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What makes a city like San Antonio, Texas great?

Some would argue that it is the accessibility to art and culture, while others will state that the cost of living and weather make a city desirable. Whatever you believe, most people will agree that a great city needs to be forward-thinking as it finds a way to balance and embrace changes in the world around us, while maintaining its heritage and history.

San Antonio used to be considered one of the least progressive cities in Texas, but with renewed energy geared toward revitalizing our tourist-friendly downtown area, along with an infusion of technological talent and an exploding culinary and art scene, our town is on the brink of becoming the next great city in America. People are talking about San Antonio, and this time, it’s all positive. Our beloved Spurs just won their fifth NBA championship, proving that the good guys, indeed, do triumph when they have heart and a whole lot of class. Powerhouse organizations like Valero, USAA, the UT Health Science Center, H-E-B and Rackspace continue to succeed and grow as they create innovative solutions for today’s ever-changing marketplace. Our economy is solid, thanks in part to our strong military and tourist industries, and with numerous universities and academic institutions, the city holds opportunities not yet realized. San Antonio is definitely a city on the move toward an amazing future.

 

For the past 10 years or so, the newest generation of college graduates and entrepreneurs has been looking toward the urban areas experiencing a renaissance.  Cities like Brooklyn, Portland and Denver are attracting these energetic and talented individuals in droves. They are drawn to urban living solutions, which allow young people and even families to enjoy a lifestyle full of culture, great restaurants, parks and open spaces, as well as career opportunities, all within a short walk or public transportation commute. San Antonio might be behind the trend a bit, but we are in the process of creating a downtown like no other. It is a very exciting time to live in the Alamo City. Spearheading much of the growth and transformation of our downtown area is Graham Weston, one of the founders and chairman of Rackspace. In 2010, he partnered with Mayor Castro, along with an ambitious team of business and community leaders, to create the SA2020 Initiative. This movement was born from the realization that San Antonio companies were having a hard time recruiting and retaining young and technologically talented applicants for positions that required a higher skill level than these organizations could find locally. Weston then strengthened his dedication to the revitalization of San Antonio’s downtown vision when one of the members of the founding team of a company recently acquired by Rackspace refused to move to San Antonio. He cited that San Antonio was lacking a thriving start-up scene and that he preferred to be surrounded by other technology entrepreneurs. He also thought that San Antonio’s downtown wasn’t conducive to true urban living. This individual chose to move to Austin instead.

 

This was a blow to Weston and a wake-up call, as he had spent his first 10 years with Rackspace struggling — for the very same reasons — to recruit talented individuals just like this young man. San Antonio had no urban options, and we just couldn’t compete with the rapidly growing urban communities around the country. However, that was then. Now, you can’t take a trip downtown without noticing something new and fresh. Downtown San Antonio is a “city on the rise,” with massive projects under construction and more planned to launch in the next two years. Many of these new and exciting projects have been started with the help of Weston’s 80/20 Foundation, which provides funding and support in the areas of urban options, entrepreneurship and STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math.) The foundation is based on the premise that “20 percent of the nonprofits are driving 80 percent of the social impact turning San Antonio into the next entrepreneurial hub, promoting technology skills for the jobs of tomorrow and giving the city more urban options.” The 80/20 Foundation helps these organizations get their visions off the ground with financial grants and mentoring resources that will allow them to achieve their goals of putting our city on the path to greatness.

 

The people of San Antonio are proud of their hometown. The exponential growth of the city is a testament to the attributes that living here has to offer. We are one of the most recession-proof cities in the country, and it’s hard to beat the cost of living here. As the seventh-largest city in the United States, we have many opportunities for employment, and as we continue to grow, we will need to foster an attitude of acceptance and inclusion of our downtown area as the heart of this great city, rather than relegating it as only the place where you take your out-of-town guests.

Downtown San Antonio is vibrant and colorful and easy to navigate. The past several years have seen an explosion of new development in residential living, dining and entertainment venues, as well as hip new pocket neighborhoods with their own identities and flavors.

 

A place to live

Probably the most important new development near downtown in the past 20 years is The Pearl, a culinary epicenter for a city exploding with creative new concept restaurants and talented new chefs. Home to the Culinary Institute of America, The Pearl is a mixed use development incorporating trendy loft apartments, popular restaurants and bars, eclectic shops and office spaces. It will also soon become home to one of the trendiest hotels in town, the Hotel Emma. Adjacent to the hotel you will also find chef Jeffrey Balfour’s highly anticipated new restaurant and brew pub, Southerleigh, scheduled to open late this year.

The Pearl lies just north of downtown, off Broadway, on the hallowed grounds of the historic Pearl Brewery, which stopped bottling in 2001. There is always something going on at The Pearl. The Saturday Farmer’s Market draws thousands for locally sourced meats, produce and gourmet foods, and you’ll find that many different food festivals take place here throughout the year — the Tamale Festival in December, the Paella Challenge in March, plus signature events for Culinaria and the San Antonio Cocktail Conference. City center, or downtown proper, is experiencing a rebirth as new high-rise apartments and condominiums entice young professionals and active couples to become members of this vibrant urban community. There are plans underway to fill storefronts that have been vacant forever, and Frost Bank is building the tallest skyscraper downtown. The bank’s  current location on Houston Street will house city offices.

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The old Municipal Auditorium has been transformed to create an amazing state-of-the-art multipurpose performing arts center. The Tobin Center for the Performing Arts now features a 1,750-seat performance hall, a 250-seat studio theater and an outdoor performance plaza connected to the River Walk. It is an architectural gem and will allow us to attract artists that might never have considered adding San Antonio to their tour schedules. Also recently renovated is the Aztec Theatre on St. Mary’s Street at Commerce. It is meant to attract smaller acts in an intimate setting and can be configured for house seating or general admission, standing-room-only shows. Downtown is also undergoing a major facelift, and public spaces like Hemisfair Park, Travis Park and the Museum Reach river trail have been completely reimagined and rebuilt to create safe and welcoming environments, which are meant to lure families living outside of downtown to venture into the core of the loops. Hemisfair Park, for example, will become an urban oasis, encompassing shaded groves, playgrounds, cafes and galleries, as well as meandering pathways that will connect the surrounding neighborhoods with each other. It will become a destination for locals to meet, explore, play and relax.

 

Moving south along South Alamo Street and flanking the historic King William District lies one of the most vibrant neighborhoods in San Antonio. Southtown, as it is aptly named, is an area rich with fantastic restaurants like La Frite Belgian Bistro, Bliss, Bite and Hot Joy, which was recently ranked among the  Top 10 Hottest New Restaurants in the U.S. by Bon Appétit magazine. Make a reservation to spend a relaxing and delicious afternoon or evening under the trees at Feast, where chef Stefan Bowers has created a collection of eclectic menus featuring small plate dishes to please any palate. Sunday brunch is my favorite, with their mimosas and candied bacon.  Southtown is also the perfect place to meet up with friends for a drink after work or just to stop along the way as you pedal your way through downtown and along the river, or on your way to visit San Antonio’s historic missions, riding a B-cycle. The Alamo City had one of the first municipal large-scale bike-sharing systems in the United States, and to date, there are over 50 B-cycle stations in town. Just purchase a day pass for $10 or an annual pass for only $80, and you can hop on any B-cycle at any of the stations in town.  Stop in for a cold craft beer at The Friendly Spot, where you’ll find a diverse crowd of young hipsters, business people and couples with kids playing on the playscape, not to mention canine companions of all shapes and sizes. You can also grab a creative cocktail at Hot Joy, like their  “Curse of the Southpaw,” a gin and ginger concoction.

As you continue even farther south of downtown, you can’t help noticing a funky little area just off South Flores Street. SoFlo has begun its urban unfolding and promises to become an artistic neighborhood full of great apartment buildings repurposed from dilapidated warehouses into trendy urban living spaces like the Steel House Lofts, Judson Candy Factory Lofts, Cevallos Lofts and the Camp Street Lofts. SoFlo has ambitious plans to feature hip retail boutiques and art galleries, as well as great restaurants and bars.

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One recent addition to the SoFlo scene is the Dorcol Distilling Company.  Started by Boyan Kalusevic and Chris Mobley, Dorcol Distilling makes rakia, a strong Balkan brandy. In the cozy tasting room you can sip their apricot-flavored rakia, named Kinsman, and sample cocktails created with this dangerous elixir. It’s the perfect place to sit on the patio after a productive day of shopping for handmade crafts and farmer’s market produce at the SoFlo Market.  Located just a few blocks south of the Blue Star Arts Complex, the SoFlo Market is open every second Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The market is an urban arts and crafts fair that strives to  provide an alternative shopping experience with unique and handmade designs and an opportunity to meet, interact with and directly support the artisans who create them.  The market reminded me of the Santa Fe Farmer’s Market, where you can actually chat with the artists and producers and sample their wares as you learn about their materials, sources and techniques.

There is no question that San Antonio is poised to become the next great urban success story. As we continue to grow and expand our cultural influences, repurposing the old and reimagining what our city can be, San Antonio will become a metropolitan force to be reckoned with. We will experience an influx of talented young individuals who will be begging to make our home their home, and because we are warm and friendly and welcoming, we will embrace them and make them a part of la familia.

 

by Merideth Kay
Downtown by Design: Work Shop Live Eat