Saturday, November 5, 2011

More on San Antonio

While I took time in the last post to document the historical significance of San Antonio's downtown and then compare to Dallas, I want to take time to talk other things that SA did well in keeping their downtown active, and the opposite mistake that Dallas made.

Just a note though, everything likely could be traced back to historical significance in one way or the other. Downtown's were the beginning of every city. If there was no downtown, there was no city. The exceptions are suburbs and exurbs like The Colony, which are nothing more than auto-oriented suburban locales developed well after WWII. Some, like The Colony, are just developer driven places that incorporated sometime after development began or had finished. So when I talk about the street grid for example, know that is some form, it is San Antonio acknowledging its historical significance and building upon it, rather than Dallas, which was in a race to be the more modern city that could allow thousands of cars a minute through the area, at the expense of anything else.

Also, I don’t think, as someone implied to me after reading the previous post, that everything is perfect. One of the worst mistakes that Sun Belt cities did in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s was hem off the downtown area with freeways. San Antonio is no exception. The prevailing thought several decades ago was that the through traffic, the traffic that came from somewhere else and going somewhere else, was choking downtown streets and needed to be rerouted to ease congestion.

At this point in time, highways, like Rte. 66, went straight into the city core. So, prior to I-35, the highway was U.S. 77, which ran on streets like Lamar in Dallas. To ease this congestion, the prevailing thought was to build a freeway that would carry this through traffic around downtown, thereby freeing the locals from congestion and making getting to and from downtown easier.

Of course, now we know that there are unintended side effects. By making the auto more convenient to go around downtown rather than through, planners made downtown less convenient as a stopping point. So people who were passing through that would stop to eat at restaurant or shop at the stores now no longer did, since getting off the freeway was a pain. This had the effect of dispersing the urban area, simultaneously making downtown less attractive and encouraging suburban sprawl.

Paradoxically, it also didn’t relieve congestion downtown. The streets were just about as clogged as ever. My long promised post on the induced traffic principle will go into more details.

While the degradation of downtown's vitality was a slow process, the destruction of the urban fabric was imminent. Here's some pictures of our hotel.

I-37 in the background is the likely reason the prior buildings were demolished, allowing for the auto-oriented Day's Inn.

The parking lots in the foreground and the urban skyline in the background are the antithesis of each other.
 This hotel, a Day's Inn in downtown, is a typical freeway hotel, but inserted into the downtown urban area. Notice the expanse of surface parking and the proximity of the freeway. This may be San Antonio's biggest mistake downtown, but they are hardly alone.

However, I have to also give credit that some of the freeway loop is quite a ways away from the urban core, though that just pushes the negative effects further away. I-37 is 3 miles long on the loop. I-10's southern part is 2.5 miles, the western portion is over 2. Only the northern part of the ring road, I-35, is similar to Dallas' downtown freeway loop. This expanded geographic boundary is beneficial to downtown, though it still slices the urban fabric. It means there is a greater surface area within the freeway loop.

Another automobile-oriented mistake is the one-way streets. Luckily, this is in part negated by the fact that streets were not widened. Streets like Pearl or Young do not exist in San Antonio. They also didn't do things like create a Griffin Street within the existing urban area, which is in essence the same thing as adding a freeway, only a bit smaller in scale. Outside of the historical aspect of downtown SA, it's the lack of wide, pedestrian-adverse streets that create its vibrant setting.

And finally, for my WTF?!? moment, I give you this:
Why on earth can't Dallas, with its higher office and residential population not have a rent-a-bike. Surely visitor's who frequent SA aren't as likely to grab a bike in an unfamiliar setting? Just add to the list of the many things SA does right, that has usually been overlooked in other Sun Belt cities.
The good news is that a lot of this is able to be remedied. Elm and Commerce can be tamed by reverting back to two-way. The Deck Park over Woodall helps negate the negative effects, though the surrounding area is still freeway oriented and unlikely to change. A greater focus on urban form in new development to make sure that places like Dealey Plaza engage visitors would be welcomed. While I don't think downtown Dallas will ever score high vibrancy marks like SA does, but it isn't a lost cause. It just needs political will to get it done.

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