NYC's Highline, copywrite Iwan Baan, courtesy of thehighline.org.
Bekah S. McNeel

By Bekah McNeel

At this year’s AIA/AGC Joint Membership Luncheon, the men and women responsible for getting things built in San Antonio gathered to hear from a man who knows how to do just that.

John H. Alschuler Jr.’s resume of success in urban renewal is varied in every way. As president of HR&A Advisers, his work is both global– reviewing the 2012 Olympic Parklands in London–and regional– leading the award-winning development of the 4,500 acre Daniel Island. He steered development along the waterfront districts in New York City, Toronto, Hong Kong, Philadelphia, Charleston, St. Louis, and even the once-notorious Anacostia River waterfront in Washington D.C., all projects relying mostly on revitalization; and he advised on the creation of a completely new sustainable community in the Chengdu Province in Southwestern China.

I found it personally gratifying that he served as the City Manager of Santa Monica, California, where he was responsible for the planning and development of the Third Street Promenade, one of my favorite strolling spots in the world. His reach is wide, but more important to San Antonians, Alschuler is a team member on the new Hemisfair Park Area Master Plan. He has been advising the Centro Partnership and applying his prowess to the particular challenges and opportunities facing our downtown.

A proposed concept for Hemisfair Park, image courtesy of Hemisfair.org

It’s highly unusual to hear San Antonio compared to New York City (favorably), but Alschuler broke his cardinal rule by “talking about New York City outside of New York City” in order give San Antonio some helpful hints from a city that’s a few steps ahead of us on the downtown scene. He began with a portent that he believes to be true for both cities: “downtown’s best days are ahead of it.”

“San Antonio is a city of vision, strength, and economic energy,” Alschuler said. He praised our healthy economy, balanced budget, and know-how. Speaking of urban revitalization, he said, “These are all things you’ve done before. Now, how do you do it again?”

Alschuler pointed out that San Antonio has contributed great thinkers to some of New York City’s most important public works. Betsy Rogers to Central Park, Warrie Price to Battery Park, and Robert Hammond to the Highline. So it wouldn’t be poaching if we took notes from the success of these projects. Alschuler is board chairman of Friends of the Highline, and thus had some particularly instructive notes drawn from that New York City endeavor.

Four Fundamentals of the Highline applicable to San Antonio

  1. Development should be led by citizens. According to Alschuler, the most powerful driving force behind place-making is the passion of citizens to see that change. Rather than waiting for the city or even powerhouse developers to step in and hand us a shiny new downtown, citizens need to act on their passions for the places they live, work, and play.
  2. Government must be committed to the public realm. Parks and public spaces will only be central to the vitality of a community if government prioritizes shared space as worthy of protection, promotion, and maintenance.
  3. The whole community must have a passion for design excellence. “You must insist on excellence from your government when it comes to what is happening in your city,” Alschuler said. He highlighted the importance of attention to detail in everything from color of concrete to roofing material. Shortcuts simply are not allowed when it comes to making a world-class urban space.
  4. Private partnership is essential. It was San Antonian Betsy Rogers who changed the way we look at the funding of public spaces. Alschuler’s perspective on parks and public spaces equates them with religious, cultural, and educational facilities as places benefitting from the passion of private investors who are committed to the enrichment of our community.
NYC’s Highline, copyright Iwan Baan, courtesy of thehighline.org

Alschuler went on to sing the praises of New York mayor Michael Bloomberg for treating city taxes as investments in the future of NYC after the devastation of 9/11.  “A businessman knows…you invest money at critical times,” he said. That investment took the form of a 20% tax increase for the citizens of New York City. Like any good investment, it paid off. Bloomberg also had the business acumen to invert the usual relationship between developers and the city. Developers do not think systematically about the city, but the city government does. So the question is not what can the city do for the project-based goals of developers, but rather, where can developers benefit from the place-based goals of the city?

Then came the call to action. Alschuler presented four doable challenges to our city:

  1. Commit overwhelmingly to residential development in the city’s core. According to the speaker, the days of downtowns driven by retail and employment are over. The great urban cores of the 21st century are sustained by a population devoted to art, cultural products, and the desire “to liberate themselves from long commutes.” And they are much more dense than our current 3,000 people/sq. mile. While SA2020’s goal is to have 14,000 new units downtown, Alschuler perscribes at least 20,000. With that kind of density, employers will go where the brain base lives.
  2. Fix the Riverwalk. Right now the disparity between the pedestrian energy of the Riverwalk and the relative abandonment of the surface streets is startling (compare the Riverwalk vs. surface street path to Esquire Tavern sometime). Rather than fluidity between two, they are like two different worlds. Further, and you know this if you’ve ever tried to recommend a restaurant to a visitor who insisted upon eating on the Riverwalk, the quality has been compromised by reckless commercialization. Right now people describe the Riverwalk as the best and worst thing about San Antonio. One of those superlatives needs to go.
  3. Adopt design guidelines for downtown. The rigorous standards we apply to historical buildings need to find a parallel in new development. Alschuler recommended that we adopt “basic, simple rules of good urbanism” and stick to them religiously. Later in the question and answer portion, he pointed out that cars are going to be part of this for the forseeable future. Complete streets and street parking are a must. “It’s like you’re perpetually planning for an evacuation,” Alschuler commented on our lack of street parking.
  4. Accept that this is a long process. A scattershot dispersal of funds, even in the name of fairness, will not help our city in the end. We need the discipline to focus not on completing projects, but rather on creating places. Alschuler sees downtown as the necessary place in our city.

For decades the economic prosperity of downtown funded the infrastructure of a spreading city. Now it’s time for the sprawl to reinvest in the core. I can only hope that those sitting around me were as inspired as I was by the potential of our city to leap into the next two decades with a commitment to places, not projects.

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey as an International Travel Consultant. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy.

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.