As a native San Antonian, I’ve been blessed to see this city grow, and at the same time I’m troubled by our growth pattern
Most noticeable are two changes: increased traffic, and segregation as the result of sprawl. We hear of our growth as an amazing asset — one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation — but we sometimes neglect to think of the challenges. Projections show an additional 1 million residents will live here in the next 20 years. As we’re learning from other cities, making this growth sustainable creates opportunities, particularly ones that reduce vehicle miles traveled and support equity.
At a recent Urban Land Institute, or ULI, function, I heard a speaker discussing the city’s SA Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan. I was blown away by the simplicity of one of the proposals for our city’s sustainable growth, namely aimed at traffic mitigation, but with equity considerations.
In the history of cities, there are only two ways to reduce traffic congestion successfully: public transit and increased density. What is clearly NOT a sustainable solution: building more traffic lanes. A growth scenario modeled by SA Tomorrow required a $3 billion investment to build all major thoroughfare roads to full capacity. The model showed congestion levels in San Antonio would not be measurably reduced.
The keynote at a recent luncheon exposed the flaw in thinking that automated vehicles will save our city from congestion. Except for automated public transit, automation of private vehicles still presents the problem of too many cars on the road. Sixty cars take up the same amount of space on the road as the buses carrying those 60 people.
Our first challenge is to support a greater use of, and investment in, the public transit system. When more of us use public transit, more feedback will be provided to VIA and public officials who can take necessary action to improve the system. Fewer cars on streets means fewer traffic jams.
The second challenge is to embrace smart growth and density. More people living closer together benefits everyone. Intensity improves air quality from fewer vehicle miles traveled, reduces obesity and Type 2 diabetes through walkability, enhances connectedness among neighbors, and encourages social participation and community leadership. Additionally, residents who
live in dense urban areas spend less time in traffic and less money on personal vehicles, freeing up time and funds to use toward savings, shopping, socializing and other priorities.
While I value property ownership and understand not everyone wants a more “urban” lifestyle, there are ways to deliver housing options for all while maintaining privacy and way of life. There are building options that more efficiently use land than what we’ve done over the past few decades. The “Missing Middle” refers to everything from duplex, triplex, courtyard apartments and townhomes to multiplex and live/work buildings. One of my favorite examples of greater density is building an accessory dwelling unit in a backyard or side yard for a family member, or to rent out to a service employee, teacher or student. It provides an affordable housing option and gives homeowners the opportunity to earn additional income.
Creating more housing options on existing land within city limits, especially near public transit, is a way to reduce the suburban sprawl that San Antonio has embraced voraciously. San Antonio can focus on policies to encourage building intensity while not having to go as far as Minneapolis, which
banned detached single-family residential zoning in order to create more affordable housing options. Creating more walkable communities helps counteract negative impacts of decades of sprawl and segregation.
As the upcoming chair of ULI’s San Antonio chapter, I hope to continue educating local policymakers, developers, real estate professionals and the general public on what we’re learning from urban best practices. Check out more at sanantonio.uli.org.
Omar Gonzalez is Hemisfair’s director of real estate and chair-elect of ULI-San Antonio.