On a recent business trip to San Antonio, I found myself in need of an obscure computer item -- a tape for an ancient (i.e., 15-year-old) drive. No place in San Antonio stocked the item, but an Austin electronics store had it, so I zipped an hour north on I-35.
My mission accomplished, I took my time heading back to San Antonio. I stopped for coffee, a calzone, and wifi at La Tazza Fresca, a little independent coffeehouse just north of the University of Texas campus. It's right next door to Groovy Lube, which also provides free wifi for its customers. (They change oil, in case you were wondering.)
I drove down Guadalupe St. to downtown, running into the Warehouse District, west of Congress between 3rd and 5th Streets. Even at eleven o'clock on a mild, early spring Thursday night, the area was bustling with people, with music spilling out of the old commercial buildings lining both sides of the streets.
I turned south on Congress and drove for about a mile, well past Lady Bird Lake (formerly Town Lake, but renamed last year to honor the late First Lady), before I hit another center of activity -- the South Congress (SoCo) district. Here was another stretch of older buildings that had been creatively reused to create an eclectic neighborhood of shops, restaurants, coffeehouses, and pubs.
At one corner in SoCo, an Irish folk band was performing an impromptu set on the sidewalk -- not in front of a particular establishment, just on the sidewalk -- as a crowd gathered around them. The band and the audience all seemed to be in their late teens or early 20s.
Here's what caught me by surprise: For all the youthful, late-night activity within walking distance to the north and to the south of the lake, the shores of the lake itself were dark and evidently empty.
I was surprised by this because a number of Tulsans used Austin as a prime example of why Tulsa taxpayers urgently needed to modify the Arkansas River. They argued that having a lake on the southern edge of downtown was the key to Austin's vitality and to the special weirdness that makes it such a draw for creative and high-tech-oriented young people.
If the river was so all-fired important to Austin, where was the riverfront development? Why were all the people somewhere else?
Town Lake was created in 1960 by damming the Colorado River about six miles downstream from Congress Ave. The lake, about 10 miles long and 700 feet wide, is surrounded by parks with walking trails -- much like our own River Parks. A few hotels and apartment buildings come up to the riverfront, but there isn't any significant commercial development on the river.
If you want a nice jog in Austin, head to the lake, but if you want to find music, beer, and young people, if you want to see where people are spending money and generating sales tax revenue, find the nearest cluster of old warehouses or storefronts.
The following afternoon, I had some time before I had to catch a flight home, so I walked around downtown San Antonio, near the River Walk and the Alamo, taking photos of streetscapes and buildings.
To a Tulsan, one of the most striking things about downtown San Antonio is how few surface parking lots there are and how many older commercial buildings are still standing. Houston Street, San Antonio's main shopping street from the 1930s to the 1960s, has only a single surface parking lot on the five-block stretch from Alamo Plaza to the San Antonio River. The street runs parallel to the north leg of the bend in the river.
There is nevertheless plenty of parking in the area, with multistory parking garages concealed behind street-level retail.
What the pedestrian sees is a continuous street wall on both sides of the street, creating a kind of outdoor room lined with interesting buildings.
At the heart of Houston Street is the Majestic Theater. Just like downtown Tulsa's Ritz Theater, the Majestic was designed by Romanian-born architect John Eberson, an atmospheric theater in Italian Renaissance style, with a projector that throws clouds across a ceiling filled with twinkling lights.
Unlike Tulsa's Ritz, San Antonio's Majestic wasn't torn down in the redevelopment madness of the 60s and 70s. Instead, the Majestic was restored and reopened in 1989 as a 2,000-seat performance venue, home to the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra and traveling Broadway productions.
There are still some empty storefronts on Houston, but they're starting to be redeveloped with hotels and condos on the upper floors. In the meantime, the vacant spaces are still in use -- for a recent downtown arts festival the storefronts were converted to gallery space.
And what about the River Walk? The water is pleasant, but what makes it an attractive place to stroll are the restaurants and shops that line the narrow stream. Some of the buildings are old, some are relatively new, but all have some sort of connection to the walk at river level, such as display windows or dining terraces.
Many of the buildings were already in place in 1929, when San Antonio created an upstream dam to reduce flooding risk and a cutoff to allow floodwaters to bypass the bend in the river. The San Antonio Conservation Society (undoubtedly denounced as naysayers by the Forces of Progress) successfully stopped plans to turn the bend into a covered storm sewer.
Architect Robert H. H. Hugman promoted the idea of turning the bend into a promenade of shops, and in 1941 his vision was realized. A plaque near his office on the River Walk explains the crucial role that history and urban design played in his concept:
"Hugman was convinced that the ideal future of the Paseo del Rio rested in preserving the historic character peculiarly San Antonio's own; that the flavor of our Spanish, Mexican, and Southwest traditions must be emphasized in all future development; that our 'little river' should be treated as a stage setting on which people are transported to the unusual; that all future architectural growth avoid modern styles; and further, that the river's tempo must be jealously guarded, remaining slow and lazy, in complete contrast with the hustle and bustle of street-level modern city life."
Up at San Antonio's street level, you'll find streetscapes that will transport you to back to Hugman's day. The massive Joske's Department Store on Alamo St. wasn't demolished; instead it's in use as a Dillards, linking Joske's imposing late-1930s Art Deco façade to the 1980s Rivercenter Mall.
Across the street, there's a continuous row of small commercial buildings. Although they vary widely in style -- everything from late Victorian to Mid-Century Modern -- they have a consistent scale and setback with street-level storefronts.
The strongest predictor of where you'll find interesting shops, favorite local hangouts, and nighttime vitality in a city is not the presence of water, but the presence of a continuous concentration of old buildings with storefronts that come up to the sidewalk, an urban layout that pre-dates the prevalence of the private automobile. While water can enhance such a district, these places seem to thrive even without any nearby body of water.
You'll also find that most cities have protected these areas with some sort of overlay zoning that requires new construction to imitate the basic urban characteristics of what's already there. New and old buildings alike conform to guidelines resembling David Sucher's "Three Rules" for generating walkable urban environments: Build to the sidewalk, make the building front permeable (windows, not blank walls), put any off-street parking behind the building.
In San Antonio, downtown is covered by a number of different overlay districts with requirements that new construction fit in with existing development. In many of the districts, a developer seeking demolition must prove that it is the only economically feasible option.
Austin also uses overlay districts, and the city's plan for a "vibrant urban fabric" calls for the development of neighborhood plans for the entire urban core and for incorporating those plans into the city's zoning code by 2010.
The rules in place in these vibrant, growing cities go far beyond the very modest Neighborhood Conservation District proposal currently under consideration in Tulsa, and they'd no doubt be considered draconian by a development lobby used to building anything it wants, anywhere it wants.
Almost 50 years ago, Jane Jacobs devoted an entire chapter of her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities to "the need for aged buildings." Jacobs observed the importance of old buildings to innovation and urban vitality:
"Chain stores, chain restaurants and banks go into new construction. But neighborhood bars, foreign restaurants and pawn shops go into older buildings. Supermarkets and shoe stores often go into new buildings; good bookstores and antique dealers seldom do....
"As for really new ideas of any kind -- no matter how ultimately profitable or otherwise successful some of them might prove to be -- there is no leeway for such chancy trial, error and experimentation in the high-overhead economy of new construction. Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings."
There's a lesson to be learned from our successful neighbors across the Red River. But if you'd rather not follow a Texas example, just look around you. Where you find innovation and vitality in Tulsa -- Brookside, Blue Dome, Cherry Street, 18th & Boston, Brady Village -- you find older buildings that were overlooked by the planning fads of the past.
The proposed Neighborhood Conservation District ordinance for residential areas is a good first step. But Tulsa is long overdue for positive action to protect our remaining stock of older commercial buildings, to stop the spread of surface parking, and to require that new infill reinforce the urban character of these older commercial neighborhoods.
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