Spurs fans celebrate in downtown San Antonio after the Spurs win the 2014 NBA Finals. Credit: David Rangel for the San Antonio Report

Centro San Antonio is taking part in a first-of-its-kind study to find the value downtowns add to cities as a whole. The study is led by the International Downtown Association, which is looking at 13 different city centers with the help of local member organizations.

San Antonio joins Seattle; Sacramento, Calif.; San Francisco; Santa Monica, Calif.; Lancaster, Pa.; Wichita, Kan.; Miami; Charlotte, N.C.; Norfolk, Va.; Baltimore; Pittsburgh; and Grand Rapids, Mich., in the study set to be finalized and released in September.

On Wednesday, IDA President and CEO David Downey gave Centro members and supporters a sneak peek of the study’s preliminary findings, which demonstrate downtown San Antonio’s increased value per square mile compared to the rest of the city.

That’s not to say downtowns are “better” than other parts of cities, Downey told the Rivard Report, but they are typically the economic and cultural hubs that shape the identity, diversity, and revenues that provide citywide stability.

Per square mile, downtown San Antonio has 1.5 times as many housing units, 30 times as many jobs, 140 times as much office space, 30 times as much retail, and 109 times as much hotel space as areas outside of downtown. This all adds up to between 15 and 18 times more sales and property tax revenue generated downtown.

“The downtown is punching above its weight,” Downey told the packed ballroom at El Tropicano Riverwalk Hotel as lunch guests picked at cold, grey meat served with ho-hum potatoes and asparagus. The meal belied the energy in the room about building a more vibrant downtown. “And ultimately a strong downtown core benefits the entire city,” Downey added.

Between 2009 and 2015, the number of downtown residents grew by 29% compared to 7% outside of downtown. The study utilizes the Census Bureau’s definition of the San Antonio central business district, which roughly includes the area between Interstate 35 and Interstate 37/Highway 281 north of César E. Chávez Boulevard and south of Brooklyn Avenue. Notably, the tract does not include the Pearl Brewery Complex.

The U.S. Census boundaries for San Antonio's central business district.
The U.S. Census boundaries for San Antonio’s central business district. Credit: Courtesy

That’s no accident, said City Manager Sheryl Sculley. Through infill and downtown housing incentives, the City has encouraged developers to look downtown with millions of dollars of tax breaks and fee waivers.

The original SA2020 goal of having 7,500 housing units downtown will be achieved well before 2020, Sculley said. Developers have already added 84% of the original goal, she said. SA2020 has increased the goal to 8,300.

Of the $850 million municipal bond that was overwhelmingly approved in May, $195 million is going toward downtown projects.

The results of the study will show that that chunk of money was not allocated to downtown because of “simple preference, but rather a real investment,” Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) told the Rivard Report after the luncheon.

Other metrics and methodologies for measuring the more nuanced values of downtown principles of economy, inclusivity, vibrancy, cultural identity, and resilience are still being developed as the study is carried out, Downey said.

More than 100 key data points will be collected by consultants and local organizations. IDA is primarily working with New York-based consulting firm HR&A. Austin-based Stantec has also been hired by IDA.

Large economic impact studies of downtowns have been carried out before, Downey said, but “I would say this is the first holistic shot at it, especially for the United States.”

Click here to download Downey’s presentation.

Once the method is established through the pilot study, researchers can expand to more cities each year and begin to update the data every three or five years. The goal is to create a “downtown vitality index” database of dozens of cities across the country.

The completed study will be released during the IDA’s annual conference in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Sept. 13-15.

“Downtown San Antonio is experiencing unprecedented growth and will continue to do so over the next five years in public and private investment totaling $2.5 billion,” Centro President and CEO Pat DiGiovanni said. This study can be used to show public and private sectors the “progress we’re making.”

The City’s comprehensive master plan, SA Tomorrow, includes planning around 13 regional centers, DiGiovanni noted, so it’s possible that the information and strategies gleaned from downtown development could be applied in those centers as well.

“The walkability score, for instance, compared to the rest of the city … [downtown is] far above the regional centers,” DiGiovanni said. “So how does downtown become a model for these regional growth centers?”

In other words, downtown doesn’t have to be the only area “punching above its weight.”

The study, Treviño estimates, will be used by many people living and working in or thinking about coming to San Antonio. While many in the room on Wednesday already knew the intrinsic value of a healthy downtown, the study could be used as a reminder and/or affirmation for others.

“It’s always good to have backup data to constantly test those theories and notions with analytics,” Treviño said.

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org