I am a son of San Antonio, a descendant of the Isleños (Canary Islanders) and Payaya natives who founded San Antonio about 300 years ago. My love and pride for our city is both engrained and genuine. With that in mind, I want to share a few thoughts on how we can use our unique culture and history to improve our city beyond the “decade of downtown.”
San Antonio grew and developed steadily over the course of three centuries, blending authentic Tejano customs with more modern, urban characteristics into cultural heritage staples like La Villita Historic Arts Village and the Historic Market Square, or El Mercado. While these historically significant sites have survived the times, we’ve been content with simply preserving the remnants of our history. We need to learn from these sites and further expand our city’s sense of identity and community.
Remnants of Tejano culture tell tales of our old city’s urban vibrancy, of times when public space and private property intertwined seamlessly. More importantly, they provide us with blueprints and valuable concepts that will aid us in more effectively utilizing public space through paseos, plazas, courtyards, and parks. Such architectural traits and venues already serve as popular meeting places during Fiesta and similar community events, but can be optimized. As our city continues to develop, we should strive to further expand the communal nature of our culture within San Antonio’s urban core.
Recent developments and initiatives like the Mission and Museum reaches of the San Antonio River Walk, San Pedro Creek Improvements Project, Zona Cultural master planning and Hemisfair Park have already adopted this concept and I applaud the city and for these efforts. However, I see tremendous value in further expanding and increasing projects that incorporate public space into our urban fabric. The “decade of downtown” is a great start to what could be a renaissance of how we plan for our city’s future development in the greater urban core: we need to constantly think beyond the bland box-shaped developments that can be found in any given city and instead plan for unique developments that capitalize on our city’s culture and environment.
Embracing our heritage, establishing more public spaces and weaving them into our urban fabric will accomplish several things: it will reinvigorate our city’s urban neighborhoods by providing inviting places for locals to congregate, reintroduce a core aspect of our culture and history and expand on what sets San Antonio apart from other cities in the United States. There are many ways to go about growing our communities and I encourage passionate discussion about developing our city to reflect our distinct past.
Here are some ideas for possible developments that I would like to see initiated by the City, County or in partnership with the private sector.
Expand Pedestrian-friendly Paseos and Corridors
My first idea is to expand the street-level paseos, or pathways, located around Market Square and throughout Zona Cultural in order to reintroduce housing and retail to the underutilized land surrounding El Mercado. The Zona was designated as an official cultural district by the Texas Commission on the Arts in 2015. By expanding pedestrian areas we reestablish an old-world marketplace feel that allows people to congregate, shop, and mingle in a modern setting. Creating street level paseos would also provide a natural entrance for people walking to and from the future San Pedro Creek paseo.
Next, I envision the existing Produce Row paseo extending east from El Mercado to the San Pedro Creek. The South Concho Street paseo would extend south in order to connect to a new sister paseo that parallels Dolorosa Street and Produce Row, extending towards Casa Navarro and, again, connecting to the San Pedro Creek. The expanded pathways would cut through the middle of the city blocks, mirroring El Mercado’s layout. Each building would include affordable residential units and space for local retail shops, boutiques, cafés, restaurants, art galleries, and studios.
The City of San Antonio and Bexar County already own a large portion of said properties and could use them as a jumpstart to promote this cultural urban layout. This idea would be an excellent way for the city to restore the Zona Cultural for locals while also staying true to its historic Tejano roots. This same concept can be applied to the under-utilized parking lots near La Villita, a dead zone that isolates the area and decreases downtown’s overall aesthetics.
Expand and Reinvent San Pedro Springs Park
Another worthwhile initiative would be to expand and reinvent park space in our city. San Antonio only dedicates 8.7% of its land to park space, and only 34% of our residents live within walking distance of a park, according to The Trust for Public Land. This should be unacceptable to us, especially in a time of increasing air pollution and childhood obesity rates. We need to expand our parks system in a more ambitious way.
Imagine expanding San Pedro Springs Park south towards Fredericksburg Road. This would connect the park to a major thoroughfare, thus increasing its accessibility and allowing the land around the San Pedro Springs to be transformed from asphalt and concrete back into green space. San Pedro Springs Park is one of the oldest public parks in the country and vastly overlooked as a city asset. We could learn from Hemisfair’s redevelopment in how to fund improvements for San Pedro Springs Park. This expansion could have a tremendous impact on San Antonio’s status, especially when you consider popularity of parks like the Boston Commons or City Park in New Orleans which are around the same age as San Pedro Springs Park. This development would also serve to further reinvigorate Five Points, one of the oldest neighborhoods in San Antonio.
Connect The Missions with a Southside Park
The five Spanish-colonial Missions of San Antonio are internationally recognized, designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites. We should do that designation and the community justice by seeking investments aimed at connecting these historic structures, which are also home to active parishes, to the people that live around them. Converting the Riverside Golf Course into a public park, similar to parts of Brackenridge Park, would serve that goal.
A centerpiece community park would provide access to the San Antonio River and complement the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park by acting as a bridge between Mission Concepción and Mission San José. I envision a reforested Southside park with cypress trees along the river section, an amphitheater for live music events and performance arts, a public pool, picnic areas for family barbecues, playgrounds, and community gardens – a welcoming space for both locals and visitors.
Our city has so much potential and we must take the time to explore it thoroughly: some ideas may seem unrealistic at first glance, but if the “decade of downtown” as well as recent park and urban development projects have taught us anything, it’s that open-minded vision and proper planning can lead to great results. My ideas are ambitious because I believe in San Antonio, and I want to see this city further build on what it already does so well: preserve cultural values to reinforce its unique identity, create community in an urban environment and consistently grow in a wholesome yet modern direction.
Top image: A mural displaying the once-lively street life in the neighborhood near El Mercado. Photo by Alexander Barrera.