A before photo (left) and after rendering (right) of South Main Avenue from César Chávez Boulevard to its dead end at the Bexar County Courthouse parking lot. Image from COSA Downtown Transportation Plan.
A before photo (left) and after rendering (right) of South Main Avenue from César Chávez Boulevard to its dead end at the Bexar County Courthouse parking lot. Image from COSA Downtown Transportation Plan.

Centro Partnership CEO Pat DiGiovanni

More than sixty years ago, the San Antonio City Council, encouraged by politicians and “The South Siders” citizens group, voted to open South Main Avenue through the Arsenal to relieve traffic congestion in the area. This week, the current City Council, encouraged by a major downtown employer and promoters of downtown development, will vote on whether to reverse the action of their predecessors and close S. Main Avenue for reasons unrelated to traffic.

It’s a difficult vote, one that requires Council to balance the desire to preserve the character of King William, an historic downtown neighborhood, with the need to support the growth plans of San Antonio’s largest downtown corporation and to promote downtown development to achieve growth targets of SA2020.

It’s a balancing act worthy of the famous Flying Wallendas, but a balancing act Centro San Antonio believes that the City Council can successfully manage.

H-E-B master plan renderings courtesy of Lake/Flato Architects.
H-E-B master plan renderings courtesy of Lake/Flato Architects.

One dictionary definition of balance is, “a state in which various parts form a satisfying and harmonious whole and nothing is out of proportion or unduly emphasized at the expense of the rest.” We believe that the negotiated solution being proposed by H-E-B and the City staff for Council approval fits this definition and makes the Council’s balancing act a whole lot easier.

It’s not a perfect solution, but it is a solution that resulted from a concerted effort by all parties to respectfully advocate for their positions and listen to the other side. There was, and will continue to be, the usual passionate voices that accompany hot-button issues played, but these voices never dissuaded the parties from keeping the lines of communication open.

Looking north on Main Avenue from its intersection with Arsenal Street, the closure of this block is necessary, H-E-B representatives say, if its grocery story is to be built downtown. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Looking north on South Main Avenue from its intersection with East Arsenal Street. The closure of this block is necessary, H-E-B representatives say, to expand their downtown headquarters. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

As the debate played out, Centro was asked to come out in support of the street closure and grocery store project, both components of H-E-B’s recently unveiled master plan. While it seemed obvious that we, as SA2020’s lead partner for downtown development, would support what was evolving into a major downtown development opportunity, our board encouraged us to gather all the facts before publicly supporting the project.

Over the past few weeks, we met with the King William Association, H-E-B, City staff, the Mayor’s office, and District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal, and closely followed the actions of the San Antonio Conservation Society on the historic aspects of the project. We also took an unscientific poll of Centro Alliance members. The response was overwhelmingly in favor of the project.

After considering all sides and carefully evaluating H-E-B’s master plan, Centro San Antonio will publicly support H-E-B’s campus master plan, the closure of S. Main Avenue and the grocery store.

H-E-B’s plans call for job growth of 800 by 2020 and another 800 by 2030. These figures could possibly lead to sizable growth in downtown housing. H-E-B’s planned investment of $100 million in campus infrastructure improvements will be an economic driver for downtown during the phases of construction.

The plan, which calls for the re-establishment of the original Arsenal complex footprint and enhanced public access to the Commander’s House and grounds, has been supported by the Conservation Society. Centro San Antonio considers preservation an important element of downtown development, and we view the Conservation Society’s support as a critical lynchpin for the project.

Although we had concerns with the closure of S. Main Avenue and its effect on access to downtown from King William, we concur with the Kimley-Horn study that shows a negligible impact to traffic, transit circulation and connectivity. We recognize that the King William Association’s 7-6 vote in favor of H-E-B’s plans reflects a level of skepticism. We will remain sensitive to their concerns as the project moves ahead.

Centro also will remain cautious when street closures are contemplated in future projects, and will look to hard data before taking a position on a proposed closure.

We are concerned that H-E-B’s and the City’s plans for street improvements in the area don’t go far enough. While we applaud H-E-B’s commitment to perimeter street improvements, their plans only call for improvements to half of the right-of-way; leaving “incomplete” streets on E. Arsenal and S. Flores Streets. The City’s 2011 Strategic Framework Plan specifically calls for implementation of “complete streets” and speaks to the importance of connectivity to other complete streets.

Section of South Flores Street illustrating the 30-foot amenity path which includes space for pedestrians, trees, and a dual-directional bike lane. Rendering courtesy of Lake/Flato Architects.
Section of South Flores Street illustrating the 30-foot amenity path which includes space for pedestrians, trees, and a dual-directional bike lane. Rendering courtesy of Lake/Flato Architects.

One of Centro’s key goals is to see downtown and the center city become more pedestrian and bicycle friendly. This can be accomplished when a “complete streets” design concept is implemented, resulting in a more urban than suburban solution for thoroughfares in the urban core.

With only S. Alamo Street adjacent to Hemisfair planned for complete street improvements, we encourage the City to look at expanding the concept to César Chávez Boulevard, S. Flores and S. St. Mary’s Streets.

A before photo (left) and after rendering (right) of South Main Avenue from César Chávez Boulevard to its dead end at the Bexar County Courthouse parking lot. Image from "San Antonio Complete Streets- Paving the Way for People” presentation by the Texas Transportation Institute dated June 6, 2012.
A before photo (left) and an after rendering (right) of complete street possibilities on South Main Avenue from César Chávez Boulevard to its dead-end at the Bexar County Courthouse parking lot. Image from COSA Downtown Transportation Plan.

Centro San Antonio supports construction of a downtown grocery store, but we have reservations about the location and the gas station component. The City’s 2012 Supermarket Study ranks a site adjacent to the H-E-B campus with good marks in only four of eleven categories. However, we understand that it makes the most economic sense for H-E-B to utilize land it already owns.

That same study does suggest that a downtown San Antonio grocery store will require more parking than a typical urban store because out center city is still “automobile oriented.” Typically drive-in or drive-thru facilities do not fit the model of ‘complete streets’ due to the inherent vehicular/pedestrian conflicts that arise. For this reason, Centro encourages H-E-B to give more thought to the concept of having the gas station facility as a component of the grocery store.

H-E-B is uniquely positioned to lead the way and set a positive example for quality urban design at a gateway to an historic urban neighborhood. As the project moves through the HDRC process, we would like to see an effort to put forth a final design befitting of an urban setting.

Taken in its totality, the solution proposed by H-E-B and City Staff offers a catalytic development project that, if designed well and done right, will move the needle on SA2020 downtown development goals.

Centro San Antonio suspects that the City Council of 1947 faced its own balancing act as it voted to open South Main through the Arsenal. By all accounts, their decision worked out just fine for downtown San Antonio. We are confident that the same will be said 60 years from now when someone looks back on Thursday’s Council vote.

Pat DiGiovanni was appointed CEO of Centro Partnership in August 2012. Beginning in January 2013 DiGiovanni is leading Centro’s efforts to foster a vibrant and prosperous downtown that benefits the entire San Antonio community.  Prior to his appointment to Centro, DiGiovanni’s career spans 30 years in local government, most recently serving as Deputy City Manager for the City of San Antonio.  During his seven years with the City of San Antonio his primary focus was in economic development and downtown redevelopment. 

Related Stories:

H-E-B’s Street Closure Request: When is a Plan not a Plan? 

Progress versus Protest: The Path to Smart Preservation and Development

King William Association Votes to Support Street Closure

Traffic Study Finds Minimal Impact from Proposed S. Main Avenue Closure

The Case For Keeping South Main Avenue Open

The Case for Rethinking South Main Avenue

H-E-B Briefs King William Neighbors on Expansion, Proposed Block Closure

The Feed: Two Guys Aim for Downtown Grocery Stores

Small Footprints, Big Impact: How to Make a Million Dollars Stretch across Center City

Pat DiGiovanni

Pat DiGiovanni is a recently retired executive of Centro San Antonio, a nonprofit organization focused on building a vibrant and prosperous downtown. He was the organization’s CEO and also oversaw the...