by Lisa Y. Taylor
Like an experienced tour guide, 5-year-old Carson Uber knows where the red and blue downtown trolley lines go and tells out-of-town family all about the Alamo. For the last two years, his parents have raised him on a ground-floor apartment of the Cadillac Lofts, among the bustling streets of downtown.
The Ubers take the trolley to La Villita, Market Square and the Central Library and make the most of memberships at San Antonio Children’s Museum and the Institute of Texan Cultures.
“Living downtown puts you in the center of everything happening in the San Antonio area,” says Carson’s mother, Kristi Uber. “By foot, you can experience a festival or museum, have lunch or dinner at a restaurant, grab an ice cream on the River Walk
and then come back home. You never have to get in your car if you don’t want to.”
A residential renaissance combined with expanding cultural and recreational facilities is
giving families with children more reasons to call downtown home, says Ben Brewer, president of the Downtown Alliance San Antonio. According to the group’s data, 1,200 downtown apartment units have been built within the last three years, 800 are under construction, and another 1,000 have been proposed.
“In the near term, we are going to see more singles, empty nesters and young professionals moving into the downtown area,” Brewer says. “I also think that will evolve over time. Particularly with some amenities that will be built like the HemisFair
redevelopment or the new Children’s Museum, that we will see more families moving downtown.”
A pioneer in downtown living, Michael Berrier, and his wife, Suzanne Martinez, raised their two daughters in the historic Lavaca downtown neighborhood. In fact, their children were literally born in their stone home. Their girls attend college now, yet Berrier still cherishes the “rainwalks” they used to take.
“We would put on our slickers and walk along the downtown streets to the HemisFair and then to the river to see the rain and water moving,” says Berrier, who co-owns La Tuna downtown. “The river is an ecological wonder. It has egrets, kingfishers, Harris hawks, and of course, ducks.”
Across the street from the Lavaca neighborhood, HemisFair is poised to begin transformative redevelopment. Th e master plan of one of the first phases, the seven-acre Plaza de Artes features the expansion of the current playground and the installation of water elements, climbable art, a music garden and an archeological dig center with artifact replicas. Construction is pegged for completion in mid-to-late 2014.
“It will be a multi-layered play environment in which the design drives the children’s play toward certain activities, whether that’s running, jumping or climbing,” says Andrés Andújar, chief executive officer of the HemisFair Park Area Redevelopment Corp.
The Plaza de Artes master plan shows the expansion of the Magik Theatre as well as a mixed-use building with apartment units upstairs and neighborhood retail and restaurants downstairs.
“It will be the equivalent to the likes of New York City and living across from Central Park,” Brewer says. “It’s not just the activities, but the significant amount of open space planned.”
Other components of the HemisFair master plan include parks, shops, restaurants, parking and the potential for as many as “a couple of thousand” multifamily residential units, Andújar says.
A decade ago, the former Pearl Brewery in northern downtown was an abandoned 23-acre site. Today, the Pearl borders the scenic Museum Reach of the River Walk and is a vibrant community that encompasses restaurants, shops and, most recently, the Can Plant
Since opening in the summer, the majority of the Can Plant tenants are young professionals. But a few families with children have moved in, and that demographic could eventually occupy one-quarter of the planned 300 units, estimates Elizabeth Fauerso, the Pearl’s chief marketing officer.
“You can live here and be part of a dynamic community, drive infrequently and have a very high quality of life for your kids,” she says. “This area is so rich in leisure and cultural resources.” Examples of family-friendly activities at the Pearl include children’s story times at The Twig Book Shop, cooking lessons at The Culinary Institute of America, free concerts at the riverside amphitheater and Saturday farmers markets.
With the largest units offering two bedrooms, Fauerso realizes the apartments may not fit every family’s needs. Yet, she says trading square footage for other amenities is ideal for some, especially if at least one parent works downtown.
“It’s not a traditional choice for families, but they would rather be here than have a house with a huge yard that has to be maintained and where they have to drive 45 minutes to commute,” she says.
Near the Can Plant, upscale apartment developments, such as 1221 Broadway, 1800
Broadway and The Mosaic, are rising along the northern cultural corridor that includes the San Antonio Museum of Art, the Witt e Museum, the San Antonio Zoo, Brackenridge Park and the San Antonio Botanical Garden.
In addition, the San Antonio Children’s Museum is slated to erect its new 65,000-square-foot building and 20,000-square-foot outdoor exhibit space at the intersection of Broadway and Mulberry Avenue. Plans call for the museum to open in the summer of 2015.
“Our hope is that for families in the downtown area, for whom the new facility will be only a mile away, the Children’s Museum will be their primary early childhood education resource,” says Vanessa Lacoss Hurd, the museum’s executive director.
Many downtown families choose the Pre-K-8th Hawthorne and Bonham academies of the San Antonio School District while others send their children to private schools. More educational options are needed in the area, Brewer says.
“If we want to attract more families, we need more magnet or charter schools,” he says. “There are operators of charter schools that are keenly interested in building new offerings within or near downtown.”
Another frequent request of downtown residents is a large grocery store. Andújar has heard discussions of potential sites and is confident one will be built soon.
“There will be a grocery store here in the next two or three years,” he predicts.
For some families, the size and cost of downtown housing limits the area’s appeal. The Ubers just welcomed a new baby boy to their family and haven’t found an apartment or home that meets their space and budget requirements. Even if her family does move away, Kristi Uber says she will remain a believer in downtown living.
“There’s a nice melting pot atmosphere down here,” she says. “If we find ways to make larger, more affordable places for families that want to live downtown, it would really be helpful to them and also benefi t San Antonio in the long run.”
Lisa Y. Taylor is a San Antonio freelance writer and mother of three daughters.