San Antonians fear revitalization with urban infill, what is there to fear?

May 28, 2017

Dawn Hanson

Do you care about the environment? Do you believe we need to curb climate change? Do you believe that home prices are becoming too high? Do you want less traffic? If you answered yes to any of these, then you must support density and infill and stop opposing multi-family developments in your backyard.

San Antonio is growing, quickly. In fact, the Rivard Report recently wrote an article stating San Antonio gained more new residents last year than any other populous city in Texas.

San Antonians, particularly those North of downtown, love to oppose new development projects that contain more than 4 units; in other words, multi-family housing. They argue that the developments are ‘out of character’ to the neighborhood or don’t preserve the culture. They think the developments will harbor thugs, sex, drugs and rock and roll. They rush to get their neighborhoods zoned as historic districts to prevent multi-family developments from encroaching on their space. They say the project will cause parking issues. They try to impose strict design and code standards to restrict the types of developments that can occur. They basically use every trick in the book to prevent density.

The root of lack of affordable housing options is a severe housing supply-demand mismatch. For decades, San Antonio has limited growth through density with archaic zoning codes that promote single-family housing or low-density housing. This has resulted in an unforgivable amount of suburban sprawl and sky rocketing home prices. Now, when I discuss affordable housing, I am not just meaning housing for impoverished people. Yes, they matter, too. But, affordability is an issue even for middle class people, especially middle class younger (age 25-40) people. You can’t be pro-affordable housing and anti-density. The two don’t fit together. The only thing that will drive home prices down is an increased supply of housing. Increasing density is the only way we can get an increased supply of housing in livable areas of the city that is affordable to middle incomes.

This anti-development movement forces government to approve inefficient developments that don’t fit within the comprehensive city plans and promotes more sprawl, which ultimately harms the environment. This means more wetlands are developed into concrete pads, more trees are cut down, and more roads and highways are built to places that were once preserved. You cannot be an environmentalist and anti-density. The two don’t fit together. Opposing developments that promote density leads to freeways choked with cars, increase in greenhouse gas emissions, increase in the rape of the land for oil, and destruction of farmland and green space through sprawling development. Climate change requires more than just eating organic, installing solar and buying a car with good gas mileage. It requires density with development, less suburban sprawl, and city development that supports rapid transit to get more cars off the road.

Want fewer cars on the road, less traffic? Then density is required. Studies have shown to support rapid transit or light rail, you need about 30 people per acre around stations, and more robust rail systems need 45 to 60 people per acre around stations (Sept 2011 Urban Densities and Transit: Multi-dimensional Perspective by R. Cervero and E. Guerra). Light rail reduces pollution, reduces congestion, enhances property values, and strengthens downtowns. It’s also an easy, affordable alternative transportation option to your car. But, if you want it, you need to support density. More transit also equals fewer cars per household, which ultimately puts less strain on the number of parking spaces necessary in a neighborhood.

I want to make sure to mention that I notice renters are left out of the conversation when neighborhoods push back to planning commission and city council regarding developers proposing projects of higher density. Below is a map from policymap.com that highlights occupied housing in neighborhoods in or near downtown are made up of 57% of renters. They need a voice, too. They are the future of the city, too. I bet they value affordable rents. Guess what? Affordable rents need density.

 Population growth SA from 2010 to 2015

Population growth SA from 2010 to 2015

San Antonio has grown from 790,000 people in 1991 to over 1.4 million in 2010. Where did that growth go? OUT! The picture (photo by NASA) below represents the destruction of green space with San Antonio sprawl over two decades. Do you want to stop this madness?

 NASA image of San Antonio sprawl/growth from 1991 to 2010

NASA image of San Antonio sprawl/growth from 1991 to 2010

Dense development can be done tastefully and with the neighborhood look and feel in mind. It can be done with lots of trees and greenery, shared community space and added bike and pedestrian infrastructure. The City of San Antonio needs to update its archaic zoning code to allow for more density in neighborhoods (all neighborhoods) and honor the process and outcome of the SA Tomorrow planning process. Dense development can improve neighborhoods and cities - more people means more shops, cafes, restaurants and good transportation options. And, more tax revenue for schools and parks!

 Tastefully done medium density development in Seattle, WA

Tastefully done medium density development in Seattle, WA