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Bringing Urbanism Back to the Alamo

San Antonio's iconic Alamo Plaza / Credit: Flickr user Blondie5000

Downtown San Antonio is probably best-known for its public spaces: the RiverWalk, the Alamo, and Main Plaza chief among them. But the local perception has long been that the city's core is for tourists, not residents. Luckily, there is a considerable amount of energy being devoted to changing this perception, and remaking downtown as a place for people. Just this past weekend, the city hosted its second Síclovía, which saw two miles of the central Broadway corridor closed to automobile traffic. The event, which also included San Antonio's first Better Block project, drew more than 40,000 people out into the streets for a day-long celebration of public space–a response that surprised even the event's organizers.

"We're just so excited, because other cities who have a stronger reputation for this kind of thing came, and they were blown out of their shoes," said the city's Health Program Manager, Maggie Thompson, who organized the city's first Síclovía last October, and built upon the success of that event with assistance from the federal Communities Putting Prevention to Work grant program. "After the first one, there was such overwhelmingly positive support from the public. The mayor came out as a fan of this initiative, the city manager came out and spoke. It now has big public support."

Síclovía 2012 Route Map

Downtown's sidewalks and plazas will remain very much in the public eye this coming week: the city will mark the 176th anniversary of the massacre at the Alamo with public ceremonies this Tuesday and Wednesday, while the annual Luminaria festival will flood the area with color over the weekend. And while major events can help to enliven spaces in the short term, there are real and concerted ongoing efforts to make liveliness the default for downtown. PPS has been working with several city agencies, non-profit organizations, and companies on a variety of projects, and from where we sit, downtown San Antonio looks like it's really building some serious momentum.

Since last summer, PPS's Phil Myrick has been working closely with the Center City Development Office under Assistant City Manager Pat DiGiovanni, leading a series of workshops and trainings to teach city staff about the placemaking process. PPS also recently began helping the city revitalize and reconceptualize Alamo Plaza and Plaza de Valero. These places have played an important role in the city's history; this has led to their popularity with tourists, but has had the unintended side-effect of driving many locals away. One of the main goals in re-thinking these spaces has been to focus on changes that will open downtown up to a wider variety of uses. Speaking specifically about Alamo Plaza (for which there will be a Placemaking Community Meeting this Wednesday evening), Phil explains: "We're trying to think of it primarily in terms of its huge potential to be a great city square that becomes an anchor for activity in downtown, and makes people want to come back to the city center to work, live have fun, bring their children, and generally have a wonderful experience."

Beyond downtown's historic plazas, the city is also gearing up for major overhaul of HemisFair Park and its surrounding streets. Officials have kick-started an effort to craft a new Downtown Transportation Plan for the area around HemisFair, and will host the second public meeting on this initiative tomorrow night.

The energy around placemaking in San Antonio is starting to spread out into the city's neighborhoods, as well. Last summer, PPS launched Power of 10, a website where San Antonians could share their ideas for how downtown could be improved. Power of 10 generated roughly 300 ideas from the public, and we're now working with Texas Public Radio to launch a citywide version of the site in May, which will lead to the implementation of citizen-sourced Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper projects later in the year. We're also working with Rackspace Corporate Headquarters to create a new public park for the northeast side neighborhood surrounding the former shopping mall that the company is redeveloping as its base.

San Antonio, in short, is a city that 'gets it.' Back to Phil: "I think that people are going to look back on this moment as a real turning point. We've been happy to be involved in guiding [city officials'] thinking, but they've lined up an incredible slate of projects."  If you're interested in learning more, make sure to check out one of this week's public meetings on the Downtown Trasportation Plan (Tuesday) or the Alamo Plaza re-design (Wednesday), and keep an eye out for May's citywide Power of 10 launch. We'll be keeping you posted!