Leaders in growing cities around the country have begun to refocus attention on their downtown areas, transforming them into more sustainable, urbanized places to remain competitive and attract new businesses, workers, and residents.

These urbanization efforts mean a greater demand for housing, as well as more walkable areas connected to efficient and affordable transit options, among other amenities, said Ellen Dunham-Jones, a national authority on suburban redevelopment who gave a keynote address at Mayor Ivy Taylor’s third annual Housing Summit on Wednesday.

In San Antonio, an influx of people and employers in recent years has led to a higher demand for housing, public transit options, and increased walkability in the urban core and to the revitalization of downtown. Businesses that have been based in suburban office parks are moving to the center city and Millennials in the workforce yearn for more urban lifestyles, said Dunham-Jones, who is the director of the urban design program at Georgia Tech University.

While new housing and mixed-use developments have sprung up in downtown San Antonio, Dunham-Jones encouraged local leaders to devise and implement “layered solutions” to creating a thriving, appealing urban space. Such a space can only be sustainable if it involves much more than just housing.

Ellen Dunham-Jones, a national authority on suburban redevelopment, gives the keynote address at the 2017 Mayor's Housing Summit.
Ellen Dunham-Jones, a national authority on suburban redevelopment, gives the keynote address at the 2017 Mayor’s Housing Summit. Credit: Camille Garcia / San Antonio Report

“The challenge for San Antonio, one of the big ones, is to increase that walkability and reduce the dependence on the automobile that obviously the suburbs are so dependent on,” she said, and then the housing will come.

Ways San Antonio can enhance walkability, Dunham-Jones said, is to increase connectivity with transit, perhaps with sidewalks or trails; establish convenient destinations, which could require reforming zoning codes to allow for mixed uses in certain areas; and create more pedestrian-friendly experiences and more appealing streetscapes.

Dunham-Jones also discussed how San Antonio can improve public health outcomes, housing affordability and equity, and environmental sustainability. Other cities such as Phoenix, Denver, Houston, and Los Angeles have taken on projects to retrofit abandoned shopping malls or big-box stores into work-live spaces or enhance streetscapes by making them more pedestrian friendly and green, all of which have produced favorable results.

Having a robust, affordable housing stock is perhaps the biggest challenge facing San Antonio today. Infill development, rehabilitating underused parcels or structures and building on vacant land, has been occurring downtown and has helped in repopulating the area. The city’s housing incentive program is helping to more quickly bring market-rate housing to the downtown area, and a percentage of those are reserved as affordable, said Assistant City Manager Lori Houston, who was on a panel about infill development at the Housing Summit.

She said that adding housing has led to more stores, restaurants, and shops in the area. The City is hoping to reach its goal of having 7,500 housing units downtown by 2020, with a percentage of those reserved as affordable.

The City also has completed several affordable housing projects near downtown, Houston said. She looks forward to implementing more affordable housing projects with the $20 million housing bond recently passed by voters in the May 6 election. With those funds, the City can acquire land and prepare it to sell to a developer to construct an affordable or mixed-income housing development. It also can make improvements to existing neighborhoods, among other possibilities.

Dunham-Jones said local leaders should focus on preserving the existing affordable housing in the city as new developments come in. Developers also should build affordable housing in existing neighborhoods, and make sure they match the scale and style of those neighborhoods, she said. This helps create economically diverse communities, which benefits residents on both ends of the economic spectrum and works to combat sprawl.

“Fix what’s here,” Dunham-Jones said. “Don’t just keep heading out into the hinterlands.”

Former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and Mayor Henry Cisneros, who also spoke Wednesday, noted that San Antonio has a huge gap to fill regarding available affordable housing units. He stressed the wide-reaching impacts that a lack of housing has on the entire community.

“[Housing] is part and parcel of the basic platform by which our society is going to make progress or not,” he said.

Still, Cisneros thinks San Antonio has done a great job of rehabilitating many of its old buildings into new housing. In many cases, those projects have breathed new life into neighborhoods.

“It’s an amazing thing when you watch cities rethinking themselves and redesigning themselves with housing in mind,” Cisneros said.

Camille Garcia is a journalist born and raised in San Antonio. She formerly worked at the San Antonio Report as assistant editor and reporter. Her email is camillenicgarcia@gmail.com