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CENTRO San Antonio Aims To Return Houston Street To Its Glory Days

Could Houston Street someday be the bustling, active thoroughfare it was during the 1930s and 1940s? CENTRO San Antonio wants to find out.

Houston Street charrette

Houston Street through Downtown San Antonio once was a retail mecca so exclusive it rivaled Fifth Avenue in New York City and land sold for $750/SF.

The Downtown street, which parallels Commerce Street, is old enough to have sustained cannon fire damage during the Battle of the Alamo. Once streetcars were electrified, it became the city’s major destination for both retail and entertainment.

“At one time, there were seven or eight major department stores, and the land was some of the most expensive real estate west of the Mississippi,” said Ed Cross, CEO of San Antonio’s Cushman & Wakefield office. “Land sold for $750/SF. That all changed when the freeway and the malls came to town. No one used the street anymore.”

Houston Street, despite being a major artery into downtown, was all but dead between 1975 and 2000, Cross said. As he put it: You could stand in the middle of the street and fire off a shotgun and not hit anybody during those years. Frost Brothers, the last retail holdout on Houston Street, shut its doors in 1985.

The only real sign of life has been the renovated Gunter Hotel, followed by AREA Real Estate principal David Adelman’s determination to renovate the Maverick Building as luxury apartments. Adelman is one of Houston Street’s biggest boosters, saying it is time to seize the street’s future.

“The tide was going out of Downtown San Antonio,” Adelman told the  Rivard Report earlier this month. “Now the tide is coming back in.”

Houston Street, San Antonio

That came with former Mayor Julian Castro's Decade of Downtown. San Antonio revitalized, but around the downtown core, not in it, Cross said.

“In terms of downtown, our approach has been housing first. That was actually our tagline,” Cross said. “And the object was to put a lot of people living downtown to activate retail. But the reality is that housing has not happened in the core of downtown. It’s happened in the periphery, whether it’s the Pearl or South Town or King William and Blue Star.”

But CENTRO San Antonio, in partnership with San Antonio AIA and the Urban Land Institute, is attempting some significant resuscitation efforts for Houston Street. Last fall, a report commissioned with the International Downtown Association recommended long-term strategies for the corridor. And last weekend, stakeholders gathered for a charrette.

CENTRO Director of Urban Planning Maria Nelson called the strategy to turn Houston Street back into a destination boulevard "stickiness." Houston Street must find a lasting identity that meshes the different personalities and hubs along Houston Street into one experience, Nelson said. The strategy also aims to anticipate downtown growth with the addition of the Frost Bank Tower and the CPS Energy relocation.

Houston Street charrette

“How do we keep Houston Street alive? How do we keep it active?” Nelson said. “We’ve got 1,200 employees being moved to the Frost Tower. The Alameda Theater is being revitalized. There’s a connection within this street. So how do we get at the forefront of the conversation, so that all the development downtown occurs in one cohesive way?”

The IDA recommendations divide Houston Street into four zones. On one end is the plaza for tourists visiting The Alamo, which is facing its own restoration. Then comes a performing arts segment that includes the Majestic and Aztec theaters. Beyond that, past St. Mary's, is the innovation zone, which includes a number of new tech startups and a plaza for the highly anticipated Frost Tower.

The final segment is the Zona Cultural Zone, with Santa Rosa Hospital, Milam Park and The Mercado. Many of the buildings that were draws in the 1930s and 1940s still exist on the street, some renovated and others untouched.

"This is a main downtown artery and it has great building stock," said AIA Executive Director Torrey Carleton, who has worked downtown for much of her adult life. "It has great potential. It just needs reactivation. So our goal will be to create short-, medium- and long-term interventions for each zone of the street."

Houston Street Charrette

A 24/7 experience is also key.

"We're about to have a street with a lot of people there during the week," Nelson said. "How do you engage those people when they have time away from work? What will they be doing at lunch or before lunch? So it's a matter of bringing people into the conversation, to talk about how Houston Street can engage people."

A final report will be completed for the council this spring. Nelson said it is still too early to discuss when, and if, the city might be using incentives and budget funds for improvements.