The prospect of 10,000 more college students living and attending classes in and around UTSA’s Downtown Campus is akin to the moment in The Wizard of Oz when the film turns from black and white to color.
It’s a transformative and long-overdue vision for the uninviting mini-campus, encircled by a moat of busy vehicle traffic and stuck in the shadows of an elevated expressway on downtown’s near Westside. With the Bexar County Adult Detention Center and Annex and Bail Bond Row as its nearby neighbors, and the underpasses used for university parking also home to day laborers and street people, it’s no wonder that so few students attend classes there and so little urban renewal has occurred nearby.
As of last week, the 242-unit Vitré multifamily development at Cattleman Square first announced in 2014 by the project’s local partner, 210 Development, went to foreclosure and auction. There are indications a new partnership will soon be announced to resurrect the project, but the fact that the original project fell so short of expectations underscores the challenges developers face in crossing Interstate 35 to invest in the underdeveloped Westside.
Despite those challenges, UTSA President Taylor Eighmy appears to have come into the job less than six months ago with a clear plan to focus on making more first-generation college students successful, and doing so – at least in part – by making it easier for them to get to and from classes. It takes hours for daily VIA commuters to travel between the Main Campus and their inner-city neighborhoods.
Former UTSA President Ricardo Romo focused on Tier One aspirations, directing most resources to Main Campus development as the Downtown Campus student population declined by half during his long tenure. Eighmy, like Romo before him, is committed to elevating UTSA as a research university, but the Downtown Campus development plans signal a whole new direction.
Time will tell whether the University of Texas System, the Texas Legislature, the City and County, and downtown developers all buy in. Yet it seems unlikely Eighmy would have rolled out such a plan without such support. Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City Manager Sheryl Sculley have both voiced strong support for Eighmy’s vision.
For all its promise, however, Eighmy’s plan should be seen as a conceptual work in progress. It will benefit from the participation of all stakeholders, including various local government entities, the UTSA faculty, and Westside residents and community leaders.
For the City, this could include adopting a Complete Streets model for West Commerce, Buena Vista, South Pecos-Trinidad, and Frio streets in the campus zone to slow traffic and improve pedestrian and cycling options, which today are nearly nonexistent. Add to that accelerated extension of the 65-mile long Howard Peak Greenway Trails System so the Westside creeks connect intelligently to the campus. Making the streetscape safer for cyclists in and out of downtown, and connecting the greenway trails to San Pedro Creek and the Mission Reach will make it a real transit option.
The plan to give UTSA’s School of Architecture its own downtown building hopefully includes giving its faculty and students a significant voice in adopting the highest standards of sustainability for the entire project. The San Antonio River Authority could serve as an important partner in stormwater management and low-impact development.
The biggest challenge will be convincing Bexar County to move the 4,566-unit detention facilities elsewhere, thus opening up the near Westside to redevelopment and removing the average daily jail population of 3,500 from the community. Westside residents deserve better. While costly, the move would generate serious economic development, and County officials could design a new campus that is both secure and focused as much on rehabilitation as incarceration.
County leaders appear reluctant to even consider such a move. Eighmy, working in concert with City officials and community-minded developers, can change that. A decade from now, the near Westside could be a center of higher education surrounded by livable neighborhoods rather than a no-go zone for most residents. That would be a real legacy for Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and his fellow commissioners.
It’s taken the vision of a newcomer – Eighmy – to turn a pipe dream into the first real plan for transformation in this long-neglected sector of downtown. For years now, San Antonio’s civic and business leaders have said great cities have great downtowns. That vision has not included the near Westside. The mantra should be expanded to note that great downtowns have great universities.
A decade from now, UTSA’s Downtown Campus, Texas A&M University-San Antonio, and the three Alamo College campuses of San Antonio College, St. Philip’s College, and Palo Alto College could have more students attending classes than are now enrolled at UTSA’s Main Campus and the suburban community college campuses.
That would be a very different and far more equitable San Antonio.