Downtown San Antonio as seen from a vacant lot north of the Hays Street Bridge.
Downtown San Antonio's skyline as seen from the vacant lot north of the Hays Street Bridge. Credit: Robert Rivard / San Antonio Report

I am all for preserving San Antonio’s history, but not when it puts the brakes on San Antonio’s future. With a restrictive new viewshed ordinance gaining momentum within the City’s Office of Historic Preservation and the City Council’s Arts, Culture and Heritage Committee, the important balance between the city’s past and present is tilting toward the wrong direction.

San Antonio risks becoming a city where infill developers, recruited to the urban core by the rhetoric of public officials, find so many obstacles to sensible development that they simply stop trying. San Antonio has long protected its history, but it could reach a tipping point where just about anything and everything is accorded historic status. In a world where everything is historic, nothing is historic.

Five Viewshed Protection Districts preserve the Alamo and the four Spanish-colonial Missions, collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. No one would want to see those viewsheds altered or lifted. Arguments can certainly be made to extend that protection to San Fernando Cathedral on Main Plaza and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower on the city’s Westside.

But City Council members Ana Sandoval (D7) and Cruz Shaw (D2) want to extend such protections and create viewsheds around the Hays Street Bridge on the near-Eastside and the Tower Life Building downtown. They also want to give consideration to several other sites cited by community members, including the Arneson River Theatre on the River Walk; Mission Marquee Plaza near Mission San José; Woodlawn Lake; the Japanese Tea Garden at Brackenridge Park; and the Tower of the Americas.

As the photos I took last week and published here show, the view downtown from the Hays Street Bridge, while of definite value, will change with each tower or other edifice added to the downtown skyline. Frankly, that panorama reveals more empty space than skyline, yet every new building inevitably will block somebody’s view of something.

The views of the bridge itself from the surrounding streets show blight, vacancy, standing storm water, and desolation. I like a project that leaves the mass of the bridge in view, but not something that protects 100 percent of it, including its enormous footings, from every angle.

The light industrial buildings and handful of single family residences that border the vacant property north of the bridge underscore how problematic imposing more viewsheds can be: Will we protect the views of a few factory workers during the day and a handful of residents of an already well-preserved railroad bridge to the exclusion of serious urban renewal and developing new housing stock in and around Dignowity Hill?

Where do we draw the line?

H-E-B’s Arsenal headquarters would have never been expanded years ago if every individual resident living nearby had a sacrosanct right to a view of the Tower of Americas. There would be no Weston Centre if the Milam Building had been accorded viewshed protection. The Tower Life Building holds an important place in the city’s downtown development history, but does that mean that anything visible from the building’s front door should be out-of-bounds for future developers?

If every period gas station, automobile dealership, and family diner or dancehall evokes a wave of public nostalgia met with acquiescence by elected officials, we will become a museum, a city caught in time with an obsessive focus on the past and no sense of the future.

The impetus for this debate began last year when Shaw and Sandoval submitted an official request for City staff to investigate expanded regulations after the Historic and Design Review Commission delayed the muchdebated multi-family and mixed-use project adjacent to the Hays Street Bridge. HDRC denied a redesigned version of the project on March 9, but City Manager Sheryl Sculley, with ultimate authority over commission rulings, approved the project with stipulations two weeks later. It remains to be seen whether it will be built.

The viewshed ordinance likely will come to a vote before City Council, perhaps by the time we celebrate Commemorative Week in early May. As I’ve written before, the Tricentennial should focus as much on the city’s future as its past.

With the current debate over expanding the city’s viewshed protections of places and structures of real or perceived historical importance or interest, we risk bringing to a screeching halt the Decade of Downtown, and allowing a new ordinance, however well-intentioned, to contradict our rhetoric about becoming a city with a future, a city with a vibrant urban core.

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.