I’ll be the first to admit, I’ve never really gotten “excited” to hang out downtown San Antonio. As a kid growing up in Corpus Christi, taking a trip to SA was astoundingly fun. Visiting the River Walk, The Alamo, and all the cool tourist spots definitely brought joy. But as an adult, moving here in 2003, the experience became somewhat lackluster.

I’ve spent many years engaging in the lively downtown atmosphere of our state’s capital, Austin, TX. To be honest, the downtown experience in San Antonio cold not hold a candle to Austin for a young, urban professional as myself. (I still consider myself “young” but I reference about 15 years ago).

As I’ve grown older, the “party life” has definitely simmered, but the need for fun, engaging experiences has not. Well, guess what? I don’t have to drive to Austin anymore to satisfy my urges.

In the time that I’ve lived here, San Antonio has seen a major overhaul in the downtown experience. A few days ago would have said it’s becoming more “Austin-y”, but I would have been completely wrong. Downtown has become more “San Antonio”.

I was corrected on my notion after attending the American Institute of Architects San Antonio’s luncheon for the month. I learned that much of the “revitalization” comes from the vision and hard work of Centro San Antonio. Here’s their mission statement:

"We are a nonprofit who envisions Downtown as a Gathering Place, a Beautiful Place, and as San Antonio’s True Center. Our mission is to mobilize people and resources to build a more prosperous downtown.”

How cool is that?

You know the guys downtown in yellow shirts that are cleaning up and helping direct tourists? These are those guys.

You know the guys that hang up the Christmas lights downtown? These are those guys.

I had the benefit of hearing a presentation by the CEO of Centro San Antonio, Matt Brown. First off, let me just state how cool this guy was. Apparently he never wears a suit and still rocks the double earrings on one ear. When you want someone to make your city fun, this is the individual!

Centro CEO Matt Brown and AIA San Antonio Executive Director Torrey Carleton mingling with attendees at AIA's recent luncheon. Sean Carranza Photography

Brown spoke of Centro’s vision and emphasized the necessity for San Antonio to keep up with the changes other cities are making to attract tech and young talent. Though he didn’t go into a specifics for what’s coming, he did share some insights:

More Art

San Antonio is a city that is full of culture and very proud of it, but the lack of artwork downtown doesn’t reflect this. Take a look at Kansas City (according to Brown, I’ve never been there). There is art everywhere, and their reputation for culture definitely takes a back seat to SA.

More Active Spaces

Apparently, surface parking lots account for over half of downtown. This is active space that can be used for hotels, boutiques, housing, restaurants, etc. 

More Playful

How do you uphold your initiative while still making things fun? You make them more playful. Brown referred to an urban area that painted a staircase to public transportation (right next to the escalator) into piano keys with actual sound. The usage of the stairs grew by 70%. He also references a trash can put in a downtown area that included sound effects to sound like something being thrown down a well and exploding. The result was the cleanest area in the city. People were actually picking up trash off the streets just to throw it in the trash can.

Shade The Sidewalks

Its funny how Brown, coming from Los Angeles, said Texas is so dang hot but there’s no shade anywhere! While its just not possible to plant trees everywhere, Centro is looking into other alternative to keep downtown a little cooler.

In Conclusion

Initially, when I signed up for this luncheon I thought I would be learning about plans for new buildings and business coming to downtown. I was pleasantly disappointed because I learned so much more. Businesses and buildings are really just the icing on the cake. The foundations and infrastructure is what sets the stage. If downtown can become more artsy, more playful, more active, then it really doesn’t matter what specific businesses are coming. Residents and tourist will want to come downtown just because its a fun, cool place to hang out. I can definitely get on board with that.

I’ll leave you with the most impacting quote I heard from Brown:

We need to stop comparing ourselves to Austin. If we want to compete with Austin, we need to make ourselves more 'San Antonio!'

Matt Brown President and CEO, Centro San Antonio

This story was originally published on Sean Carranza Photography