When San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro in 2010 declared the “Decade of Downtown” and recruited Rackspace Chairman and Founder Graham Weston to help lead his SA2020 visioning initiative, a gleaming new Frost Tower wasn’t even an idea.

Fast forward to the end of the decade, however, and the 24-story tower designed by New Haven’s Pelli Clarke Pelli stands as the shining symbol of the extraordinary pace of change and growth in San Antonio’s urban core.

By day, the Frost Tower serves as a mirror, its sleek silver exterior mirroring surrounding structures from other eras and other projects underway. After dark, with exterior lighting schemes composed on Weston Urban CEO Randy Smith’s smart phone, the tower becomes a beacon, suggesting much more to come.

Frost Tower at dusk
Frost Tower at dusk

An architectural appreciation of the new Frost Tower will be published here later, but as the second annual CityFest approaches Nov. 6-8, the first new office tower in the skyline since the 1990s seems to embody more than a single edifice.

Castro’s “Decade of Downtown” is now coming to an end. The central question that more than 60 thought leaders from San Antonio, Texas, and beyond will explore is this: What is next for San Antonio?

The obvious answer seems to be yet another decade of record growth and change, with all its attendant opportunities and challenges in one of the nation’s fastest growing and most poverty-burdened cities.

What are San Antonio’s most urgent needs? I’ve been posing that question to a number of local leaders in the run-up to CityFest this year, which was conceived as an annual opportunity to step back from the daily grind to think bigger.

“Prosperity,” Smith said when asked what he wished for in the next decade of growth as we toured the new tower last week.

“Better education outcomes, more investment in public schools from pre-K to 12,” said Kate Rogers, director of the Charles Butt Foundation.

“More good-paying jobs,” said Lew Moorman, president of Rackspace through all its growth years, founder of ScaleWorks, and a former board member of the Rivard Report.

“The Alamo Promise so more students can earn their degrees,” Alamo Colleges Chancellor Mike Flores said in a recent declaration.

“We need to expand that equity lens beyond physical infrastructure…,” Christine Drennon, director of urban studies at Trinity University, recently told Rivard Report reporter Jackie Wang.

“That diverse percent between what life is like in the far north side of town and what it’s like in our neighborhood – the gap is so immense…,” Patti Radle, volunteer director at West Side nonprofit Inner City Development, commented in the same article.

The next decade’s challenges will surely focus on the city’s need for improved education outcomes as the only sustained way for most people to climb out of multi-generational poverty. Renewing the 1/8-cent sales tax to continue funding Pre-K 4 SA is critically important, as is the public-private partnership that will make the Alamo Promise a reality on the other end of the education spectrum.

Improved mobility and better funded public transit will be key to helping next-generation workers access higher education and jobs with some efficiency. The biggest idea on the horizon is the $200 million expansion of the University of Texas at San Antonio’s downtown campus, driven in no small part by Weston’s $15 million lead gift for the new School of Data Science.

All of western downtown will bloom in the next decade with completion of San Pedro Creek’s second phase; the reopening of the Alameda Theater with Texas Public Radio; development of the Zona Cultural, construction of a new federal courthouse, the prospect of hundreds of new residential units, and the list goes on.

Good housing, achieved through greater density, will allow more people to live and work without expending huge amounts of time, energy, and money on long commutes. More good jobs in cyber, manufacturing, biosciences, and tech will give people the earnings they need to afford market rate housing.

Everyone in San Antonio and Bexar County will have to work together to get the city off the list of U.S. cities with the highest poverty rates. Real results will only be measured in the long term. There will be no quick fixes.

Finally, city planners would be smart to partner with Weston Urban, other developers, and place makers to bring greater vision and creativity to downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods and avenues. Urban San Antonio needs a new level of connectivity that does not now exist. Safe streets with space shared with people outside individual vehicles is essential, especially if the city is committed to reducing carbon emissions and giving people cleaner air to breathe.

All of this and more will be the subject of CityFest 2019. There are still tickets available for Friday’s all-day program at Sunset Station. Click here for tickets and more information. Any individual who wants to attend and truly cannot afford to do so can contact me by email and I will do my best to help you find a way.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.