Think 'Houston Street Mall'

In 1991, a committee of three San Antonio public interests formed a cooperative venture to revitalize Houston St and several other downtown areas.  They had seen the decline of Houston St from its perch as the preeminent retail destination in the 1950s to a ghost town in the 1980s.  What the TriParty Project (as it was named) did was add “lipstick to the pig” to parts of downtown.  We added fancy textures, some art, fixed curbs and added some pedestrian access to the Riverwalk.  All nice.  More improvements came to Houston street late last decade.  More of the same: nice accents, higher curbs and better signage.

But, it hasn’t worked.  Houston Street is still not even close to what it once was.  It once was the street for shopping in San Antonio.  A retail hub for the entire city:


Today, I can tell you that Houston St is scary.  San Antonio drivers have no idea that highway speeds aren’t acceptable in congested areas.   The vacancy rate is upwards of 50% (methodology: ever other property seems vacant or underutilized).  It smells of fumes and gasoline.  Yuck.

Certainly, there’s some goodness including Starbucks, a few hotels, and a thriving set of high-end restaurants like Bohanan’s that cater to the upscale and theatre-going crowd.  However, there’s tons of vacancy and no one talks of the area as anything special.

But, we have several things happening in San Antonio indicating perhaps it’s time to reconsider Houston St:

  • The construction of the new Tobin Performing Arts Center meaning less traffic to the Majestic theatre and,
  • The announcement that Geekdom will be an anchor tenant on Houston St and,
  • The departure of the Children’s Museum to a site in the River North area and,
  • El Mercado is getting more and more tired with (seemingly) fewer and fewer visitors.

So, we’ve determined that lipstick didn’t work on the pig.  It’s time to radically rethink Houston Street.   What has worked elsewhere that could work here?  I look to the 16th Street Mall project in Downtown Denver.  It’s not a home run success by any stretch, but imagine this:


16th St Mall – Denver

16th Street Mall – Denver
Instead of like this (E Houston St):


Houston Street. Currently featuring: Traffic and fumes.
How do we do it?
1. Close the entire roadway to traffic from Losoya on the east to Navarro on the west.  No buses.  No cars.  No bikes.  Pedestrians only.
2. Extend the sidewalk to completely cover the roadway.  (We’ll still need emergency vehicle access and that’d be there of course.)
3. Grant the use of some of the former road to the private property owners.  Make it some distance out from their property line.  Say, 30 or 40 extra feet.  Establishments can deploy very European-style open air seating areas like this:


Imagine people-watching while having a nice drink or meal.

4. In the middle of the street, rent out kiosks to local small businesspeople.  Those folks hunkered down inside the dungeon that is El Mercado?  Bring them out.  The city can share the revenue from the kiosk rental with the local businesses affected by reduced vehicle traffic.
5. Let’s change the name.  If we’re going to have a premier street, let’s give it a premier name.  How about Lila Cockrell Way?

Ultimately, changing anything requires one step at a time.  Like losing weight requires a first day of new life habits, fixing our downtown requires us to change things as they are for one street at a time.  The lipstick on a pig approach hasn’t worked.  Let’s give a little radical surgery a try on Houston St Lila Cockrell Way.

Michael Girdley