Visitors today will encounter a city with a strong sense of community, a city whose downtown shows its age and its respect for the past. At the same time, the city is moving forward, and at a rapid pace. With a population of approximately 1.5 million, fast-growing San Antonio has also seen a commensurate growth in tourism, which is the city’s second biggest industry, with an annual economic impact of more than $14 billion.
Outlying theme parks and attractions are benefiting from increased visitation, but downtown is by far the most affected section. The city’s Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center completed its second major expansion in 2016, followed by strong growth in downtown hotels. An even bigger trend in the past few decades has been recovering the past: Historic has become hot. It started with the renovation of the Majestic Theatre, which was reopened in the late 1980s after many years of neglect. This proved a great success and a point of civic pride, and resulted in the birth of several projects.
Hotel and theater transformations have continued apace in the first decades of the new century—the Empire and Aztec theaters have been refurbished and reopened for performances and the Alamada is next—and more and more old buildings have been turned into hotels, including links in lower-end chains. The three reclamation projects with the largest impact are the expansion of the River Walk into the northern Museum Reach and southern Mission Reach portions, and the transformation of the old Pearl Brewery, just north of downtown, into a multi-use complex. In addition to apartment buildings, the Pearl hosts a branch of the Culinary Institute of America; some of the top restaurants in town; a popular farmers market; and the Hotel Emma, the city’s poshest lodging. This development, in turn, has spurred a spate of building—and higher real estate prices—in the adjacent neighborhoods.
What’s next for downtown? Phase One in the reclamation of the San Pedro Creek has been completed on the northwest side. Long covered by concrete, the waterway is being restored to its natural flow, allowing for the concomitant return of the natural ecosystem along its banks. On the south side, Hemisfair Park, home to the convention center, is undergoing a major redevelopment. Several restaurants have already opened in new Yanaguana Park, and a hotel and residential housing are planned. In addition, Frost Tower, headquarters for the Frost Bank, has risen in downtown’s center. The first new skyscraper in the area in more than a quarter century, it’s a heartening sign that business is returning to the old heart of the city.
Of course, the outlook isn’t entirely rosy. Not all the new building projects are infill; more people are moving to the outskirts of the city than are settling in its center. San Antonio and Austin are 80 miles apart, but the two cities are spreading ever closer. Although they haven’t yet melded to form the single metropolis that futurists predict, increasing suburban sprawl and the growth of New Braunfels and San Marcos, two small cities lying between San Antonio and Austin, are causing a great deal of congestion on I-35.
An even more serious concern is the city’s water supply. For a long time, the city was reliant on direct and steady pumping from the Edwards Aquifer, but no one knew exactly how long that resource would last. In the early 1990s the centralized San Antonio Water System (SAWS) was created to address the problem, and it has made progress over the subsequent decades. Solutions include better management of groundwater withdrawal from the Edwards Aquifer; the creation of the nation’s largest direct recycling system, with three wastewater retreatment plants; and the construction of a huge desalinization plant. SAWS is also turning to other aquifers as water sources.
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