A third condition between urban and non-urban — a Broadway linear park

Op-ed by Antonio Petrov for the San Antonio Express-News

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(January 3, 2016) -- The statement “Alamo Heights is a paradox” is polemic and possibly a provocation. However, Alamo Heights allows for ambiguity when it comes to its identity.

What exactly is Alamo Heights — a city, a drive-through town or a San Antonio neighborhood? And how is the community represented by, or tied to, its main urban artery: Broadway?

Some argue the affluent community is primarily defined by its school district, The Alamo Heights Independent School District. Others are more uncertain about their sentiments toward the town and its links to Broadway.

Clearly the issues surrounding the relationships between Alamo Heights and Broadway, and Broadway and San Antonio are systemic. Broadway, which stretches from the airport right into the heart of downtown San Antonio, is searching for its potential in one of the largest urban areas in the United States.

Recent developments and long overdue changes to building codes continue to elicit ambivalence when we refer to them as “urban,” especially on the 2.5-mile stretch within the city limits of Alamo Heights. As these changes are occurring, it is a good moment to question past assumptions about what urban actually means in San Antonio and Alamo Heights. It also is the time to cast wider nets and establish a more nuanced understanding of what a “city on the rise” needs.

For instance, what do we refer to as urban in the context of San Antonio? What determines its characteristics? And how do we engage with it productively?

At this point, the experience of Broadway only feels urban through the windshields of our cars. And frankly, there is hardly a pedestrian experience to be had along the Alamo Heights stretch of Broadway.

Yes, there are 571 trees along Broadway within the city limits of Alamo Heights (we counted them), but nearly 50 percent of its urban landscape is flanked by parking space. In fact, nearly all spaces along Broadway are tied to businesses and almost no public spaces exist for people to mingle or gather as citizens without being consumers.

As a result, the architecture along the corridor feels incoherent with an urban façade that reminds us of a commercial corridor rather than a great avenue in one of the great cities. The architecture of Broadway, including recent developments, leaves no room for imagination.

This supports the argument that Broadway is an unresolved urban space.

Alamo Heights and Broadway are centerless spaces bordered by ensembles of micro-communities and scattered urban programs. However, now more than ever, Broadway is a critical space within the larger fabric of San Antonio. And Alamo Heights, within the complex cultural, ecological and economical geographies of San Antonio, brings about spatial implications that merit greater attention than it’s received.

While Alamo Heights’ true definition as a framework of interrelating social, cultural, economic and ecological systems is hard to decipher, the speeds at which new shifts and resulting spatial consequences occur on Broadway have suggested a new level of significance for the readability of the urban fabric in the past few years.

It is true Alamo Heights has no Pearl Brewery, but how would new urban development register in Alamo Heights? From the distance it appears as if the future of Alamo Heights is characterized by its lack of urban identity, which currently keeps it as it is -- a transitory space in constant “tension.”

Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben uses the analogy of an ill patient going to the doctor to describe this kind of non-space. In ancient medicine, crisis is the decisive moment that determines whether the patient is sick, chronically ill, or going to die, he said, and it is instrumental in the construction of urban space.

Crisis can also refer to an enduring state in which uncertainty is extended into the future indefinitely. This can sometimes be used to serve and legitimize political actions, which deprives urban and regional space of a fixed identity, leaving citizens without a clear understanding of who they are, where they belong, and what it actually is they expect from their future.

Alamo Heights appears to be in this subliminal state of crisis. The old — its present state — is dying, but the new and diverse, a possible future, cannot be born. In other words the non-deterministic centerless existence of Broadway, the popular school district, and perhaps even the distinct socio-economical pluralities of the Alamo Heights micro-communities continue to determine its urban and non-urban identities without allowing something new to emerge.

This not only suffocates new development, but it also stagnates a strong local culture that deserves to be illuminated.

At the University of Texas at San Antonio Department of Architecture — housed in the College of Architecture, Construction and Planning — we have investigated issues related to urbanization, urban transformations and the evolution of sustainable cities.

Alamo Heights and San Antonio could be cities that are shaped by their own transformation processes. However, in reality we are still dealing with sprawl rather than a city on the rise.

To induce a breath of fresh air we have changed scales from sprawl and regional planning to more local community based placemaking. In a “Think/Do-Tank” at UTSA, we have explored expanded ideas of architecture to rethink current conditions of the city in order to dismantle prevailing spatial meanings in Alamo Heights and San Antonio.

Within this framework we did this not only to ask critical questions that could help these communities change current conceptualizations of Broadway, Alamo Heights and San Antonio, but also to rethink the evolving agencies behind shaping possible (urban) growth.

Alamo Heights’ distinct cultures, both local and global, are so distinctive that they could already be defining inherent potential futures for Broadway.

We have developed strategies that we believe can lead to architectural interventions and something we are referring to as “The Third Condition” to invigorate new life and inspire new public and consumer spaces along Broadway.

The Third Condition is a connective linear park situated parallel to Broadway that aims to find equilibrium between open and closed spaces, the natural and artificial, and the urban and the non-urban conditions found in Alamo Heights. It includes a continuous public garden, walkways, dog parks, space for recreational activity, public plazas and a bike path connecting Basse Road to Hildebrand, possibly to downtown.

With excellent design and innovative programming we seek to engage the vibrant and diverse community in Alamo Heights and San Antonio. Architectural interventions like a Start-up Haus, a business park, a new library, a public amphitheater, a new gallery district, a farmer’s market, or a parking garage that changes over time into a public leisure space also invigorate the linear park, Broadway, Alamo Heights and San Antonio with new ways to live, work, innovate, and study.

The “Think/Do-Tank” recently presented research-based strategies and individual architectural propositions to local citizens, scholars and public officials at the Alamo Heights Fire Station and Brick within the Blue Star Arts Complex.

The two-night exhibition displayed propositions through which we stepped away from the traditional confined domains of the master-planner. Our idea was to develop a dialogue among the linear park, Broadway and the neighborhoods on a pedestrian level. Also we wanted to unite the urban and non-urban into a new third condition. What we considered as newly designed “rooms in the city” would activate the urban landscape and operate as catalysts and active agents from the street, for the street, and about the street, giving Broadway a new sense of place.

This approach not only resulted in a shared approach but most important in common conversations with local activists and the community in an attempt to improve one of the main urban corridors in the city.

Dr. Antonio Petrov is an assistant professor of architecture at The University of Texas at San Antonio.


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