Urban design for a downtown grocery San Antonio E-N

I wrote the article below for the Build San Antonio column of the Express-News about the urban design for a downtown grocery and it ran in today’s Home section. Unfortunately, the Build San Antonio column, which is provided by the San Antonio Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIASA) for bi-weekly publication, is very limited in length and, as I found out, is not a venue for a “position” directly relating to actual projects in the city! The project that you may read about between the lines is H E B’s proposal to the City of San Antonio (CoSA) for a downtown grocery store thankfully brought to our attention and “dissected” by Benjamin Olivo on his Downtown Blog where you can find some background and a link to the “winning” proposal.

I was shocked to see in the proposal a large parking lot, a gas station and a small convenience store for high-end prepared foods. It had no windows for visibility to/from the street and no doors facing the street. More shocking was the demand by H E B to be given South Main Avenue, the public right-of-way from Cesar E. Chavez Boulevard to Arsenal Street, and all costs associated with ownership transfer from the citizens of San Antonio to the H E B corporation. This would amount to serious dollars, well beyond the initial $1M gift demanded, and for what amounts to a place-holder, low-intensity car-centric development that they claim will lose money (excluding the gas station portion of the development’s economics!!) and only is assured to be in place for 5 years.

The AIASA Urban Affairs Committee mission is to support public input to public design and planning initiatives and to provide best-practice urban design information and advice when we can. We also support neighborhood level groups with knowledge and procedure recommendations in their efforts to positively transform the public realm – parks, streets. Our committee is preparing a Position Paper, for review and approval by the AIASA Board, against the public funding for this low-density project since it fails in important areas of urban design and would enable the privatization of an important public street space. CoSA is restoring the historic street grid in Hemisfair Park – streets that were erased in the late 1960’s. Giving this one away to H E B would be saying goodbye to it forever. CoSA should hold out for a long-term, urban development that promotes a livable, sustainable city and that embraces the goals of SA 2020. H E B and their corporate campus could be an important part of the future of downtown, but they need to be a PART of the city, not a grand private suburban campus in the middle of downtown.

September 29, 2013

In recent years, San Antonio has been doing a great job painting a picture of a true livable city.

Declaring the “decade of downtown,” the mayor’s office is educating residents and real estate developers about the value of redeveloping the urban core toward the goal of a long-term sustainable city. Economic development is being analyzed within its larger context, which for San Antonio includes heritage conservation and sustaining the unique character of neighborhoods.

To serve long-deserving downtown residents, as well as those who will reside in the many new and in-progress housing developments, we need a downtown grocery store option. This need is widely accepted.

The city of San Antonio has accelerated the possibility of a downtown grocery store by offering $1 million for a viable solution. A store is now on the immediate horizon.

What should the best downtown grocery store proposal look like? The strongest solution should enact basic urban design principles, including:

Pedestrian-scaled, accessed-from-the-street buildings.

A defined building edge to enclose and frame the street, and hide any parking spaces from street (most urban stores have very little if any parking).

The site should serve a mix of uses, including residential and commercial spaces that serve the urban population.

With the commitment by the city for increased bike and pedestrian connectivity, a new grocery site should be well appointed with amenities such as bike racks and transit stops to serve downtown and the surrounding neighborhood residents. These types of amenities, along with sidewalk seating areas, small stages for music and small kiosks for special events, are much more akin to urban grocery environments than the large areas devoted to special event tents and gasoline stations typically found in suburban settings.

A sense of permanence and urban-scaled density expressed by at least a two-story building (perhaps options for future additional height), and a building footprint much larger than the parking area, which is better accommodated in a structured parking garage.

Driveways that are located as far from street intersections as possible, so that motorists driving in/out do not conflict with pedestrians.

Good urban design, as outlined in the AIA’s 10 Principles for a Livable Community, along with affordable, extended-hour grocery shopping, will push this city toward its long-time goal of having a real downtown grocery store.

There are many urban grocery store examples across the country that demonstrate how important doing the right thing is to the success of the store.

Designing a store environment with good urban design principles is crucial.

Let’s get it done right.

David F. Bogle is a principle (sic) at SYNCRO Architecture Studio. He is on the graduate faculty at UTSA’s College of Architecture.

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One Response to Urban design for a downtown grocery San Antonio E-N

  1. Rose says:

    The HEB plan is also contrary to the previously approved Lone Star Community Plan. Wake up, ….!

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