• A vertical tower acts as a counterpoint to the dome of a historic train depot, which is visible through strategically placed openings in VIA Centro Plaza’s Grand Canopy. Photo by Dror Baldinger, AIA

Nearly 300 years ago, San Antonio was established next to a bend in the spring-fed river that shares its name. Over the next three centuries, the city grew so that today its downtown is defined less by a natural riparian system than by a man-made highway system.

Interstates 10, 35, and 37 all converge in San Antonio, and their offset intersections create a loop that circumscribes about four square miles of downtown. As was the case elsewhere in the United States, when these freeways were built in the middle part of the 20th century, they cut through established urban fabric. Neighborhoods on the wrong side of the new highways withered.

One such neighborhood sat just outside the downtown loop to the west of I-35. Known as Cattleman’s Square, due to its location near the Union Stockyards, the area was anchored by the International and Great Northern Depot (1908). Even as the neighborhood around it declined, this majestic domed structure, designed by Harvey L. Page, served as a reminder of what once was. In 2014, the building was restored and transformed into the administration headquarters for VIA Metropolitan Transit, the mass transit agency of San Antonio.

But this was just the first phase of what was known as the Westside Multimodal Transit Center.

The second phase was the creation of Centro Plaza, an expansive transit center that occupies a full city block adjacent to the historic depot. The new hub reduces the need for cross-town bus routes to traverse downtown San Antonio and its associated congestion. Located just a few blocks away from the University of Texas at San Antonio’s downtown campus, the transit center provides easy access for students. It also has the potential to tie into future regional rail lines.

Although the idea of a transportation hub is nothing new, the urban ambitions of this particular one are unique. Rather than bring city buses into the interior of the block, the buses circulate around its perimeter. This allows the block’s interior to be programmed so that the hub acts less like an oversized bus stop and more like a legitimate public park.

EE&K of New York had been working with VIA on master planning efforts when they merged with Perkins Eastman. They then acted as the design architect for the Centro Plaza project while Ford, Powell & Carson acted as the architect of record.

The largest architectural gesture created by the design team is the site’s “Grand Canopy.” The circular shape of this soaring steel structure references the adjacent domed I&GN Depot, while gaps in its circumference frame views to the historic building. The monumental canopy encircles most of the site — and even overhangs some of the adjacent streets to provide weather protection for riders entering and exiting buses. Rooftop photovoltaic panels gather electricity on sunny days, while water is diverted off of it into a series of underground cisterns when it rains. The canopy is dramacally illuminated at night, and multiple displays provide real-time arrival and departure times.

A series of enclosed pavilions sit underneath the canopy. An air-conditioned waiting area provides shelter for riders with longer waits, while a separate pavilion houses a customer service center, public restrooms, and a community room. Additional leasable space was included in the original design and may someday become a cafe or some other retail establishment.

On the west side of the block, a separate circular canopy hovers over Medina Street and acts as a dedicated stop for VIA Primo, San Antonio’s bus-based rapid transit system.

Although there are certainly precedents for large and iconic bus shelters, what makes Centro Plaza particularly compelling is the open space at its center. By pushing the transportation-related programmatic elements to the perimeter, the block’s interior is free to act as a public plaza with trees providing shade, while tables and chairs provide places to congregate. But, while block-sized city parks on the peripheries of downtowns are often deserted, this one is energized by the constant influx of people arriving from, or departing on, buses. It also provides a place for large events such as art festivals and musical performances.

But scheduled performances are not the only art events going on at Centro Plaza. Every night, an art installation known as the “Centro Chroma Tower” animates the space. Designed by local artist Bill FitzGibbons, the tower acts as a vertical landmark: a counterpoint to the predominately horizontal canopy structure that surrounds it. Visible from blocks away, the installation includes an interactive display at its lower level that invites passersby to interact with the art.

Part of the advantage of a public bus system is that it can travel on any existing street: Routes can be added or removed without any change to the city itself. What makes Centro Plaza so compelling is that it takes the opposite approach: It leverages bus transportation infrastructure to create a major new public space for the city. More critically, it does this in such a way as to
be a catalyst for redevelopment in an area of
San Antonio sorely in need of it.

By taking an underutilized city block and transforming it into a lively public square, the designers of Centro Plaza have created something that serves everyone, whether they ride the bus or not. It is yet another in a series of major public projects recently undertaken by San
Antonio (The Museum and Mission Reaches of the San Antonio River, Hardberger Park, Hemisfair, etc.) that are demonstrating the role that architecture can play in transforming a
city, even one as old as San Antonio.

Brantley Hightower, AIA, is the founder of HiWorks in San Antonio and author of “The Courthouses of Central Texas.”

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