The recent release of Tech Bloc’s report on the state of the information technology industry in San Antonio was a wake-up call for those committed to building a more vibrant and prosperous downtown.

Job growth in the sector is happening just about everywhere but downtown. That was no surprise, really, but hearing it from Tech Bloc CEO David Heard, once one of the leading voices supporting the emerging tech district along East Houston Street, has forced other boosters to face post-pandemic reality.

Readers who missed Heard’s late June presentation at Port San Antonio can read our coverage here. The fact Heard chose the new Tech Port Arena as the most suitable venue for his presentation only underscored downtown’s diminished role as unofficial headquarters of the tech sector.

My former San Antonio Report colleague JJ Velasquez summed it up succinctly in a July 12 commentary, headlined Pour one out for San Antonio’s downtown tech district.

Those of us wishing for a resurgence in the central business district have come to realize there will not be a “return to normal.” Bosses ordering workers back to the office risk losing those workers. Skilled professionals have far more options than they enjoyed pre-pandemic. Tech workers are no longer the only ones who can work wherever a Wi-Fi signal is found.

It would be premature to organize a wake for downtown San Antonio, but nearly three years after former Mayor Julián Castro’s Decade of Downtown came to an end, it’s time to shape a new vision for the downtown bordered to the north by River North and the Pearl, and to the south by Southtown.

That vision, I believe, is going to have to be built on a housing-first foundation. Start with a name change: the central business district, it now seems, is a last-century chamber of commerce construct.

River North and Southtown are alive with people living there. Downtown, not so much. But that can change. Other cities have proven it. Three major public projects underway — the expansion of USTA’s Downtown Campus, the redevelopment of Hemisfair and San Pedro Creek — hint at future opportunities for clustered student and multifamily housing.

The prospect of a Triple A ballpark along San Pedro Creek is another attractive possibility, as is the county proposal to construct The Link connecting the River Walk to the creekway.

Underused land and buildings west of San Pedro Creek to the east of Interstate 37, and north along the river from the Southwest School of Art south to Hemisfair can be newly activated with both market rate and affordable housing projects. Workers employed in the visitor and River Walk economy shouldn’t have to ride a bus for an hour twice a day.

A recent commentary by Lew Moorman, the founder of ScaleWorks and former president of Rackspace, spotlights the many hurdles that often stop new housing projects that could ease the supply and demand imbalance. That imbalance is only getting worse in San Antonio as rents continue to rise and more people are priced out of home ownership.

One possible avenue to pursue might be more public-private partnerships, perhaps along the lines of the ambitious PPP fashioned by Weston Urban, the City of San Antonio and Frost Bank in 2015 that led to the building of the new Frost Tower and plans to add hundreds of residential units to the western side of downtown in both new construction and existing buildings.

Centro San Antonio, the nonprofit that serves as a bridge between private developers and other downtown interests and local government, seems like the logical organizing entity for such an endeavor.

Centro CEO Matt Brown said Friday that downtown housing is one of his organization’s three top priorities.

“There is the hen and there is the egg,” Brown said. “In this instance, the hen is residential housing, and the eggs that follow are retail, business and commerce.”

San Antonio’s oldest urban streets were once home to the people who founded this town and eventually built it into a city. The Decade of Downtown set what seemed like ambitious goals at the time to add 7,500 residential units to the urban core, a number that was comfortably exceeded.

Downtown San Antonio needs a new initiative with a new goal for significantly expanding new residential housing, along with the necessary public incentives to spark the free market and make it actually happen.

Disclosure: Graham Weston is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report through his 80/20 Foundation. For a full list of business members and supporting foundations, click here.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.