Big Tex Apartments
The Big Tex Apartments in Southtown. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

After living in San Antonio for nearly six years, it is obvious to me that mixed-use urban development doesn’t sell well here. In fact, I’m pretty sure there’s a movement against new urbanism in our car-centric city.

Yet, a growing segment of the metropolitan population desires vibrant, mixed-use, urban neighborhoods, proven by the success of dense, new urbanist developments. Urban housing is selling well – and at a premium. However, despite the market popularity of areas such as the Pearl District and Southtown, no clear political constituency and support for infill has emerged. Nowhere is this more evident than in the success of the Tier One Neighborhood Coalition, an association of more than a dozen inner-city neighborhood groups, in stymying developers in zoning decisions.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg publicly states commitment to SA Tomorrow, the City’s comprehensive plan; however, there appears to be limited support for meeting goals of a revitalized urban core in recent zoning cases. Multiple ordinances state the City’s commitment to revitalization inside Loop 410. These laws clearly identify target infill zones, incentivize the application of this policy, and, in turn, promote redevelopment of stagnant properties and obsolete industrial zones.

It’s outrageous that this body of law is politically discounted and that developers are forced to defend the City’s own policy. What happened to the political commitment to the “Decade of Downtown?”

It appears the Zoning Commission is neither framing land-use decisions equitably, nor considering the strategic needs of our city. Zoning decisions shouldn’t be based upon answering the singular question of whether an infill project fits in with the neighborhood.

Rather, decisions should also consider how an infill project supports increased density and how well it supports City-legislated goals for infill redevelopment.

Other questions to consider when framing decisions to be equitable to the city at large include: Is an increase in downtown on-street parking and neighborhood traffic better or worse than increased suburban traffic congestion, infrastructure costs, vehicle miles travelled, and air pollution? Does limiting infill development and density in the urban core have a positive, or negative, effect on the growth of suburban sprawl– sprawl that we know threatens the Edwards Aquifer and natural integrity of the Texas Hill Country?

Recent zoning decisions such as the Deansteel and Oden Hughes projects have focused on downsizing project proposals to appease residential complaints about side effects of infill development such as more on-street parking, more traffic, more people, and taller buildings. But what is more of a nuisance to livability in the city? A four- or six-story massed residential building, or its corresponding residential form in urban sprawl?

Medium-density housing in the urban core comes at a 10-to-1 savings in land use. Every small block (200 feet by 200 feet) denied zoning for a four-story apartment is roughly equivalent to 10 acres of new sprawl, according to my own urban planning analysis. Zoning decisions against infill buoy greenfield development – literally the development of large, green, rural tracts – while stymying the redevelopment industry that has organized to achieve the City’s legislated density goals. With so few infill development zone (IDZ) approvals, the protest over IDZ is a tempest in a teapot.

Current geospatial data from the City’s open data website indicates that out of more than 50,000 acres of land inside Loop 410 targeted for revitalization, only 405 acres are zoned IDZ. That tells me that the “nuisance” of infill is an exaggerated problem. This is not to dismiss the advocacy role of organizations like the Tier One Neighborhood Coalition, but rather a call to reconsider land-use decisions within a strategic framework while balancing the interests of longtime residents.

Like it or not, growth is coming – and fast. San Antonio needs mixed-use, medium-density housing with walkable commercial and public spaces far more than it needs its excess of underutilized and socially sterile center-city industrial zones. Infill brings revitalization. Mixed-use, medium- to high-density urban redevelopment is proven to increase the social fabric and create local economic energy – just look at cities such as Portland, Denver, Phoenix, Sacramento, and Detroit.

Single-use downtown zoning is an archaic construct and proven economically unsustainable. One only needs to look back in time 15 years to clearly see the case for infill. Have we, the citizens of San Antonio, already forgotten?

To participate in a public conversation on infill development, please join us on Wednesday, June 13 at 6 p.m. at the UTSA Downtown Campus in the Aula Canaria Room. For more information, click here.

Larry Dotson is a retired Army Colonel and comprehensive development planner for the Air Force with a graduate certificate in urban planning from University of Texas at San Antonio.