Wednesday, November 2, 2011

San Antonio, an urban oasis?

How timely that just a bit after my family and I visited San Antonio, Yahoo! Travel and Forbes but SA in their top 10 mid and small city downtown's, though how San Antonio with 1.3 million people, let alone Chicago, is considered mid-sized is beyond me.

Per the article:
For those who haven’t yet visited San Antonio, the city conjures up images of a tragic and bloody last stand at The Alamo. But for anyone who has visited, the city is more than just home to one of the most famous historical sites in the West. The San Antonio River Walk is perhaps the most beautiful part of the city, creating a verdant pathway lined with colorful cafĂ© umbrellas that winds its way through downtown, offering up a bevy of shops, restaurants, and bars on the way. Tour downtown, follow the river by foot or tour it by boat, and save your visit to the Alamo for the late afternoon, when the sun is in retreat and you’ll have more to remember from your trip than just an historic and valiant defeat.

A bit brief, though what is there is accurate. San Antonio really has a lot of what folks like me, particularly in the Sunbelt cities, advocate.

We found it to be quite an active place, which begs the question of why. Though there is not one singular answer, and I will get into many shortly, the big answer is history. Obviously, the large scale historical framework is there with the Alamo and the Tower of the Americas. But there is also the smaller places that give it the historical feel. The difference between the Alamo and the other missionary sites is that the Texas soldiers choose that site as its fort. It isn't out of the question to think that the Alamo could be just another historical site in SA, but that a current missionary settlement building could have been where the battle was fought in 1836. These smaller missionary sites have been converted other uses, but their history remains. Often these uses are public, like a theater or performing arts venue.

But that isn't all the history. Six of the top 15 tallest buildings were completed before 1960. Five were built before WWII. To put it in perspective, Dallas has one before 1960 and none before WWII.

Aside from the parking garage on the left, this vibrant street scene is composed entirely of pre-WWII buildings. 

This is significant in two major ways. First, older buildings tend to be better urban buildings than those built between 1960 and 2000. There are ground floor retail locations and even those that aren't don't alienate those who are walking near the property. They are also better for the pedestrian scale. The materials are usually softer and the design is generally warmer to people up close. The second is that when a building built before WWII is demolished, the replacement is not of the same quality. More often than not, especially in the southern half of the U.S., that replacement is a parking lot, a known pedestrian adversary. By having large quantities of these buildings, San Antonio guarantees an active street scene.

Notice how this older building respects the street, and therefore enlivens it.
One of the most famous features of San Antonio is of course the River Walk. From a planning standpoint, this area fascinates me. Here was an area, several decades ago, that was a liability. When it flooded, there was damage and death. It was considered no more than a ditch at the turn of the century. The look and smell made the locals call it an eyesore. In the '20's, plans called for taming the river, including paving it, a la the Los Angeles River. The local Conservation Society took exception to the idea. They worked with the mayor and came up with a beautification project that would turn into the River Walk. The idea was very unpopular and it wasn't until the Works Progress Administration offered funds that the project got off the ground on a large scale.

Aside from paving and the actual completion, if I inserted the Trinity River here, would that sound familiar? What would SA look like today, had this area been paved over and become an open drainage ditch? This is a major tourist attraction because it is unique, beautiful and at the same time functional in flood control. SA took an asset, improved it and has been reaping the rewards since then.

Here's some pictures:

This is a great illustrator that the River Walk is both beautiful and functional. Instead of concrete tip to toe, stone work accents landscaping that fits the area, ie that is natural. If this were done today, one of two things would be the outcome. Either the area would be entirely concrete grey, to contain costs, or consist of imported granite and exotic vegetation that required extensive maintenance and died frequently.

I like this one as it illustrates the relationship between the street, the river and the built environment. I have heard that San Antonio is an example of how you can have a divided streetscape, basically debating that the tunnels can be successful within downtown Dallas. I feel differently. What you see above is the extension of the streetscape, not another entitly, like the tunnel system. On Friday night, we had dinner at Casa Rio, a restaurant with entrances at both the river and street level. While that can be achieved in the confines of a tunnel or skywalk, it is much harder, particularly when the buildings in question are post-modern office buildings.

This final shot also illustrates how well connected the two realms are.

It is hard NOT to find the street level in San Antonio. Stairs are plentiful and there are numerous times where it is easier to go to the other side of the river by going up the stairs, crossing the street and walking back down. While, as before, this may be possible in the tunnels, it is very hard to actually achieve.

The River Walk itself is wonderfully pedestrian-friendly. Yet, so were the streets above, which had just as much activity as below. It was easy to see how the design fed one to the other. Each would be less used were the other not there.

My main focus was what they did well in creating downtown SA. It is an area that is a bit odd compared to many cities. The tallest structure is the aforementioned Tower of the America's, it's tallest skyscraper is a hotel, the Marriott Rivercenter, and the tallest office, Weston Centre, is only the third tallest in the city. It is hard to find a city whose tallest structure is not an office tower. This represents downtown SA in a measurable way.

They don't focus on what other cities did or try to incorporate an off-the-shelf-planning idea. Instead, they took stock of what they had, and strengthened it. They didn't try to import a modern Times Square. They didn't try to build the tallest office building. They didn't call the latest and hottest architect to build a fancy civic building.

When compared to Dallas, they don't have a high downtown residential population. They don't have a huge amount of office space. They have more hotel rooms, but not that drastic a difference. Yet, despite that downtown Dallas should have a higher population within downtown at all times, but the streets don't reflect it. San Antonio has accomplished this by embracing what they are and what they were. Dallas has ran from it, trying hard to be more than it is.

Just to show this point, compare the two big historical sites, Dallas' Dealey Plaza to San Antonio's Alamo. Both were the location of a tragedy, though the Alamo was significant to Texas' independence, while JFK's assassination were black eyes to folks in Dallas. Both have museums dedicated to the event. After that, it is night and day.

There are lots of things to do around the Alamo after or before you go. The River Center Mall  and the River Walk allow for eating and shopping. As it stands now, all that is near Dealey Plaza in that regard is the Sixth Floor Museum's cafe (not open past 6pm and only on weekdays), a Subway and a western-themed gift shop. Not that far, but out of eyesight of the Plaza are a few more restaurants. If you want to visit and pay your county tax bill, that can be done at the Records Building. If you want to visit then join the army, you can accomplish that at 207 South Houston. If you want to visit Dealey Plaza before your county court date, the fortress-like George Allen Courts building is adjacent. Aside from the museum and and its cafe, the only directly adjacent building that caters to visitors would be Old Red Courthouse, though if you are at Dealey Plaza, it is only a building that looks neat. Otherwise, visitors have no idea what it is. If visitors know that the JFK Memorial is only a block away (some don't) it is highly underwhelming and only makes sense when you realize it is nothing more than a garage topper.

It is this scattering of parts that make downtown Dallas so lackadaisical in activity, particularly when compared with SA. Compactness plays a huge factor in urban street vibrancy. Dallas doesn't have it, San Antonio does.

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