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With Downtown Building Vacancy Rate "Too High," Leaders Push To Make Progress

Ryan Loyd
TPR News
Murphy's Deli downtown relies on foot traffic for its business. The owner says filling vacant buildings nextdoor would greatly increase business.

San Antonio's downtown building vacancy rate is too high. The statement didn't meet with any arguments during a recent interview with Pat DiGiovanni, the former executive who worked as deputy San Antonio city manager and is now the president and CEO of Centro San Antonio.

In his new role, DiGiovanni leads the collaboration of initiatives aimed at making downtown San Antonio and the central business district more desirable, active and filled with people.

He said there is a 29 percent downtown building vacancy rate, and the challenge remains clear.

"We are a very thriving community in many ways," said DiGiovanni. "We're growing. We are also spread out and a lot of our office market if you will has gone outside the central business district over a period of time."

Urban sprawl is one contributing factor to the overall set of problems in the downtown area. But recent pushes, such as Mayor Julián Castro's "Decade of Downtown" initiative, SA2020's focus on urban revitalization, and Centro San Antonio's efforts, are all looking for solutions to bring people back downtown.

DiGiovanni said compared to the downtown area's 29 percent, citywide the building vacancy rate is nearly 19 percent.

Among the many plans being thought up by DiGiovanni and his staff, one of the more concerted efforts is to convince people to live downtown.

"That's why at Centro and in large part with the city, in conjunction with the city, the strategy is about how we bring the residential market back into our central core," he said.

Following the model which led to the depopulation of downtown, DiGiovanni believes when people move, jobs and stores will follow, thereby decreasing the vacancy of old, dilapidated buildings.

Brenda Martinez has worked downtown for two decades and has seen the people come and go. She works at Murphy's Deli, a franchise owned by Cora Lonning. The restaurant is at the corner of Soledad and Houston, close to the Frost Bank tower, Geekdom, and the Embassy Suites Hotel. But heading in the other direction, toward Main Plaza, is a street of vacant buildings.

"This building next to us used to be Solo Serve and those buildings have been vacant for a very long time," she said. "And if you occupy them, I think with either hotels or with residents downtown, I think there could be more traffic in our direction also."

Credit Google Maps
Solo Serve, nextdoor to Murphy's Deli, is among the 29 percent of buildings in downtown that remain vacant.

Murphy's Deli relies heavily on foot traffic for its business, and Lonning said she has to pick up her profit during three hours of the lunch rush. To keep business up, though, deli employees have to bring lunch to people, often going outside the downtown area to deliver sandwiches.

"We go to Brooks City-Base, we go all the way to St. Philips College over on Quintana Road," said Martinez. "We've even gone as far as Northwest Vista College, so yeah, we're pretty much out, she's out there, we're out there.

"This is our city, we live here, it's an embarrassment," she said. "I know it happens in cities all over, but for me, I've worked downtown for 20 years and it's always been this way."

District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal is aware of the vacancy rate.

His district encompasses the downtown area, and he has plans to nudge building owners to do something with properties that are run down.

"We're impatient," Bernal said. "I can say to you we're starting a process, but it takes a long time. The response is OK that's great, we've been waiting a long time.

"There are some empty buildings we are pointing our fingers at and we're saying we are going to try to get something done there. That's started. But it's not a quick process," said Bernal.

The councilman said the property owners themselves are holding onto the buildings because they're waiting for a big payday. But in the meantime, he said, the buildings are not contributing to the vibrancy of downtown that city leaders would like.

"At a certain point coddling and being nice to folks, regardless of who they are or how much money they have, doesn't work. So alright, maybe it's time to put down the carrot and pick up the stick," he said.

Recently, the city's planning and community development department presented an update to the city council on infill - filling vacant lots - progress. The department's assistant director, Mark Brodeur, said things are moving along at a nice pace. A Strategic Framework Implementation plan was adopted two years ago to achieve the desired type of infill and growth that would look good next to existing historic buildings.

"When we specifically talk about infill, and we're filling that space in, that space has to be filled with something that's complementary to, and not egregious to, the two houses on the other sides of it," he said. "So when we talk about infill development, it means it has to be compatible with its neighbors."

In the meantime, DiGiovanni made an interesting plea to fellow parents who may have watched their kids grow up and move away to pursue opportunities out of town.

"I would say to the parents if you want your children back, join us in this quest to make downtown and the urban core a special place because it's our best chance at bringing back young people to San Antonio," he said.

Growth has its personal side, too.

Ryan Loyd was Texas Public Radio's city beat and political reporter. He left the organization in December, 2014.