Project rendering of Verano, a 2,500 acre walkable university village to house a projected 25,000 students and 2,500 faculty and staff. Courtesy rendering.

Eleventh in a Series: A Rising Southside

Today’s stories, written by two Southside natives who now hold elected office, complete the series, “A Rising Southside,” appearing on the Rivard Report over the last two weeks. We published a total of 12 stories exploring the economic, educational, cultural and environmental advances achieved in recent years on what once was the most neglected side of San Antonio. We invite your feedback on the series, pro and con, and what other aspects of city life you would like to see us explore. Just post your comments on any of the stories we’ve published. Links to all the stories can be found below this story or click here.

District Four City Councilman Rey Salaña

Then and Now: San Antonio’s Thriving South Side

When I came home to the Southside after five years at Stanford University, I had a dream to serve my community and to run for elected office, and I shared a larger dream with many of my neighbors that someday the Southside would achieve its full potential.

Saldaña in his Stanford baseball days. Photo courtesy of Rey Saldaña.
Saldaña in his Stanford baseball days. Courtesy photo. Credit: Courtesy / Rey Saldaña

No one gave me, a 24-year-old recent college graduate, much of a chance to win an election. And nobody from outside the world I grew up in believed very much in the Southside.

Three years later, it’s suddenly a very different world.

The Southside is a rocket ship on the way up. The last few years have been a time of great change and growth, yet my mind races with optimism as I imagine the future Southside and its growing importance in the life, commerce and culture of San Antonio. Here’s a look into the future in the form of an editorial that ought to be published sometime around 2025, maybe even sooner if we keep accelerating our pace of progress.

An Editorial From the Year 2025:

It was once thought that the Southside of San Antonio had missed the train on just about everything, from transportation investments, access to higher education, good housing, and substantive economic development. Hard to believe for anyone living in San Antonio today, but this city’s dynamic Southside, now the talk of Texas, was once the part of town with few prospects.

My, what a difference the last 15 years have made! There’s been a paradigm shift in a city once on an uninterrupted sprawling binge to the North. Today, the key to development has become balanced growth. San Antonio’s Southside has become the poster child for smart growth, a thriving community now with unlimited potential.

An aerial view of Port San Antonio. Courtesy of Port SA.
An aerial view of Port San Antonio. Courtesy photo.

It wasn’t always this way, and longtime observers could tell plenty of stories about “the old Southside” to the thousands of families and young professionals who have moved into the area, attracted by the San Antonio River, Texas A&M University-San Antonio (TAMU-SA), Toyota, two redeveloped military bases that once played historic roles in the city’s development, great neighborhoods new and old, and a lot of the good jobs being created in the city.  All that makes it worthwhile to take a look back at how the Southside changed and rose to prominence.

As the 2010 Census numbers were released in late 2011, city leaders were confronted with a very serious question: If San Antonio continues to see the same rate of growth and adds an additional 180,000 residents in the next decade, where will they all live and work?

For decades, San Antonio had seen a top-heavy approach to development that led to the rapid growth of the Northside. All the while, there were a handful of Southside community advocates, businesses, investors, and educational leaders quietly preparing for a different future San Antonio.

Change seemed to come all at once, but few can deny that the explosive growth of the Southside had its roots in automotive manufacturing, a growing aerospace sector, the expansion of Texas A&M-San Antonio and forward thinking investments in transportation and human infrastructure.

Creating Live/Work/Play

Close observers will remember the words of Texas A&M-San Antonio President Dr. Maria Ferrier and Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharpe in 2012, when they announced the incredible growth they were experiencing.  The message was short and simple from both: We are the fastest growing university in Texas and still climbing. The student body recently surpassed 25,000. Just as officials had famously predicted, way back when: “25 by 25!”

With so many students, faculty, and staff, TAMU-SA has evolved into a complete college community, surrounded by a master planned development Verano.  Verano includes student-housing residences, athletic complexes and event venues that are open to the public and bolster the college town feel of this Southside treasure. Today, ask an A&M student where he or she lives, and they are likely to answer with one word: Verano.

Project rendering of Verano, a 2,500 acre walkable university village to house a projected 25,000 students and 2,500 faculty and staff. Courtesy rendering.
Project rendering of Verano, a 2,500 acre walkable university (TAMU-SA) village to house a projected 25,000 students and 2,500 faculty and staff. Courtesy rendering.

Verano is considered the fastest-growing residential and mixed-use community in San Antonio. The energy emanating from the university campus is unmistakable, and a key attraction for many residents is the almost daily schedule of campus events that are free and open to the neighborhood. Students have four different bike trail options to head to Southtown and downtown.

It once was assumed that Southside residential development was stalled by the planning experiment called City South Management Authority, but its dissolution in 2013 occurred at the same time as the San Antonio South Bexar Sewer Pipeline was completed. The $103 million investment of sewer and power utility infrastructure by SAWS primed the Southwest Side for growth. There is no doubt that the completion of the wastewater infrastructure was the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle for balancing growth and matching development further north.

Meanwhile, the engine has not stopped revving four miles south from the university at Toyota Manufacturing of Texas. The automaker recently announced the expansion of its third assembly line and the addition of 2,000 new jobs. That means San Antonio will now produce two models of pickup truck, and the latest hybrid and electric vehicles, the first North American manufacturing facility to do so.

Students as young as 16 prepare for careers in aerospace at the Alamo Aerospace Academy, part of Alamo Colleges. Since 2001 the program has become an important avenue for young people to kick start their careers with aerospace firms at Kelly Field. Photo courtesy Port San Antonio.
Students as young as 16 prepare for careers in aerospace at the Alamo Aerospace Academy, part of Alamo Colleges. Photo courtesy Port San Antonio.

Port San Antonio has been equally prosperous over the last 15 years. Few believed that the former Kelly Air Force base would ever return to its former employment numbers. Today, however, the Port stands as a national model for base redevelopment with more than 18,000 workers on campus earning an average salary of $60,000, on par with downtown and the San Antonio Wellness and Health Care District, formerly known as the Medical Center.

The Port’s aerospace, high-tech manufacturing and cyber security jobs are a consequence of the infrastructure investments made in 2014. The opening of 36th street and the upgrade of the runway proved important to attracting jobs during expansion of the commercial aerospace industry and the federal “Make it in America” initiative that expanded manufacturing in the United States.

Just outside the Port gates, a thriving live/work/play community has attracted hundreds of new families, many of whom say they had grandparents and great-grandparents who worked at Kelly over the decades. Kelly Town Center has transformed former military housing, now designated historical, into some of the highest demand residential housing in the city, much of that demand driven by nostalgia and sensitive redevelopment efforts.

Other historic military structures have come back to life as coffee houses, theaters, galleries, and now nationally lauded Officers Club, perhaps the city’s hottest new cocktail lounge – open, of course, to everyone, even civilian men and women.

Let’s Get Moving

While TAMUSA, Toyota, the Port of San Antonio, and Verano all have diverse aims and goals, they will soon be connected by the high-speed commuter rail system set to open in two years, running from Round Rock north of Austin down to the Southside. The Mayor has dubbed it the ‘Brain Train’ as it connects all major universities from Austin to San Antonio.

Render of a proposed high-speed commuter rail system, running from Round Rock north of Austin down to the Southside. The "Brain Train" connects all major universities from Austin to San Antonio. Courtesy photo.
Rendering of a proposed high-speed commuter rail system, running from Round Rock north of Austin down to the Southside. The “Brain Train” connects all major universities from Austin to San Antonio. Courtesy photo.

The university connection has helped raise the level of expectations on the Southside as school districts are seeing increased enrollment and graduation rates. Southwest Independent School District has recently opened up its second high school below loop 410. Not far behind, the once beleaguered South San School District school board, now dominated by reform-minded community leaders, won the coveted H-E-B Best School Board category in the company’s Excellence in Education Awards, a tradition started decades ago and now emulated nationally. The two districts have become two of the city’s highest performing school districts with the help of leadership at Texas A&M’s School of Education and academic and career-focused partnerships from Toyota, Boeing, and HEB.

Residents young and old have also enjoyed the expansion of green space, while local elected leaders are touting the decline in the city’s obesity rate from 28.5 % in 2013 to 21% today. Just last year, Pearsall Park was nationally recognized for its conversions from a closed landfill in the 1970s to a world-class, 500-acre park, now the city’s largest and home to major running events, the city’s most competitive youth soccer program, and outdoor amenities like the city’s annual kite flying contest that draws thousands of contestant from across the country, and weekly adult fitness competitions.

Learning from our own past

In order to avoid the type of congestion that had become common place at Loop 1604 and Texas 281, the Metropolitan Planning Organization and the City of San Antonio’s Planning Department invested early in a comprehensive traffic solution that anticipated the explosive growth and by 2015 began to change commuter patterns. The Kelly Park Way and East to West connection below Loop 410, both with cycling tracks separated by landscape features from vehicle traffic, have become model roadways.

In all, the true benefactors of the South Side renaissance have been the people, those families who trace their heritage back generations and those who are calling the Southside home for the first time. Families who said the measure of success for their children was moving away now point with pride at the returning generations, better educated with better jobs, bigger dreams and the confidence that anything is possible.  Today’s Southside has become synonymous with San Antonio pride.

Rey Saldaña has been a San Antonio City Councilman representing District Four and the Southwest side since 2011. He is a graduate of Stanford University, an Adjunct Professor and lifelong Southside resident.

Related Stories:

Reflections of a Southsider Turned State Senator

Texas A&M University-San Antonio: Changing the Landscape of San Antonio Forever

Toyota: Engine of Change on San Antonio’s Southside

Brooks City-Base: Where History Greets the Future

A Boyhood Remembered, a World Heritage Site Anticipated

The Missions: Our Southside Spiritual and Cultural Anchors

The Mission Reach: Bringing Life and Pride Back to the Southside

It’s the Decade of Downtown, But Don’t Miss San Antonio’s Rising Southside

Rain Date: Historic San Antonio River Mission Reach Party on Oct. 5

Toyota Investing in Tomorrow’s Southside Role Models

One of the Last Inner City Trailer Parks Going Condo

Rey Saldaña

Rey Saldaña

Rey Saldaña is the Chairman of VIA Metropolitan Transit and former Councilman for District 4.