It’s been about eight years since former Mayor Julián Castro coined the phrase “Decade of Downtown,” referring to “the decade when downtown San Antonio comes back to life.” Since then downtown has become a hotbed of development, with housing, mixed-use structures, retail, and restaurants repopulating the area.

Besides sparking the public’s interest in making downtown a better place to live, work, and play, public-private partnerships between the City and developers have made this progress possible, Assistant City Manager Lori Houston said at the Urban Land Institute San Antonio (ULI-SA) chapter’s Texas Forum on Thursday. The forum, which continues through Friday, convenes local developers, leaders in real estate, City of San Antonio officials, and other industry stakeholders to discuss San Antonio’s growth and see it firsthand on citywide project tours.

Before the expansion of the San Antonio River – a $271.4 million project completed in 2013 and funded mostly by Bexar County and partially by the City, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, SAWS, and private donors – there wasn’t a lot of investment in downtown, Houston said. But public-private partnerships and the creation of the City’s Center City Housing Incentive Policy have made it easier for developers to implement projects downtown.

Assistant City Manager Lori Houston speaks at the luncheon for San Antonio Urban Land Institute (ULI).
Assistant City Manager Lori Houston speaks at the luncheon for San Antonio Urban Land Institute (ULI). Credit: Hannah Whisenant / San Antonio Report

The increase in interest and investment over the following years is easily shown in the City’s bond packages. In 2007, only $10 million went to downtown, Houston said. That number jumped to $90 million in 2012 and increased to the unprecedented $170 million in 2017.

This investment is going to a range of large and small downtown projects – 29 since 2012 – which will help draw more Millennials and jobs to the city, Houston said.

“If we do not take care of downtown and our urban environment,” she said, then that growth will not continue to happen.

The City has a goal of creating 7,500 downtown housing units by 2020; as of now, there are 6,275 new housing units planned or under construction and about 2,000 are already developed, Houston said. Those already in use are about 93-97% occupied. Some newer housing in the urban core includes the Agave and Maverick apartments, Big Tex in Southtown, and numerous others near the Pearl and along the adjacent Museum Reach such as the newly-opened luxury apartments The Cellars and Brewery South, which recently got approved by the Historic and Design Review Commission.

The City’s incentive policy is largely to thank for this, Houston said, since it gives developers incentives such as a 15-year tax rebate. It also waives City fees and utility hookup fees if developers abide by certain qualifications. Under the policy, projects do not need approval from City Council.

Before the policy was in place, the City was only making about two to three development deals a year, Houston said.

“[The policy] really has helped us … increase our housing and development and also diversify who is interested in downtown San Antonio,” she added.

The Mission Reach expansion specifically, Houston said, inspired a number of other housing and mixed-use developments in the urban core since it became a popular urban amenity. She sees similar transformative efforts like the Broadway complete streets project as having the same effect.

There are a number of other large-scale endeavors underway downtown, such as the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project, construction of the new Frost Bank Tower, and the re-imagination of the Alamo, which officials anticipate will have wide-reaching positive effects on the entire city.

The redevelopment of Hemisfair is another such effort. With funds from the City’s 2017 bond, the area that was once home to the 1968 World’s Fair and has since been underutilized, is on track to include a nine-acre Civic Park, a hotel, and a mix of housing, retail, and office space.

Preliminary rendering of Civic Park, looking north from the southeast corner.
A preliminary rendering shows Civic Park in Hemisfair, looking north from the southeast corner. Credit: Courtesy / Zachry Hospitality and Hemisfair

Hemisfair’s Yanaguana Garden, which opened in 2015, already has proven successful in activating the park and surrounding areas. Hemisfair Park Redevelopment Corporation CEO Andrés Andujar, who spoke after Houston, said that partnerships with the City and developers have helped put Hemisfair on an upward trajectory.

“Part of the challenge is that since 1968, even though there’s been a series of master plans for the area, there has been no funding to back it up,” Andujar said.

“As a result we’ve had a fairly abandoned area of downtown, but that has now changed.”

The ULI Texas Forum continues Friday with rotating tours at the Pearl and a presentation about “Cultivating Development” there, with Silver Ventures Managing Director of Real Estate Bill Shown and design and culinary panelists including Pearl Director of Culinary Operation Shelley Grieshaber, Cured Executive Chef Steve McHugh, and Dado Group architect Kristin Hefty.

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