Arts Loving the city life

Urban professionals embrace the pace of downtown living

“Every trip downtown is my first trip downtown.” This is the sense my husband, a native San Antonian, experiences when we venture into the heart of the Alamo City. There’s a certain mystique about downtown, as with city centers across the country, that dazzles him a little, a mystique laced with a bit of urban adventure that suburbanites find exhilarating and nerve-wracking. But for regular downtown denizens who spend quality time at the core, the mystique fades to fascination and ultimately to a delightful sense of belonging that leads them to choose this place to spend a significant portion of their lives.

A view of Houston Street, now riddled with lofts, including the luxury apartments located over the Majestic Theatre. Insets: At far left, the Exchange Building at South St. Mary’s and Pecan. Top, a glimpse of the South Texas Bank Building at the corner of Houston and Navarro. Bottom left: New lofts on Travis Street are built above a Spectrum gym.

My job is in the heart of revitalized Houston Street, and that daily proximity affords me a perspective from which I can observe the growth and growing pains of the area’s development. There is a distinct appeal to spending a significant amount of my waking life working downtown. I, like my officemates and others in the various businesses surrounding my building, am transported to another world, in which I walk to my destination, be it the corner store, the deli, a coffee shop, or a colleague’s office. I routinely pass faces that over time become familiar: Frost Bank employees getting their morning latte at Murphy’s Deli, the middle-age homeless woman who prefers the bus bench near my building to a shelter, students heading toward class at Fox Tech High School, various chefs in checkered pants headed to restaurants unknown.

In this sea of strangers, relationships are formed as the barriers of anonymity are worn down by time. The lot where I park was, until recently, attended by an older gentleman who I came to adore. Henry Guerra stood watch over me and my colleagues as we arrived each morning, many of us unloading our children along with our briefcases on our way to child-care programs. Mr. Guerra not only became a familiar sight, but also a comforting one. The consistency of his presence, his protective eye, and his penchant for calling me “Mi hija” eased me into my morning routine. He has watched my children grow from infants to toddlers, with my youngest sing-songing his name the minute we pull into the lot. Sadly, the parking lot is under new ownership. Mr. Guerra is no longer there, and my morning will never be the same.

Not all downtowners find themselves forming such bonds, but it’s the openness and energy that makes those connections possible that draws citizens from all walks of life to San Antonio’s urban living.

“Growing up in San Antonio, I have fond memories of weekly trips I used to make with my grandmother to ‘el centro’,” says Pablo Rodriguez, public affairs manager for H-E-B. “I remember the movement, the sounds, walks on the river, and eating out. This is a place where things get done.

The excitement from downtown is stimulating.”

Rodriguez’ 700-square-foot flat is just three blocks from his office, a convenience he finds as appealing as his proximity to the river. “For someone living downtown, the river almost becomes your roommate. I use it as a route to meetings I have around town,” Rodriguez continues. “The river has its moods, too. You can walk down one section and experience its loudness, yet reach another end that is completely tranquil and serene.”

Psychotherapist Sandy Morrison, who has a delightful view of the River Walk from her apartment in the Exchange Building at the corner of St. Mary’s and Pecan streets, shares Rodriguez’ sentiments. “Downtown fits my urban myth, and it’s far less pricey, far easier than living in New York City,” says Morrison. “I get the ultimate sophisticated city satisfaction without the downsides: No snow. No transit strikes. Cabs at my beck and call rather than yellow streaks streaming by, full-up and unfriendly. I can have it both ways.”

It’s the pursuit of that urban myth, the quest for a certain joie de vivre, that keeps downtown growing. Once a ghost town after 5 p.m., save for the River Walk, pockets of el centro now pulse with life well into the night. “Certainly this is an out-of-the-ordinary way for entrenched suburbanites to live,” says Morrison. From her doorstep, she can witness weddings at the Westin Center, enjoy workout clubs close by, and grab coffee and The New York Times at Sip. “As my friend said, ‘Your life is so exotic.’ I hardly think the adjective applies, but I get the gist. The world is at my feet.”

Steady growth of entertainment and residences in the downtown area points to its blossoming appeal. The South Texas Bank Building at the corner of Houston and Navarro streets has been remodeled to include condominiums, and the Piazza San Lorenzo project that once stalled out is pre-selling living quarters soon to be developed at Soledad and Houston streets. Adding to the city’s nightlife along Houston Street, Yokonyu Sushi Bar, Raw Oyster Bar, Medusa, and Suede Lounge made the scene this past year.

San Antonio’s downtown rental rates are comparable to Houston and Dallas, and are significantly less than Austin. They range from as low as 45 cents per square foot for an older Blue Star loft in Southtown to $1.63 per square foot at the luxurious Left Bank building on North St. Mary’s, which offers private balconies above the River Walk. Almost any taste can be satisfied, too. The Riverview Condominiums on Navarro are like small Monte Vista houses, with French balconies overlooking the river, a “dipping” pool, wood floors, fireplaces, and decorative tile in the kitchens and baths. The Cadillac Lofts, developed in the shell of an old Cadillac dealership, have a more contemporary feel with plain cement floors and no-frills cabinetry. Many apartment buildings and condos allow at least some pets; owners following their best friends with baggies in hand are an increasingly common sight.

Change isn’t limited to downtown proper as evidenced by the burgeoning development along lower Broadway. “The neighborhood is being gentrified in a very contemporary way, which is appropriate with the arts district right here,” observes artist Bettie Ward, whose home and studio are just a few blocks off of Broadway. “Many neighbors have been here for years and many are just moving in. The older neighbors are more traditional types but the new ones are a kind of hip pioneer. With the river remodeling and developers buying up the land here for future condos and apartments ... it is going to be a real neighborhood in just a few years.”

One wonders, though, if downtown neighborhoods are still in their infancy, is isolation a part of the lifestyle? Despite the “no vacancy” Centro Properties has listed on its website next to several of downtown’s best rentals, after dark the streets are often deserted outside of Houston Street and the River Walk. “You never know who you are going to run into,” says Rodriguez. “You can start a day with no set plans, walk around town and have a full evening agenda by mid-afternoon. Living downtown has provided me with a strong sense of community.”

Ward shares a similar feeling, but admits to occasional solitary confinement. “It is a bit isolated, but that is the nature of my work, really. I have people come over because it is such a different experience being in my home and neighborhood. Friends drop in all the time; I love that!”

One of the most common complaints about urban living in San Antonio is the lack of a grocery store or other conveniences nearby. There are 12 H-E-B locations within five miles of downtown and several corner stores along main corridors such as Houston, South Alamo, and McCullough, but the Handy Andy on South St. Mary’s closed in 2004. The River Center shopping mall, dozens of restaurants, and a pharmacy can satisfy nearly any last-minute need, from coffee to a quart of milk, but it takes a car trip to stock the pantry. Nonetheless, Ward says she can meet most of her needs by sticking close to home. “I just wish I had a little red motorcycle with a sidecar to buzz around here ... silly to go out in one’s car to the art-supply store a few blocks away.”

Although her neighborhood includes barges of vacationing people, buses coming and going, party noise, and the general din of urban existence, Morrison sees through the clutter to capture the essence of downtown living. “I couldn’t call it isolated,” she says. “I call it peace. I call it free-to-choose. There is community everywhere, the familiarity of connections, and neighbors who connect. My apartment is the ultimate tree-house experience. I choose when to come down and play.”

By Beverly Ingle