrant downtown for San Antonio. There’s a lesson there for a great many other places, and we need to understand the lesson as well.

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