San Antonio’s iconic Alamo Plaza / Photo: Blondie5000 via Flickr

Downtown San Antonio is probably best-known for its public spaces: the RiverWalk, the Alamo, and Main Plaza chief among them. But the local perception has long been that the city’s core is for tourists, not residents. Luckily, there is a considerable amount of energy being devoted to changing this perception, and remaking downtown as a place for people. Just this past weekend, the city hosted its second Síclovía, which saw two miles of the central Broadway corridor closed to automobile traffic. The event, which also included San Antonio’s first Better Block project, drew more than 40,000 people out into the streets for a day-long celebration of public space–a response that surprised even the event’s organizers.

“We’re just so excited, because other cities who have a stronger reputation for this kind of thing came, and they were blown out of their shoes,” said the city’s Health Program Manager, Maggie Thompson, who organized the city’s first Síclovía last October, and built upon the success of that event with assistance from the federal Communities Putting Prevention to Work grant program. “After the first one, there was such overwhelmingly positive support from the public. The mayor came out as a fan of this initiative, the city manager came out and spoke. It now has big public support.”

Síclovía 2012 Route Map

Downtown’s sidewalks and plazas will remain very much in the public eye this coming week: the city will mark the 176th anniversary of the massacre at the Alamo with public ceremonies this Tuesday and Wednesday, while the annual Luminaria festival will flood the area with color over the weekend. And while major events can help to enliven spaces in the short term, there are real and concerted ongoing efforts to make liveliness the default for downtown. PPS has been working with several city agencies, non-profit organizations, and companies on a variety of projects, and from where we sit, downtown San Antonio looks like it’s really building some serious momentum.

Since last summer, PPS has been working closely with the Center City Development Office under Assistant City Manager Pat DiGiovanni, leading a series of workshops and trainings to teach city staff about the placemaking process. PPS also recently began helping the city revitalize and reconceptualize Alamo Plaza and Plaza de Valero, as well as Travis Park. These places have played an important role in the city’s history; this has led to their popularity with tourists, but has had the unintended side-effect of driving many locals away. One of the main goals in re-thinking these spaces has been to focus on changes that will open downtown up to a wider variety of uses.

Beyond downtown’s historic plazas, the city is also gearing up for a major overhaul of HemisFair Park and its surrounding streets. Officials, working with PPS, have kick-started an effort to craft a new Downtown Transportation Plan for the area around HemisFair.

The energy around placemaking in San Antonio is starting to spread out into the city’s neighborhoods, as well. Last summer, PPS launched Power of 10, a website where San Antonians could share their ideas for how downtown could be improved. Power of 10 generated roughly 300 ideas from the public, and we’re now working with Texas Public Radio to launch a citywide version of the site in May, which will lead to the implementation of citizen-sourced Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper projects later in the year.

Photo: Blondie5000 via Flickr