Traveling downtown...to shop?

By Elaine Wolff

At the March 7 meeting of VIA’s Commission on Intra-City Rail and Streetcar, the scheduled start of the agenda was a draft study of the potential economic impact from the proposed downtown streetcar lines. (Spoiler alert: the consultants said, yes, it would spur development along the chosen routes.) But it was upstaged by the Downtown Transit Update, a deceptively boring name for what could be a subtly revolutionary re-imagining of how we route traffic downtown.

And downtown, for all of its slowly growing appeal — Lüke’s happy hour, Sip’s bargain panini and rich breves, Bohanan’s grownup bar — could use the help. I spend a lot of time walking the blocks between Travis and Market, and the experience is still more often noisy and gritty than pleasant. The window-shopping and people-watching that propel walkers through miles of Manhattan in cold, heat and heels are largely absent. We have the beginnings of destination dining downtown (including Biga and the Hotel Valencia’s Citrus), but destination shopping is for the most part far away. When people discuss the obstacles to living downtown, they usually mention the lack of a grocery store, but it’s easier to get to Central Market than it is to La Cantera. More importantly, downtown is missing that sense of daily vitality that a busy and convenient retail culture brings. It does have plenty of For Lease signs, though.

One of the main ideas behind the Transit Update is that downtown might be a relatively easy place to travel through, but it’s not very fun to travel in, or linger, depriving would-be merchants of crucial foot and drive-by traffic. Another is that VIA needs to see itself as an agent of development, whose decisions can either promote or deter private investment. For instance, corners crowded with passengers just waiting to catch their connection block sidewalk traffic and, crucially, the view of storefronts — as do those large buses idling in line.

If VIA eventually adopts the main ideas sketched out in the presentation — put together by international architecture and design firm Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn — congested busstop corners could be transformed into attractive spots for sidewalk cafes or retail windows, and the city’s many downtown parks made into cool transit hubs that are more inviting than huddling on hot corners. “Marketing people out of their cars” is the catchy phrase. San Antonio developed as a transit-oriented metropolis, the consultants argued, with the old train station west of the highway and Houston Street as its heart and main artery. The old depot is scheduled to become the Westside Multimodal Transit Center late 2012, with Primo Bus Rapid Transit service eventually linking UTSA 1604, the Medical Center, and UTSA downtown, room for the much anticipated LSTAR train service to Austin, and Primo and/or streetcar service through downtown to the near East Side. (The Multimodal Center funding has been identified; not so the transfer center. Too bad the Mayor has already earmarked the “citywide” bond savings for HemisFair.)

The Transit Update suggests that the city capitalize on that development by turning 67,000 square feet of asphalt at the corner of St. Mary’s and Pecan that hosts the Greyhound bus station and a parking lot into a transfer station (with maybe an office tower or other development at one end). That would move bus routes away from the most crowded thoroughfares at the heart of downtown, to streets like Martin and Nueva. Part of the goal is to make Commerce and Market — which connect City Hall and the County courthouse to El Mercado to the West and the Convention Center to the East — more pleasant for strollers of all kinds, while creating a web of stops that still put commuters within five minutes of the library, the forthcoming Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, the River Walk, and all those empty downtown storefronts. (Americans won’t walk more than five minutes, the committee was told; at least one member expressed skepticism that San Antonians would put up with that much hiking in August.)

In another bit of seemingly counterintuitive thinking, the consultants argued that not all congestion is bad: “Congestion in most parts of the world is a positive sign,” they said. “It means people want to be there, not just travel through.” To that end, they suggested encouraging one type of congestion that SA only recently eliminated: parking on Houston Street, which currently is limited to a stretch along Milam Park across from Santa Rosa Hospital. One rendering proposes reclaiming 10 feet from either side of the street’s extra-deep sidewalks for parking spots, and routing a streetcar down the existing lanes with autos. It’s unusual for a downtown to have no parking on streets in front of shops, the consultants said.

That idea did not go unchallenged, either. One committee member objected that the City had only recently undertaken the late ‘80s-early ‘90s TriParty initiative that’s responsible for the narrow street and generous sidewalks that characterize Houston from Losoya to Santa Rosa — an attempt to turn the street into a pedestrian paradise that was perhaps little ahead of its time. He was surprised to hear someone suggest we roll back those improvements. But some folks blame the changes wrought by the City TriParty for the final death of the old Houston and Broadway retail outlets.

“When the City TriParty came in back in the late ’80s and narrowed Houston Street took about a year after they’d left and one by one all the stores on Houston began closing,” Paris Hatters owner Abe Cortez — among the last standing was no parking, no bus lane. People gave up and went elsewhere."

That’s not a universal opinion, and there were many other factors that contributed to the demise of urban cores across the U.S., not just here. But in this age of urban revitalization, discussions about shaping behavior in the face of market forces still matter.

Committee chairman and developer Charles Martin Wender agreed that it had come up in discussions at the recently formed Centro Partnership — a nonprofit with policy-making power and oversight of public-private real-estate deals — that lack of convenient short-term parking discourages certain businesses. (I used to give the valet at the Valencia a couple of bucks to let my car loiter while I ran in to Sip, but I would’ve grabbed lunch or coffee there much more often if I could’ve parked out front for free or cheap for 15 minutes.) “I think you had a street that was the backbone of downtown, and maybe they went too far,” the consultant said, diplomatically, after conjuring the image of out-of-towners coming in to make recommendations on a community’s particular culture.

In a conversation last week, VIA Vice President Brian Buchanan told PDA, “We’d like to at least have a conversation about it… VIA wants to be a partner in making downtown a better place.” To that end, they’ll spend the next three months or so “adding some meat to these bones,” and then deciding which facilities are priorities.

Everything’s still on the table, Buchanan added. But any nascent opponents might grab onto the consultants’ quick retort when their Houston Street suggestions were challenged: “Sometimes you should not listen to people like me." The trick, of course, is figuring out when we should.

"Traveling downtown...to shop?", Plaza de Armas, March 21, 2011