FOR THE EXPRESS-NEWS : APRIL 4, 2015 : By Sinclair Black, Crenshaw Professor of Urban Design, University of Texas Austin
San Antonio is one of the most inspiring cities in America. But as the city grows, the true task becomes how to make San Antonio better and maintain its rise to a truly great city.
San Antonio has done a good job of preserving its historical fabric, which, in turn, has preserved the human scale and human character that makes San Antonio livable. For instance, the Conservation Society created a vision for the San Antonio River and restored it, creating a walkable, connected and engaging heart for downtown. The recent Pearl Brewery redevelopment demonstrates a continuing commitment to creating a more livable city.
And this is exactly what San Antonio needs to do if the city wants to continue its upward trajectory for years to come.
Based on 46 years of teaching urban design at the University of Texas at Austin and just as many years in private practice, I can tell you that what makes a great city goes beyond its people, its food and its culture. What makes a great city is its livability. Livable cities are compact, connected, walkable, engaging and they have active public spaces.
How does San Antonio accomplish this?
For starters, San Antonio needs to build better streets and maintain the downtown grid. “Great streets” are built for all users, prioritizing pedestrians first, then transit users, bicyclists and, finally, cars.
San Antonio’s downtown is already walkable in the River Walk area, but strategically implementing Great Streets designs on surface streets would significantly enhance livability. Great Streets recognize that streets are our most used public spaces and good public spaces create a healthy return on investment.
Along those same lines, more trees need to be planted on all streets in the city. Trees reduce the heat island effect, provide much-needed shade, help protect people from moving cars and reduce pollutants. Trees create a vertical edge to streets, which naturally slows traffic, creating a safer and more welcoming environment.
Public investment must precede private investment. The city did a great job with that with The Pearl District project. But it shouldn’t just happen along the river. It should also happen along all major corridors, such as Broadway and St. Mary’s Street. City officials would be wise to get ahead of the game, and set good policy and design guidelines.
San Antonio should consider a tax base summit to better understand the day-to-day costs, as well as the legacy costs, of failed land use policy that was created by the highway system and its resulting sprawl. Some Texas cities, such as Austin, have created an arbitrary, irrelevant and suffocating code. San Antonio must take a different path and create a form-based code to simplify regulation and streamline opportunities for infill development. These should be based on mixed use, proximity and walkability, and promote a compact and connected development pattern.
The city should also continue to encourage mixed-use infill projects where existing and future residents can walk, bike or take transit to restaurants, cafes, offices, shops and parks. There is an enormous, unmet demand for walkable neighborhoods throughout the United States. Cities that can meet this demand will thrive.
Cities that thrive also preserve and enhance the best aspects of each neighborhood, while allowing accessory dwelling units, such as garage apartments and so-called granny flats, which provide affordable starter homes for young people.
The city must also continue to recognize distinct geographic areas, as was done with River North, and plan for their future. Planners must look for the right development at the right time and implement tax increment financing ahead of development to capture the value created.
Many of our Texas cities are growing rapidly, but none has as much inherent potential as San Antonio. Ultimately, whether a city can survive and grow with success will depend on what residents and city leaders want for their children and grandchildren. Overall livability must be the top priority.
Sinclair Black is the Crenshaw Professor of Urban Design at the University of Texas at Austin.’