Downtown Texas vs. Downtown Jacksonville - Part 2: San Antonio

September 13, 2006 4 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

The riverwalk is the crown jewel of downtown San Antonio. What Jacksonville can learn from San Antonio, Texas?

2005 city population: 1,256,509 (7th largest US city)
2005 metro population: 1,889,797 (29th largest US metro)

In comparison – Jacksonville, Florida

2005 city population: 782,623 (13th largest US city)
2005 metro population: 1,248,371 (42nd largest US metro)

City Description (from

San Antonio was named for the Portuguese Saint Anthony of Padua, whose feast day it was when a Spanish expedition stopped in the area in 1691. The city has a strong military presence – it is home to Fort Sam Houston, Lackland Air Force Base, Randolph Air Force Base, and Brooks City Base. San Antonio is home to the South Texas Medical Center, the largest and only medical research and care provider in the South Texas region. Famous for its River Walk, the Alamo, Tejano culture, and being home to Sea World and Six Flags Fiesta Texas theme parks, the city is visited by 20 million tourists per year.

Learning from San Antonio

A city that attracts 20 million visitors a year should offer many lessons to a city still struggling to find its place and identity. While the city’s streets are laid out in a grid system, downtown, sandwiched by expressways, consists of a tangled web of streets that break the mold by following the meandering and very narrow San Antonio River.

Downtown is also the home to many of the region’s most popular attractions. At the heart of this district are the River Walk and the famous Alamo. From this epicenter, the River Center Mall, the convention center, Hemisphere Park, and the Mexican Market are all with walking distance, anchoring a vibrant city center full of theaters, restaurants, hotels, and specialty shops.

1. River Walk

The Riverwalk is a shining success and serves as an example of what can be achieved when a city sticks with a vision or master plan and implements it, instead of every new administration attempting to come up with bold new “Big Ideas”. While the river walk concept had been conceived in the 1920’s, the catalyst behind what you see today began in 1962, with the creation of a master plan. During this time, improved lighting was installed and several merchants turned their stores to face the river. In 1969, the Paseo Del Rio Association was established to aggressively promote the area. Since then, a convention center, a large mall, and countless number of restaurants and specialty shops have come as a result on following through with the initial plan.

2. Creative Signage

It’s easy to see that San Antonio has become a very popular place for pedestrians. A major reason, outside of the attractions, is that the city incorporates signage, at the pedestrian level, to make it easy to get around and visually stimulating and attracting. This is evident with attractive wayfinding signage, parking garage signage, and trolley and bus stops that include easy to read signs that contain route and stop locations. Furthermore, the sign ordinance appears to be more relaxed, allowing the potential for the private sector to invest and install creative signage that captures the pedestrian’s attention from blocks away. When lit at night, they also provide enough light to help cut down on crime.

3. Coordinated Planning

It doesn’t take long to figure out that development in this downtown core has been carefully coordinated. All of the major hotels front the riverwalk and a major shopping mall and convention center have both been constructed around channelized river extensions. This type of planning has created a district full of individual private sector projects that flow well enough to stimulate enough synergy, creating one exciting and lively downtown scene.

4. Embracing Local Culture and History

Instead of attempting to fit in with the mainstream crowd, San Antonio seems to be a place that values and promotes its local history and culture, rather than demolishing it and sweeping it under the rug. Examples of this include the preservation of the Alamo, the promotion of the riverwalk, and the fact that most of downtown’s historic buildings remain intact, despite the city being one of the fastest growing in the country.

5. Central Loop

While San Antonio is full of successful downtown development ideas, it also has some things other cities should avoid if possible. One is the known as the Central Loop. As stated earlier, downtown is surrounded by a series of three elevated interstate highways (10, 35, 37). While the district is a very vibrant area, its cut off from the majority of the rest of the city, meaning that vibrancy abruptly ends, instead of carrying through to connect with surrounding inner city core neighborhoods. Locally, I-95, State, and Union, serve as our “Central Loop”. As revitalization of the inner city continues, we’ll have to find a way to better connect nearby neighborhoods like Springfield, Durkeeville, San Marco, and Five Points to downtown, in a pedestrian friendly manner.

San Antonio Photo Tour

Wayfinding signs are plentiful in this city.

The Alamo

River City Mall is a 4 level shopping center than embraces a portion of the riverwalk. Major tenants include a Dillards, Foleys (Macys) and AMC theaters.

The Texas Theater was razed in 1983, but its façade was saved and incorporated into a modern office tower

The Market Square public marketplace has been in operation since 1894.

Market Street – Notice the large parking garage sign? Here visitors will never have a problem identifying short-term parking

At street level, downtown has signage that attracts the pedestrian eye.

Many of the signs shown in this picture, such as ones that are placed on top of the buildings, are prohibited in downtown Jacksonville

Situated a level below the streets of downtown, the riverwalk, also known as Paseo del Rio, is one of the most successful pedestrian friendly public projects in the country

Originally concieved in the 1920’s (like Springfield’s Hogan’s Creek Improvement Project), the river walk is a successful example of what can happen when a city sticks with and implements a downtown master plan

Most of the riverwalk’s length is lined with restaurants, specialty retail shops, bars and boutique hotels.