Decade of Downtown
Will efforts to revitalize the city core draw locals back or simply extend the Disneyfication of the River Walk?
Published: July 20, 2011
Arecchi, owner of downtown shop Justin’s Ice Cream, opened his first River Walk business, a local nightclub called the Garter, the same year locals and tourists alike converged on the newly built HemisFair Park in 1968. He eventually opened his ice cream parlor on the river in 1981, where he stayed for over two decades, watching downtown change before his eyes.
It’s what Arecchi aptly called “the chainification of downtown” that lost him his River Walk spot in 2004, when Houston-based chain Landry’s Restaurants came in and gobbled up a host of downtown properties. A Saltgrass Steak House eventually moved in and booted Arecchi from his place along the river, though he found his way back in 2009 — ironically, near another Landry’s establishment: downtown’s Rainforest Café.
“I think for a while there was a lax attitude about what type of development we want to see downtown, an ‘any development is good development’ type thing,” Arecchi said. “I think it was some dumb-ass politicians that started to open the doors to let these people in, these chain restaurant people,” he said. “I’ll tell you what I’m afraid of when we talk about downtown — it’s more hotels coming in and buying up properties down here, bringing in their corporate restaurants, their cafes, their bars, and wiping out small, local business.”
In 2004, the city turned HemisFair’s iconic tenant, the Tower of the Americas, over to Landry’s for a 15-year agreement to manage and operate the property, and the chain opened up its own restaurant, bar, and gift shop inside HemisFair.
“When we look at HemisFair, it does bring up that question: Who will this downtown plan be catered to? That’s really been a big concern for me,” Bernal said. “For those of us who grew up here, who saw how the city grew in the ’80s and ’90s, we understand that downtown hasn’t really been for residents. Most don’t go downtown.”
Downtown rental units, especially affordable ones, are still notably sparse even while large swaths of downtown office space have sat empty for years. Notably, when AT&T’s lease expired on its former downtown headquarters early this month, the open space hit the market and spiked downtown office vacancy to roughly 29 percent, compared to the 17.7 percent vacancy rate outside the central business district, the highest downtown vacancy rate in decades, according to Kim Gatley, senior vice president at NAI REOC San Antonio, a commercial real estate firm.
A downtown renewal with locals in mind will likely require the conversions of long-vacant downtown office space into residential apartments. Still, save for a few notable exceptions like the Vistana’s 14-story apartment complex downtown, developers have yet to line up behind conversions to market-rate rentals downtown. “We have seen a few successful conversions of older downtown office buildings for residential, but more often than not we see conversions to hotel space,” Gately said.
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