The oft-cited statistic that over 50% of the world’s population now lives in cities can give the impression that mini-Manhattans are sprouting up across the planet. The reality is much more complicated. Urbanization patterns differ greatly from place to place, with many new neighborhoods owing more to Levittown — or Dharavi — than Midtown.
But all urban forms are not created equal; factors like density and walkability have wide-ranging implications for everything from carbon consumption to public health. It’s critical for growing cities to think about long-term consequences when making decisions about what to build and how to build it.
Designers have an important role to play in this process, both in their day-to-day work and through public education and advocacy. San Antonio–based architecture firm Overland has taken this lesson to heart. For the past decade, the firm has dedicated itself to strengthening San Antonio’s urban core — and convincing others to take up the cause.
San Antonio sprawl
In this booming Sunbelt city, downtown revitalization is a particularly challenging goal. While the United States as a whole has experienced something of an urban renaissance in recent years — between 2010 and 2014, downtown populations grew faster than those of the surrounding districts in most American cities — San Antonio has remained overwhelmingly suburban. Within the last decade, more new housing has been built in the sprawl zone than within the city limits, and the number of jobs in the downtown core has actually fallen. Most of the new residential and commercial development continues to take place on the outskirts of the metropolitan area, pushing the boundaries ever outward.
But with one million new residents expected to arrive by 2040, many local urbanists believe that the financial, environmental, and social costs of continued sprawl are simply too high.
“There’s been this habit of going out and building subdivisions outside of city limits, and then once those areas are populated, they either apply for annexation or the city looks at them as a new tax source [and proposes annexation],” said Overland principal Madison Smith. “The problem with that is that they’re perhaps an initial tax boost, but they become a tax drain as they age.”
Office as catalyst
Overland’s urban advocacy began in earnest 10 years ago when the firm was hired as part of a team preparing a masterplan for River North, a struggling neighborhood directly adjacent to the central business district. This project led the local design community and city officials alike to think more about encouraging new growth within San Antonio’s historic boundaries.
Overland principal James Andrews characterizes this period as the start of a new era of optimism about San Antonio’s potential, based partially on events set in motion under former mayor Julián Castro (who served as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Barack Obama). “We’re seeing a real surge in enthusiasm and participation in events that have been based around really building your own community, defining that community,” Andrews told me. “That didn’t exist in the city ten years ago.”
The firm’s leaders were so inspired by their time in River North that they packed up their suburban office and relocated there in 2012. Turning an old factory into an airy open-plan workplace with a publically accessible courtyard and adjacent coffee shop, they soon found themselves at the center of a new social hub.
“The courtyard’s become a lot more than we imagined,” Andrews said. “The city and the surrounding community are really falling in love with the space. Bike rides stop and finish here. Political campaigns have been launched in our courtyard.”
Developers have taken notice of the growing interest in the area. A new apartment complex recently opened nearby, and another large development is under way a few blocks south.
While Overland’s designers are excited about the changes, they’re also keenly aware of the importance of high-quality development. “It’s not just a matter of, ‘Build some high-rise luxury apartments downtown,’” Andrews said. “We’re actually thinking about thousands of downtown living opportunities. What’s the diversity [of development] we need to provide that’s authentic, diverse, and affordable, and is going to create that dynamic hub that we have the potential for here in San Antonio?”
Over the past two years, the firm has thrown itself enthusiastically into public debates about these issues in River North and beyond through a publication and event series called Place Changing.
The first iteration of Place Changing focused on a neighborhood called Dignowity Hill. Located in the city’s predominantly African-American Eastside, the area has long suffered from municipal neglect, leading to high vacancy rates. In recent years more young people have begun to move in, drawn by its historic character and proximity to the downtown core.
As in similar situations around the world, excitement about new development in the neighborhood has been tempered by fears of displacement. Designers Allison Hu and Nicolas Rivard, both Dignowity residents, approached the firm’s leadership with an idea: why not bring together longtime residents, newcomers, and others with a stake in the city’s future to discuss next steps?
“So many urban conversations right now are around an issue where battle lines are already drawn, whether it’s a new development or a zoning change or infrastructure. They’re often contentious right from the start,” Smith told me. “[With Place Changing], we’re putting something out there that’s just open — inclusive but aspirational. What we’re doing is asking, ‘What can this place be? What do you want, what are your concerns?’”
In collaboration with the neighborhood association president and Robert Rivard, founder of respected local news website the Rivard Report (and father of Nicolas), Overland spent six months producing a series of articles and videos exploring the area’s history and potential. They then held a well-attended public forum encouraging people from around the city to ask questions and propose ideas about how to use vacant lots.
During this process, the designers came to realize that much of the knowledge about urban systems they took for granted wasn’t shared by the general public. “Part of this was about putting a series of concepts out for the public to reflect on, with the hope of raising the level of urban literacy,” Hu said. “We wanted to help them develop a better understanding of the processes that shape the built environment.” To this end, they sprinkled Place Changing posts with sidebars defining terms like “good density” and “neighborhood association.”
Clear communication has become even more important in the lead-up to a citywide vote on an $850 million bond initiative taking place this spring.
Compared to previous bond cycles, “there’s been a reorientation of public discourse around what projects on our bond lists will bring maximum economic transformation,” Hu told me. Past allocations have been distributed throughout the city in “an even peanut-buttery spread of money, with no real goal in mind except to fix the potholes,” she said.
The development of evaluation criteria focused on return on investment has caused many to question this approach. According to the new model, projects that strengthen the downtown core would generate far greater economic returns for the city as a whole and should therefore be prioritized.
But with many convinced that San Antonio’s future lies in the suburbs, getting people across the city to support this idea is a challenge.
Over the past year, several Overland employees have spent their off-hours advocating for bond initiatives focused on the city center.
The bond program is broken into six categories, ranging from neighborhood improvement to streets, bridges, and sidewalks. On May 6, voters will vote on all six categories, which can pass or fail independently of one another.
Overland staff members have been most active in the $187 million category devoted to parks and recreation. Rachel Brehm, who until recently served as the firm’s business development coordinator, leads a volunteer-run group that’s pushing to transform the now-forlorn grounds of the 1968 World’s Fair into the city’s answer to Central Park. “It’s going to be the great lawn of San Antonio,” said Brehm. The project hopes to raise $21 million from the bond.
In the meantime, Allison Hu has been exploring the potential of a neglected 9-acre lot in Dignowity Hill. Building on her experience with Place Changing, she foregrounded community engagement in rethinking the site. “We tried to model a process for design that would double as a Trojan horse to bring a wide variety of people to engage in a civic process, many of them for the first time,” she said. Through workshops and exhibits, “we were able to use our background as designers to bring delight and general excitement to that process.”
The result: a scheme with strong community buy-in that was included in the bond program for $3.1 million.
Turning the tide
Regardless of the bond’s outcome, Overland plans to continue pushing for smart development in San Antonio.
“We have one of the oldest cities in the country, and the roots of this place, especially in the inner core, are so deep,” Smith said. “Over the last 40 or 50 years, we’ve been caught up in this suburbanization. We’re doing what we can to turn the tide.”
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