Guest Column

Two artistic plates from David Macaulay’s Great Moments in Architecture have remained in my offices, move after move. The work by the author, illustrator, and teacher recently granted the MacArthur Foundation “genius” award details the intricacies and inner workings of complex architecture and machines. Great Moments is an amusing commentary on the business of building through the ages and the way we build cities. It also demonstrates a sense of amusement and insight, and the plates, taken from one of his early volumes, have long been very meaningful to me.

“A Tribute to the American Shopping Center … mistakenly filed under ‘Great Moments in Parking,’” is a depiction of the triumph of the shopping center — a row of stores, stretching off to the horizon in a seemingly endless strip, surrounded by acres of empty parking lot marked by a profusion of light poles.

Macaulay obviously meant it as a caricature, far from a direct representation of some stretch of suburban America. But for San Antonians, it looks amazingly real. Like vast stretches of new shopping along 1604, 281, and I-10, much of the San Antonio built on the North Side since the beginning of the ’90s appears to be an unending stretch of shopping, surrounded by acres of asphalt, punctuated by the occasional fast-food restaurant or hotel. For all the abundance of parking, there are rarely cars more than a row or two from the stores. And for all the vast stretches of stores laid out, it is all but impossible to walk from one to another. We just hop back into our cars and drive to the next.

Those endless stretches of strip malls and shopping complexes tell another tale about development. We tend to hear great things about the newest projects — the promise of a 20-screen multiplex, the arrival of a Neiman Marcus, the building of a Bass Pro store, or the coming of Ikea. There have, of course, been similar stories before: Bloomingdale’s department store was once expected to appear, first downtown and then at the Quarry. Twenty years ago, the Rivercenter was to be a “high-end” mall boasting a Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. (The downtown mall did briefly boast a Lord &Taylor department store, quickly converted to a more common Foley’s.) Lots of promised “developments” don’t really end up being built as planned and announced.

But San Antonio’s history over the last 20 or 30 years gives the lie to the notion that each newly announced “development” represents some tangible and meaningful index of community progress. The landscape of the north and south sides is littered with the remains of formers — former Krogers, former Albertsons, former Handy Dan’s, former Builders Squares, former K-Marts. Indeed, the Super K-Mart on 281 near the airport that was the site of the first major public outcry over development clear-cutting and the loss of trees has since turned into a Ford dealership.

Some might also remember the work of Omni Interests, Inc. during the late 1980s. That development firm, led by David Saks and Doyle Spruill, left a legacy of vacant strip malls across the city, symbolized by their finest creation downtown — Fiesta Plaza.

The “Pink Elephant,” as Fiesta Plaza eventually became known, was supposed to represent the very pinnacle of development, an economic boost for both downtown’s tourist economy and the West Side. It ended up amounting to remarkably little — vacant, trashed, and ultimately bulldozed for the site of UTSA’s downtown campus. And Saks and Spruill, having “developed” so well, in 1992 were convicted for bank fraud.

Not all “development” works. And most retail “development” really doesn’t do anything for our local economy other than rearrange the dollars that are already being spent here. What it does do is reshape the physical environment, often in ways that are difficult to perceive or understand at the time.

That’s the lesson of another plate from Great Moments in Architecture. “Small Victory — Highway” depicts the stub end of an expressway, ending abruptly in a set of barricades and a fence before a verdant forest. “Small Victory — Highway” harks back to the time of the anti-expressway movement, when local citizens and communities organized to stop highways that threatened the demise of their neighborhoods and parklands.

While highway development is directly about the business of transportation and congestion, it is also fundamental to how our cities look and feel. Once built, they exert a powerful impact on the shape of “development” and the larger environment, difficult to alter or reshape. As we begin to talk about building more highways and a set of toll roads, we need pose, here in San Antonio, the question that Macaulay’s drawing asks. What kind of community and environment do we really want, and what will it take to win a “victory?”

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