Cityscrapes: Downtown grocery no silver bullet 

Today, as some applaud “momentum building” downtown, the plans and promises involve a new downtown grocery store, an expansion of H-E-B’s headquarters, and a planned streetcar system. Then there is the new Briscoe Western Art Museum and the soon-to-be completed Tobin Center. These are the “silver bullets,” the expensive (usually public) projects that are supposed to fix all downtown ills. Yet the grand plans and sense of momentum have a familiar ring, and a remarkable dependence on public financial support. The quest to “save” downtown San Antonio with big projects is far from new.

In December 1958, construction magnate and business leader H.B. Zachry made a rare personal appearance at City Hall at a meeting of the City Council. Zachry announced that he was representing 150 “property owners, merchants, bankers and professional men of San Antonio,” and stated the group’s opposition to any plan to place proposed new jail and court buildings (and an eventually, a large civic center) on the East Side or West Side, arguing that these new facilities should “be placed within the existing perimeter of downtown San Antonio.” Zachry stated that it was imperative new public buildings be located to “retain the value” of the city’s most expensive (and taxable) real estate. He went on to express the concern that if these new public facilities were not kept in the downtown core, “pressure will be on the Council and Commissioners Court to relocate the City Hall and Courthouse to a new civic area.”

Zachry and his business colleagues obviously succeeded in keeping the new jail (now the Central Texas Detention Facility) at Dolorosa and South Laredo Streets, not too far from the County Courthouse. The real impact of the jail on the immediate surroundings and downtown as a whole is open to question, although it certainly didn’t add much to the cultural or aesthetic character of downtown. As a “silver bullet,” it amounted to relatively little. But Zachry and his colleagues were eager promoters of the next grand public project, the clearance of some 92 acres on the east side of downtown for an international world’s fair, HemisFair ’68.

From the 1950s and Zachry’s focus on the new jail, through HemisFair, to the grand development initiatives of the 1980s, including the Hyatt Riverwalk, Rivercenter Mall and the Alamodome, there was a persistent public quest for “silver bullets” and the promised development “momentum” they would bring. The momentum quest continued through the 1990s, with the Express-News in February 1993 describing a revitalization boom along Houston Street, Alamo Plaza as having “turned the corner in its revitalization” and plans for revamping the landmark Aztec Theater on Commerce Street into the home of a cabaret show, restaurant and retail stores, and some 40 to 60 apartments on the upper floors.

Just two years later, our local daily brought the headline “Downtown Renaissance—Economic Revival Fueled by Its Own Momentum.” Pat Konstam described the new Alamodome as inspiring “two proposed large hotels and a Western­-themed retail­entertainment center called Sunset Station in and around the Southern Pacific Railroad depot.” Then there was the upcoming opening of the “landmark” new Central Library, “anchoring new arts and education development.”

Over and over, San Antonio business leaders and politicos have promoted a series of publicly financed or subsidized projects as the magic ingredients to transform our downtown into an exciting, lively, 24-hour place. Just as persistently, those projects, from a new jail in 1959 through the Alamodome and Rivercenter to the more recent Museo Alameda and Grand Hyatt hotel, have either failed to produce the supposed momentum and “renaissance,” or have simply and fully flopped.

You would think that some would now ask, quite reasonably, ‘will a promised downtown grocery store really be the key to a residential development boom around downtown?’ Will the promise of a larger H-E-B headquarters at the Arsenal actually materialize, and more importantly, really provide “momentum” for sustainable, meaningful development? Or will these two end up as so many of their predecessors, as less than the elected officials and headlines tout?