Last week’s news that the Pearl, the city’s most walkable venue, is converting more vehicle space to green space is welcome news for residents and those who visit the enclave’s farmers market, shops, and restaurants. It’s also, I hope, inspiration for city planners and other developers to make San Antonio a safer, more pedestrian-friendly city.
San Antonio, still a city known more for its high pedestrian fatality rate than its walkability, has come a long way since the Pearl welcomed its first tenants and visitors to the once abandoned industrial brewery in 2005.
Completion of the San Antonio River’s Museum Reach in 2009 and the Mission Reach in 2013 created a national-class urban linear park that gives residents more than 11 miles of walkable river frontage from Josephine Street through the downtown Paseo del Rio and on through King William, the Blue Star, and south to the Missions.
It was a mistake for planners on the river improvement project to treat cyclists and pedestrians as the same and not work to give them separate paths, but that’s not to malign a great urban parkway.
The Pearl is the northern anchor for the linear park while Southtown anchors the downtown reaches. The completed redevelopment of Hemisfair and San Pedro Creek in the coming years will add important pieces to the larger mosaic of urban walkability. The yet-to-be-named pocket park along East Houston Street beautifully transformed by Weston Urban will activate a site that sat vacant for decades.
The former Lone Star Brewery, another abandoned industrial site with no existing redevelopment plan, could eventually become a significant mixed-use destination for the surrounding neighborhoods that already feature some of the highest pedestrian and bike activity in the city.
Many of us are hopeful that Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City Council will undo or amend the agreement with the General Land Office to close and lease the Alamo Plaza to the state. Keeping it an open and active civic space should be nonnegotiable.
Even with these improvements, San Antonio still has a long way to go. Too many current development efforts lack corresponding public investments to safely connect neighborhoods, streetscapes, and urban mixed-use zones.
On the East, West, and South sides, in particular, many streets lack continuous sidewalks. Bike lanes on highly trafficked streets and avenues are practically nonexistent. Many public school campuses are enveloped by heavy vehicle traffic at the expense of children and parents on foot. Excepting Trinity University, the urban core colleges and universities are also surrounded by vehicle traffic.
The 2017 “complete street” bond project to improve Broadway is underway. While the fight at City Hall for safe bike lanes on Broadway was a lost cause from the very start, the prospect of wider, continuous sidewalks should make it a more walkable boulevard as properties along its two sides redevelop.
The plan to locate bike lanes along North Alamo Street and Avenue B instead of on Broadway may or may not prove to be a suitable alternative. Neither street offers the desired width in segments for separated vehicles and cyclists. When those bike lanes will be installed is uncertain.
What the Pearl can teach us is in plain sight. Pedestrian-first places are people magnets. Anyone who spends time there absorbs the energy of people and their pets savoring a walkable environment free of vehicle traffic. Parents can safely lounge on one of the green spaces without worrying about a child wandering into traffic or trouble. Strangers become acquaintances, and acquaintances become friends and good neighbors.
It’s good business to get people out of their vehicles and on foot. When people slow down, they stop to shop and spend, and a pleasant experience brings them back again. Well-designed environments attract younger people who have a much greater understanding of climate change than older generations, and a greater desire to live and work outside the confines of a personal vehicle.
San Antonio claims to be a Vision Zero city. Elected officials should undertake an annual audit to show taxpayers they are putting those ideals into practice. Walkability is not an urban amenity. It’s the right of every citizen. Someone with real authority in City government should oversee this work and challenge traffic engineers who persist in designing a vehicle-dominant city. We do not need another report that counts curbside parking as bike lanes. We need an honest assessment of what elected leaders are doing to make streets safe for people and the city more sustainable.