• With the only direct entry to the hike-and-bike trail, its truly Texan screened porches, its live oaks, and its six-story atrium, the New Central Library puts Austin’s core values front and center. Photo by Casey Dunn.

Nationally, a socioeconomic reorganization is changing not only where we do business but how we live. Urban economist Enrico Moretti describes an ever-widening gap — what he calls the Great Divergence — between decaying manufacturing cities dependent on physical capital and growing “innovation cities” grounded in human capital. Moretti notes that over the past three decades, top innovation cities — Seattle, Austin, Raleigh, San Jose, Boston, and D.C. — experienced less painful recessions, faster recoveries, and consistent growth. They host the largest proportion of bachelor’s and master’s degree holders, attract wealth from outside city boundaries, and their productivity exceeds that of manufacturing cities by a factor of three. Service providers like architects, lawyers, doctors, teachers, and counselors depend on a city’s existing wealth. The average wage a high school graduate makes in innovation cities beats the average college graduate’s salary in manufacturing cities: In short, a rising tide lifts all boats. Not only is innovation leadership a critical driver of a city’s short-term prosperity; it also determines the city’s attractiveness to businesses of innovation in the future: Like attracts like. Throughout history, city developments centered on exchange. As exchange increasingly moves online, low vacancy rates and high housing prices in city centers indicate a critical demand to live and work within cities’ cores.

Urban parks weave together retail and natural features for unique experiential destinations. The design and programming of these interstitial veins lucidly define a city’s values today and their dreams for tomorrow. Strategic planning and partnerships place parks adjacent to commercial zones catering to affluent park users for targeted redevelopment. New York City’s Highline is a linear park-cum-business district: a place for shopping, people-watching, and sharing delicacies. Many retailers see their future in providing a dual community/commerce experience. Every city wants a self-policing, income-producing, tourist attraction icon. As parks and business districts merge into public-private partnerships, the next optimized vision for this typology and municipal growth becomes innovation-centric.

As central Texas continues to attract innovation companies, designing the experience of place and local identity are critical to success. How can cities inspire global-scale, innovation-focused growth while celebrating local culture, without resorting to kitsch? Austin and San Antonio provide a useful contrast; though they are similar in size, geography, and climate, their public and private policies differ in key ways. Both cities strategically employ linear parks as business districts. With San Pedro Creek, San Antonio intends to draw tourists and locals alike through a business-lined paseo replete with history and local art. Austin’s Shoal Creek is a tech playground anchored by a few beloved historic structures.

San Pedro Creek Improvement Project, San Antonio

San Antonio promotes livability for locals and focuses on practical solutions with current players. Homegrown USAA employs approximately 18,000 people in the suburbs, and Cloud computing service Rackspace employs thousands in an abandoned mall. Both companies announced moves to downtown earlier this year. Hulu opened a call center in the suburbs — which provides great employment opportunities for the 75 percent of San Antonians who did not go to college — while their headquarters remain in Santa Monica, Calif. San Antonio does not have sophisticated angel investors, or as many college graduates as other innovation cities, but despite the lack of infrastructure for innovation, the 2016 2nd quarter report from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics says 4.9 percent of San Antonio’s salaried jobs are in computer and math occupations — double the nationwide average. Affordable housing prices, high quality of living with strong local identity, and a densifying downtown may make San Antonio a serious contender for growing companies as other cities struggle with affordable housing options.

Building on the success of its world-renowned Riverwalk, Bexar County initiated a planned an expansion in partnership with the San Antonio River Authority (SARA) known as the San Pedro Creek Improvement Project, currently under construction. Part flood mitigation and part linear park as business district, the goal is to develop a tract of county- and city-owned land along a neglected creek — much of it weed-choked and fenced off from the public — transforming it into a “Highline-style” destination. A two-mile portion of the waterway is divided into four phases, each responding to the character of the creek as it flows through the downtown area. Entrances oriented toward the proposed high bank paseos, or walkways are encouraged in existing and new buildings, as they will front the new river walk. Layouts consistent with the adjacent historic neighborhood are maintained.

Last spring, SARA hired Carrie Brown, formerly the project manager of Austin’s Art in Public Places, as the full-time public art curator for the project. The creek walk will be lined with permanent art features; a series of rotating works; and audio, visual, and performing art that can be shared in a plaza amphitheater. The goal is to “engage with the local art community and to immerse visitors to the San Pedro Creek Culture Park in the culture of Bexar County through arts programming,” Brown says. Individuals will have opportunities to donate pieces, which will be unveiled at the grand opening scheduled for San Antonio’s 2018 tricentennial — an event featuring, we expect, a grand San Antonio river parade: San Antonio is a city that designs for celebration.

The master plan describes specific infrastructure improvements: Existing channels will be wider and deeper; 30 acres of land will be removed from the corrected floodplain through the deepening and widening of the creek channel. The plan provides for connections from existing neighborhood trails to future creek ways, linear trails, historic missions, and museums. Eight existing bridges are being replaced and six new pedestrian bridges are being constructed, along with one new railroad bridge.

The key players are the Bexar County, The City of San Antonio, San Antonio River Authority, HDR, Muñoz & Company, and Pape-Dawson Engineers. In 2013, Bexar County allocated $125 million to the project and design work began in February 2014. In 2017, City of San Antonio voters approved $19.5 million in bond funding toward the project. The estimated total project cost is $175 million, and $895 million to $1.5 billion in economic return is expected. Eighty-one private parcels of land fall within the master plan. SARA has contacted 31 owners for temporary and permanent acquisitions to accomplish the project. 

Penner’s, a fine clothing retailer that has been in downtown for 100 years, expressed concerns about the impact of the project on his available customer parking. “Penner’s, or any business, should not have to relocate because of the project,” says Suzanne Scott, General Manager of SARA. “That would have been a failure. These local businesses are a part of the future. If the economics change and the highest and best uses cause them to want to move, that is their choice, but they should not be forced to move by the project. We altered the design to accommodate their business.”

Creek improvements will be funded by the city and county, with budgetary constraints resulting in phased construction to complete the project. SARA will fund and perform operations and maintenance.

At this point, SARA is following the proven methods and best practices of the original Riverwalk and its two extensions, Mission Reach and Museum Reach. During grassroots design efforts, locals embraced the changes with few fights because they are familiar with the positive aspects of the Riverwalk. “When land does need to be purchased for right of way, the price of acquisition has sometimes turned into a bit of a debate,” Scott says. Folks want to cash in on future appreciation of the developed land without the development in place — which ultimately drives up the cost of the entire project.

Shoal Creek and Seaholm Redevelopment, Austin

Austin’s growth policies favor global innovation businesses. Incentive programs, established after the dot-com bust in 2003, are largely responsible for attracting them. From 2003 to 2014, Austin paid nearly $44 million in incentives to 10 companies that created 4,000 local jobs and invested at least $5.3 billion. However, some of the jobs moved, one company scaled down, and more than half of the incentives are no longer active due to lack of compliance. Most deals were for less than $1 million, aside from Samsung’s $33 million incentive package. Samsung built a semiconductor plant in Austin — one of the largest in the U.S. — costing $15 billion, employing 2,600 locally, and generating $800 million a year for the Austin economy. The Samsung ripple effect may be $1.4 billion in annual economic activity with 6,500 jobs and $296 million in worker salaries.

Today, Google, Facebook, Apple, and HomeAway all have offices in downtown Austin. Co-working tech accelerator Capital Factory, sophisticated angel investors, and technology learning community Galvanize are all within blocks of each other. Tech Week and SXSW Interactive attract national attention, and long-standing IBM and Dell in the suburbs solidify a foundation of computer science as serious business. Nearly half of Austinites have college degrees. According to the 2016 2nd quarter report from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, 6.4 percent of Austin’s salaried jobs are in computer and math occupations, compared to a nationwide average of 2.49 percent.

Austin is unquestionably a globally-focused tech hub, but its coolness is rooted in its spaced-out, hippie legacy captured in movies like Richard Linklater’s “Slacker.” The Seaholm District is the synthesis of three unique features: a new world-class library, a hike-and-bike trail, and an adaptive-reuse industrial Art Deco power plant at the center: brains, beauty, and cool wrapped in one USGBC-certified ecodistrict. The Shoal Creek Restoration Project ($6.2 million) acts not only as a means of mitigating floodwaters, but also as a public amenity: east and west streets along the creek are lined with cafes and other destinations south of 6th Street. This linear park business district provides shaded, vehicle-free access for bikers and pedestrians alike after emerging from the trail.

The Seaholm Redevelopment project ($130 million) initiated a sequence of city-funded developments in the past decade. Austin’s original land holdings for infrastructure allowed relocation of public works like the New Central Library ($120 million). Further investment in infrastructure — the Butterfly Bridge ($29 million), the Gap Project ($5.4 million) connecting the creek walk, and the Seaholm Substation Art Wall designed by NADAAA ($5.4 million) — collectively attracts private development that caters to urban luxury lifestyles that are keyed into the new tech demographic.

The City of Austin commissioned the Seaholm Power Plant in 1948, and the concrete structure has long been one of the city’s most prominent landmarks. It hosted Beaux Arts Balls, concerts, and public events after being decommissioned in 1989. It was recently converted to a private corporate office. “The design features dynamic, multi-layered, open spaces, such as those in the Turbine Hall to accommodate a wide variety of activities both currently and in the future,” says Jim Susman, AIA, of STG Design, the architect of the adaptive reuse project.

The New Central Library, the latest addition to the Seaholm District, is a joint venture between Lake|Flato Architects and Shepley Bulfinch. “Where previous tech startups began in garages, we hope the next generation of startups begins at the New Central Library,” says Jonathan Smith, AIA, project architect at Lake|Flato. Recycled Reads’ flagship bookstore will open in the library along 2nd Street. A bike valet for more than 150 bicycles is accessible from the creek, and, alongside the new Technology Petting Zoo, which showcases the latest in virtual reality, is space for more books than before. With the only direct entry to the hike-and-bike trail, its truly Texan screened porches, its live oaks, and its six-story atrium, the New Central Library puts Austin’s core values front and center.


Whereas San Antonio creates special zoning districts to achieve cohesive walkability within specified business districts along its linear waterway parks, Austin missed that opportunity at Shoal Creek: The Independent, designed by Rhode Partners, which will be the largest residential tower west of the Mississippi River when completed, does not have a creek-front entry to access the trail. The 360 Tower, designed by Preston Partnership, which was the tallest residential building in Texas when it was completed in 2008, does not have creek access either. Further, Austin invested a substantial amount of money in a small area targeting innovation lifestyles, but does it feel like Austin? If you saw a picture, would you mistake it for Houston or Dallas? Moving forward, a greater effort to address affordability and displacement might also be considered. Inclusionary housing programs, common in states with affordability concerns, ensure a percentage of low or moderate-income units are included in all new housing projects, even luxury towers.

As we consider expanding our linear parks, how can we program, plan and stitch together economic ideals while also celebrating the vibrancy of our local pulse? More importantly, how can we bridge the gap at all scales between innovation cities and cities of decline for a united country? Failure results in warring factions in the midst of a debilitating political standoff.

Jen Weaver, AIA, is the principal of Weaver Buildings. She is currently pursuing a master of real estate development at the University of Southern California.

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