Mike Kueber's Blog

January 21, 2013

Developing downtown San Antonio

Filed under: Economics,Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 4:03 am
Tags: , ,

Most major cities in America are afflicted by dying downtowns.  At best, the downtowns are a collection of office towers surrounded by dilapidated storefronts.  At night, those downtowns can look like the remnant of a nuclear winter. 

Nighttime on San Antonio’s downtown is better than most other cities because of two of Texas’s major tourist attractions, the Riverwalk and the Alamo, that serve to populate the downtown every night.  But San Antonio wants to do even better.  It wants to populate its downtown with yearlong residents.  But this objective, which Mayor Castro has sloganized as The Decade of Downtown, raises two issues:

  1. Why should San Antonio intervene against the free market to develop its downtown?
  2. Can San Antonio intervene against the free market to develop its downtown?

   The answer to the first question has some financial component – i.e., infill of San Antonio’s existing footprint is more efficient than providing the necessary infrastructure for more suburban sprawl.  But the major consideration seems to be emotional – almost akin to a desire to save the family farm in rural areas. 

Downtowns have been dying since the 50s and 60s, and modern planners pine about a return to “walkable urbanism.”  Ironically, however, this concept is most attractive to the young.  The following rationale was provided in a Brookings paper that lobbied for more urban development:

  • Downtown revitalization can bring additional economic development benefits as well. With increasing demand for walkable urbanism and a dearth of such neighborhoods in most metropolitan areas, cities with vibrant downtowns have a better shot of recruiting or retaining the “creative class” of workers economists, like Richard Florida, have shown is key to future growth.  When the strategy for downtown Albuquerque was being crafted, for example, a senior executive from Sandia National Laboratory spent many hours volunteering in the process. However, the laboratory—employing 5,000 scientists, engineers, and professional managers—is located five miles from downtown. When asked why he spent so much time on the downtown strategy, he replied, “If Albuquerque does not have a vibrant, hip downtown, I do not have a chance of recruiting or retaining the twenty-something software engineers that are the life’s blood of the laboratory.” If 30 percent to 50 percent of the market cannot get walkable urbanism, why would they come or stay in a place without that lifestyle option when Austin, Boston, and Seattle beckon? A purely suburban, car-dominated metropolitan area is at a competitive disadvantage for economic growth.

Robert Rivard, a former editor of San Antonio’s daily newspaper, currently has a website that publishes articles relating to urban development in San Antonio, and he provides a more personal perspective for why San Antonio’s downtown needs to be revitalized:   

  • We launched the Rivard Report in mid-February of 2012 to become part of the public conversation at a time San Antonio is at a crossroads. Both our sons, Nicolas and Alexander, left San Antonio to attend college and did not come back. While they hold San Antonio in their hearts, there was never any questions about their departures. The opportunities and lifestyle they each sought were to be found elsewhere. That bothered us, as did frustrations we heard again and again from business colleagues struggling to recruit smart, educated people to come live and work here. The Rivard Report seeks to become an accelerator driving the kind of change in our city that reverses the outflow of educated young people and increases the number of individuals who want to come here.  ….  The Rivard Report is all about urban renaissance, the movement to build a better San Antonio. We hope to be a catalyst for urban transformation and progressive economic and cultural development. Transforming a central city is not a quick or easy process, but it’s been done elsewhere and is now happening here. That gives us plenty to write about as the city heads toward its 300th birthday in 2017 and Mayor Julián Castro seeks to achieve the ambitious goals of his SA2020 initiative.

These rationales for developing downtown San Antonio make sense to me.  Not only does infill of the downtown make short-term financial sense, it makes sense for the long-term attractiveness of our city for our children.  But the more difficult question is whether San Antonio can successfully intervene in the free market.  As an economic conservative, I am skeptical of the city’s ability to efficiently and effectively redirect the free market.  Not only is the city woefully unskilled in development, but the cost of effective measures will likely render them inefficient.

An extensive article in the Express-News today provided a broad overview of the city’s recent efforts toward urban development.  According to the article, there has been some residential development on the extreme northern and southern edges of downtown, but almost nothing in the middle. 

The reason for “almost nothing in the middle” is surprising, and it relates to the two great downtown tourist attractions:

  • San Antonio does have a wealth of historic office buildings that are really cool and great buildings to be converted (to residential),” Cross said. “But the hotel business has done so well for so long that those buildings never really became available at a price that an apartment conversion would work.”  One idea floating around is for the city to regulate hotel development in certain parts of downtown. That would force down land prices because landowners wouldn’t have the option of selling their properties at a premium to hotel developers.

That thinking by Cross is why I am generally averse to trying to redirect the free market – i.e., government planners simply can’t evaluate all of the factors that the market does automatically.  So I would be in favor of making it easy for developers to move into downtown and to provide moderate financial benefits for cost-effective infill, but I don’t think the rest of the city should subsidize an emotional sentiment.

For a contrary argument, I refer you to an article from April 2012 on The Rivard Report titled, “The End of Subsidized Sprawl: Why Council Should Support Downtown San Antonio.”  It’s lead sentence reveals its thesis, “Moving from the long era of city government-supported sprawl to a new era of tax-supported inner city development could prove to be the issue of our time.”

Advertisements

2 Comments »

  1. Mike
    Enjoyed your article. Can we connect? Pls contact me at robertjrivard@gmail.com. Thanks.
    RR

    Comment by Robert Rivard — January 21, 2013 @ 4:23 am | Reply

  2. After I originally left a comment I appear to have clicked on
    the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and from now on each time a comment is added I recieve 4 emails with the same comment.
    There has to be a way you can remove me from that service?
    Many thanks!

    Comment by http://frf.huse.pw — June 9, 2013 @ 9:01 am | Reply


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: