Weston Urban CEO Randy Smith looks at the Milam Building from the 11th floor of Frost Tower, which is under construction.
Weston Urban CEO Randy Smith looks at the Milam Building from the 11th floor of Frost Tower, which is under construction. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

As a native of San Antonio, I grew up loving all our city has to offer. Mine was a wonderful childhood here, and I enjoyed a history with the city that came from being a fourth-generation San Antonian surrounded by a large family and longtime friends. As my childhood came to a close, I headed off to the University of Texas at Austin for the next four years.

Despite my history here, moving back to my hometown after graduation did not appeal to me as I began to consider where to live and start my career. It was where my family lived, and I knew that it was a wonderful place to have kids, but not a place where I planned to begin my adult life.

Large, dense cities were more attractive. They offered the social interaction and lifestyle that comes from living in urban communities, as well as different career opportunities than the ones I was finding in San Antonio. Most of my peers felt the same way, and almost all of us dispersed to places like Austin, Dallas, New York, and San Francisco.

I ended up in Washington D.C. and fell in love with the city. I sold my car. Walking to the grocery store, restaurants, or nightlife was part of my daily routine, and almost every day I’d run into a friend on the sidewalk. I became more and more appreciative of living in a place where the people you enjoy, things you need, and your job are all nearby.

Like many Texans, I eventually felt called back to the Lone Star State. But where to live? The natural choice for me was Austin, with a thriving job market and lots of fun things for a 20-something to do.

But my attention diverted as I became reacquainted with San Antonio. Something was happening in the urban core.

The Museum Reach had opened and the Mission Reach was under construction.

The vision for Hemisfair was gaining traction, and the Pearl was already established as a world-class destination.

Mayor Julián Castro had declared the Decade of Downtown.

In my eyes, San Antonio was moving in an exciting direction, and I wanted to be a part of the changes to come. I took the plunge and moved back to my hometown to become part of the city’s transformation.

It’s been five amazing years back in San Antonio, and during that time so much has happened to further the vision for a robust urban environment. The Hemisfair redevelopment is underway, San Pedro Creek is under construction and its Culture Park is set to open in May, and the passage of the 2017 municipal bond paved the way for transformative improvements to our downtown and the entire city.

New multifamily housing has exploded, with many more in different stages of development. We’ve taken strides toward creating the urban environment that will attract our city’s youth back home again, or maybe even encourage them to never leave in the first place.

However, this momentum seems to be in jeopardy. In the five months since December, attitudes and decisions made by both civic leaders and residents have me questioning the likelihood of this revitalization and transformation continuing throughout the city, or if it will stay isolated in places like the Broadway corridor and the Central Business District.

Council placed a moratorium on the Center City Housing Incentive Policy program, which encouraged multifamily development in and around downtown.

Opposition to The Bridge apartments on the near-Eastside threatens to leave a blighted block permanently underutilized.

And just last week, the Zoning Commission voted to deny a zoning change for the seven-acre Deansteel property on South Flores, which proposes a dense, mixed-use project on San Pedro Creek.

Perhaps the greatest issue is the viewshed corridors currently under consideration by the Office of Historic Preservation and City Council, which threaten to limit areas of our urban core to any dense development. In my opinion, these are the areas in which we should be encouraging density, not restricting it.

The changes to the viewshed designation process that are being proposed also have the opportunity to become a “weapon of mass obstruction.” If the changes pass, City Council could temporarily suspend development in an area to study a viewshed, adding great cost and risk to developers and creating an overall environment of uncertainty and polarization.

This is not to mention the economic effect on private property owners unfortunate enough to own property in someone’s view, or the impact to our future tax rolls from lost investment opportunities.

The Tower Live building is visible from the Johnson Street Pedestrian Bridge.
A proposal under consideration could extend viewshed protection to more than 20 eligible sites, such as the Tower Life building, visible from the Johnson Street Pedestrian Bridge. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

There are different, strongly held perspectives on these issues, and they are worthy of consideration and reasoned discussion. However, I fear that we are creating an environment in which it becomes so difficult to build a new project in San Antonio that we to lose our appeal to those who wish to do business in our wonderful city. I worry that we are publicly encouraging investment and densification in our city, while actually making it harder to achieve those goals. I’m also troubled by an attitude held by some who seek to prevent the addition of new residents to their neighborhoods.

The Decade of Downtown, as declared by Castro, is fast approaching its close in 2020. My hope and challenge to the leadership of our city, whether elected officials, business leaders, or community and civic leaders, is this: “Finish Strong.” Keep San Antonio moving in a direction that attracts more of its youth to return to work, start new businesses, and grow their families.

San Antonio has come such a long way since I originally decided to take a risk and invest my career in our urban core. The vision of the future that attracted me to move back to my hometown is still appealing, and I cannot wait to see what is next for that. Let’s keep promoting that vision and inspire the next generation to invest in the future of our city.

Drew Smith

Drew Smith is a San Antonio native and principal with Headwaters Urban, a commercial real estate company focused on bringing design-enhanced real estate to the urban core. He lives in San Antonio with...