What draws people? Other people, natch

Each year, millions of visitors to San Antonio see the River Walk and are enchanted. Among their number are countless architects, planners, and local officials who enjoy the Paseo del Rio and come away convinced that all they need to do to revive a declining downtown or boost the fortunes of their local economy is repeat San Antonio’s seeming recipe for a lively, exciting river. In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley recently announced that restaurants along the Chicago River would be able to sell wine and liquor, spurring the “development of the Chicago Riverwalk as a hospitality venue `that` will enhance the image of the Chicago River as an attractive waterfront destination for residents and tourists.” In Augusta, Geogia, a local commissioner cites San Antonio’s River Walk (and its imitator in Oklahoma City) as a project that can “revitalize blighted urban areas.”

It’s the wrong conclusion, based on misreading the true lessons of the river. Yet we here in San Antonio may be just as guilty of misreading and misunderstanding the real lessons of our own Paseo del Rio.

What those visitors, planners, and architects see is a place teeming with vitality, activity, and above all, people. They often perceive that vitality as a function of the “built environment” — the narrow walkways, large trees, lush landscaping, and charming bridges and stairways that line the San Antonio River downtown. Each of those elements contributes to the character and charm of the River Walk. But they aren’t central to its appeal or success.

What makes the River Walk work is a real density of people and activity. Not twinkling lights or landscaping, or even the water. People attract people. They crowd where there’s a crowd. That’s William Whyte’s lesson in The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, his pioneering analysis of plazas and open spaces in New York City.

Perhaps inadvertently, the horseshoe bend of the SA river contains both people and activity, as do the narrow walkways and adjacent restaurants and clubs. By narrowing the space and confining its focus, the river bend acts like a Venturi tube for people. That their density and concentration are what makes the River Walk can be readily observed just a bit north or south of the bend, along the widening main channel of the river. Lined with major office buildings, a smattering of hotels and attractions like the Southwest School for Art & Craft, the main channel is a pleasant park-like environment for strolling, running, relaxing, and contemplating. Just minutes from the bustle of people along the bend, it’s usually remarkably quiet and free of people. Where are the people? Where more people already are — in the zone of concentrated activity.

Go up the stairway (or take an elevator) to the street level. The buildings are the same, with the same restaurants and clubs. But the activity and the density are just not there. And despite the best efforts of the city and a number of developers over the years, people don’t want to wander up to Houston or Commerce streets to view the exciting world of bank facades, parking garages, and VIA buses. They stay, densely concentrated, where the other people are.

That’s the reality that Federal Realty never really understood in its seven-year effort to “revitalize” Houston Street. It’s a big part of the reason why San Antonio ended up with some steak houses and new offices on Houston Street, not the big national retailers like Barnes & Noble that Federal executives had promised.

The same logic of density and concentration has also worked against a host of efforts to “stretch” visitors and tourists to attractions like St. Paul Square and Sunset Station and even Market Square. A block or two away from the river and downtown San Antonio appears an uninviting panorama of empty storefronts with lease signs, parking lots, and garage entrances. Indeed, even along the river, distances measured in tens of feet can matter in attracting people, as the weak performance of the renovated Aztec Theater has succeeded in demonstrating.

So when planners and officials from other places think that all they need to do is combine water, restaurants, and liquor licenses, they will more than likely fail. Would that we heed the same lesson.

The “improvement” of the San Antonio River to the north and south has been dreamed of and planned for decades. Redeeming the “Museum Reach” section north of downtown from the dreary dumping ground it has become is a worthy, wonderful goal. But the notion of some that the “improved” river will provide a grand development opportunity, a draw for ever more tourists, and a boon for the local visitor economy is not likely going to be realized.

People want to be where people are, not any real distance away. They’re tough to move, even tougher to plan or direct, despite the landscaping and the twinkling lights. •

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