Monday, December 20, 2010

Where should San Antonio’s residential focus be?

by Randy Bear, Concerned Citizens,

As many of you probably know I’m a resident of downtown San Antonio and have been for over a year now. I moved into the urban core as an experiment to see how living downtown might be. It’s been a good experience so far but, after living here for a while, I’m starting to see where the real focus of residential living should be for downtown and it’s probably not in the core. While San Antonio has aspirations to be a big city like many other urban areas across the country at its heart San Antonio is really a bunch of collective small towns linked by freeways and streets. So what should the focus be?

After participating in the last SA 2020 public forum and talking to some architectural leaders in San Antonio I have come to the conclusion that the real focus should be on the small ring of neighborhoods right around the urban core. In the public forum one of the key indicators listed for Neighborhoods and Growth was the number of pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods in the city, something that would be difficult to achieve in the urban core of San Antonio.

In a blog entry in Kevin Harris’ Neighbourhoods blog he cites 13 points of a pedestrian-oriented neighborhood as defined by US planning/architects DPZ. Of those points are things like a variety of dwelling types such as houses, rowhouses, and apartments, an elementary school close enough children can walk to it, and a small playground accessible to every dwelling. There are several other points listed that the urban core might meet but if you’re really talking about building a thriving and vibrant neighborhood with some longevity you need children, something the urban core is not very friendly to.

But if you look to the areas surrounding the urban core you start to find opportunities for growth in many areas. Just to the north are neighborhoods like Alta Vista and Tobin Hill with existing homes and opportunities for new development such as apartments and condominiums. To the east is Dignowity Hill and Government Hill. South has SoFlo and the Nogalitos/South Zarzamora area. The west has the Guadalupe/Westside neighborhood. Each has its own culture and attractions but, more importantly, all are easily accessible to downtown by both streets and transit.

Recently Ben Olivo of the Express-News’ Downtown blog featured the Cevallos Street Lofts and talked about the developing area located south of downtown. In that area are several schools and parks as well as opportunities for small groceries and other amenities needed by a pedestrian-oriented neighborhood. With other development planned and its proximity to downtown and Southtown the SoFlo area could really become a great walkable neighborhood and close to the urban core.

In seeing how San Antonio rates regarding walkable neighborhoods I put my own address into their Walk Score tool and came up with a 91 out of 100 (you should try it out yourself for your neighborhood). Overall San Antonio rates at about 49 (pretty low) but comparable with most of Texas (Austin is a 51 and Dallas is a 49). Looking at the areas surrounding downtown most walk scores for the neighborhoods rank in the top 10 areas of the city. That means there’s not much gap to cover to turn them into a true pedestrian-oriented neighborhood.

Right now the city is starting to set the plans for our future through the SA 2020 plan process. While much focus has been to really develop downtown into a residential neighborhood I would contend that based on the feedback from the public, the amount of work it would take to make the urban core resident-friendly, and the limited resources the city will have to work with in the coming years maybe the focus should be on the ring of neighborhoods surrounding downtown.

By building up the infrastructure for these areas such as improved public transportation, more business investment and better streets and parks the areas will become attractive places for people of all ages to relocate to and still achieve a goal of avoiding urban sprawl. It also allows the growth to continue inward as market demand increases. It creates new opportunities for growth that don’t overly tax our cities public infrastructure such as public safety and works. It just seems like the right thing to do.

Randy Bear is an observer and participant in San Antonio politics and business.  His December 20, 2010 post in his blog, Concerned Citizens, is re-posted here with his permission.

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