UTSA architecture team proposes ‘1000 Parks and a Line in the Sky: Broadway, Avenue of the Future’

“1000 Parks and a Line in the Sky: Broadway, Avenue of the Future” will next be displayed and presented from 6:30 – 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 30 at the Pearl Stable as a part of the Build Your Own Broadway ideas and design competition launched by the Rivard Report, Centro San Antonio and Overland Partners. Learn more about the UTSA project and engage with us via social media on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter (@utsacacp), and Snapchat (skyridesa). Learn more about the BYOBroadway competition here. Tickets for the March 30 event are $15, click here to purchase.

By Nicole Chavez, Communications & Development Coordinator, UTSA College of Architecture, Construction and Planning

(March 25, 2016) -- The City of Alamo Heights released its comprehensive plan in 2009, detailing its hopes of becoming a more pedestrian-friendly, business-friendly and urban city. But this plan hasn’t been without controversy. Recent developments along the 2.5-mile stretch of Broadway in Alamo Heights and long overdue changes to building codes are generating discussion about what becoming an “urban” city actually means. Per the amendments, approved in November of 2015, new multifamily projects in Alamo Heights are to be built flush with the street, while 10-foot-wide sidewalks, 5-foot wide spaces for trees, and street-level retail are also stipulated. Alamo Heights officials are now said to be considering similar code changes for commercial buildings.

In a January 3 op-ed for the San Antonio Express-News, University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) Assistant Professor of Architecture Dr. Antonio Petrov explores the paradox of Alamo Heights and discusses the complex relationship between the community, its main urban artery (Broadway), and the City of San Antonio. “At this point, the experience of Broadway only feels urban through the windshields of our cars,” he wrote. “Frankly, there is hardly a pedestrian experience to be had along the Alamo Heights stretch of Broadway.”

Petrov has established a “think/do-tank” in the UTSA College of Architecture, Construction and Planning in an attempt to investigate urban transformations and the evolution of sustainable cities. He and a group of 13 undergraduate students have done extensive research on the Broadway corridor since August of 2015; they are rethinking current city conditions and developing new strategies to shape future urban growth in Alamo Heights and San Antonio. Many students initially viewed Broadway as a good street with few problems, primarily because the active corridor contains numerous shops and destinations. However, their opinions changed quickly when they began walking along the street. Student Victoria Freeman felt invisible as a pedestrian, while Michelle Montiel said drivers aren’t able to see the details and missed connections between buildings on Broadway. Most agreed walking along Broadway felt somewhat dangerous due to the lack of pedestrian amenities.

“When you get in your car, there’s so many things you can do and it all feels so close,” said student Jessica Lee. “But when you start walking, you see there aren’t enough crosswalks, or you have to walk to the next street because there isn’t a traffic light where one should be. It’s really hard to get around as a pedestrian. If you’re not in your car, it’s a whole different experience.”

Petrov and the students found that 48-percent of Broadway’s urban landscape is bordered by parking lots, while the majority of spaces along the corridor in Alamo Heights are tied to businesses, with virtually no public spaces for people to gather as citizens without being consumers. They also discovered the Alamo Heights community did not strongly identify with Broadway. To address these issues and reconnect the residential and commercial sectors of Alamo Heights, they propose the creation of a linear park, called “The Third Condition,” situated parallel to Broadway that includes a continuous public garden, walkways, dog parks, recreational spaces, public plazas and a bike bath connecting Basse Rd. to Hildebrand, possibly to downtown. They identified leftover space that is seldom used to create it, imagining it would beckon to residents and visitors alike. Petrov and the students presented their research-based strategies and individual architectural intervention projects to local citizens, scholars, and public officials — including members of the Alamo Heights City Council — during two public events held December 9 and 10 at the Alamo Heights Fire Station and Brick within the Blue Star Arts Complex, respectively. The exhibits featured a 50-foot model depicting the 2.5-mile stretch of Broadway in Alamo Heights.

“We didn’t want to master plan,” said Petrov. “We wanted to see how architecture can become a catalyst to help us rethink the city. As much as The Third Condition formed by being a connector between places, it also formed by these architectural interventions we proposed. Every project is inspired by The Third Condition, but at the same time also inspires The Third Condition.”

The students’ proposed architectural interventions include a Start-up Haus for young entrepreneurs, a business park, a new media library, a public amphitheater, a new gallery district, a farmer’s market, a dog care center, and a parking garage that changes over time into a public leisure space. Petrov stressed the importance of leaving enough space in the proposal so community members could see themselves in it. Both nights of the December events were part exhibit, part conversation; attendees were encouraged to interact with the students to learn about their interventions, provide feedback, and discuss ideas for the ongoing project.

Petrov and the students met with Alamo Heights officials periodically during the fall 2015 semester to discuss their work-in-progress. He asked the students to view it as a real proposal with actual boundaries and edges — floor plans, sections, and renderings were completed for all buildings — so their work could be presented to city officials. Councilwoman Lynda Billa Burke was their main point of contact but they also worked with Alamo Heights Fire Chief Buddy Kuhn, who conveyed practical concerns to the students such as the inability to design in flood plains, zoning between buildings, and height restrictions “to see where their dreams met reality.” It was the first time most of the students had ever worked with public officials in this capacity. Lee said the interaction was always supportive and that, with some modifications, all students were still able to pursue the projects they initially chose. At the December 9 event, Kuhn said the project has given new inspiration to everyone, including community leaders in attendance who are contemplating the future of Alamo Heights.

“This was beyond my imagination,” said Alamo Heights’ Mayor Louis Cooper at the event. “I think it can further Alamo Heights’ goal of figuring out what we want to do long-term. It showed us there are a lot more alternatives than we’ve been thinking about, especially in areas we weren’t even considering.”

Viewing the model with the students helped community members visualize future possibilities, said Cooper, who promised that council members in attendance are invigorated by the students’ work and eager to drive the city’s mission forward. Councilman Lawson Jessee said reusing abandoned alleyways is a purely creative idea no one had ever proposed before. When ideas like this are pieced together, he said, it becomes possible to connect the entire city, pointing to the Museum Reach as an example of positive development spurred by creativity and opportunity.

“Once you get people excited, that’s where you build momentum,” said Jessee. “When you get people talking about what Alamo Heights could be, what Broadway could be, and about this third condition, it builds momentum and fosters political courage. People will now be willing to invest monetarily and I think that’s where this all starts rolling.”

The Third Condition developed in a studio Petrov taught during the fall 2015 semester. The students were given selected readings, then were taken to Alamo Heights and Broadway to determine characteristics to analyze. Petrov encouraged the students to follow their interests and had them split up into teams of their choosing to conduct research, mapping, and demographic analysis. Next they developed experiential mapping strategies to better understand how Broadway and Alamo Heights actually feel. The students engaged with passersby on Broadway, asking them to complete surveys about their experiences there. The students weren’t surprised when they received widely varying ideas about what is contained within Alamo Heights; for example, the McNay Art Museum actually falls outside jurisdictional boundaries despite popular opinion. This continued for the first five weeks of the semester, culminating in a research book that holds the factual data they collected.

Petrov and the students invited Alamo Heights residents, local practitioners, and the public to a colloquium at UTSA in September of 2015 to unveil their first version of the 50-foot model and present their research findings. Attendees were seated around the model and encouraged to talk about it. Petrov said it felt somewhat awkward but he was interested to see what the dialogue would elicit. At times it was an emotional debate with strong opinions and generational differences. This was the moment students realized both Broadway and Alamo Heights are pressing, hot-button issues currently being debated in local architectural, planning, and political circles.

The studio didn’t want to approach the problem from a master planning perspective or change Alamo Heights. Instead of being against something, they wanted to reverse the methodology and understand the community’s identity in an effort to improve the existing condition. Searching for a way to engage, they grappled with a problem that always seemed divided into two parts — Broadway and Alamo Heights, commercial and residential, urban and non-urban. Petrov said The Third Condition grew out of this struggle to move forward.

“It’s a parable from the Bible,” he said. “When Jesus was challenged by people to respond with a yes or no answer, he usually came up with a third condition nobody could think of. We were inspired by this idea. We were inspired to take our work and the existing condition and propose something that would lead in a new third direction, not discounting one or the other. The idea was to reconnect the urban and the non-urban by creating public space where there was none.”

Sarah Barrios thought the best part of the semester was deciding on individual projects and picking sites. In previous studios, the projects she worked on were predetermined so she was excited by the challenge of developing interdependent projects. One of her first tasks was to map all parking lots along Broadway, focusing on large lots that often remained empty. Other students identified alleyways and other swaths of space that were seldom used. The studio printed a huge map and began marking it up to select project sites. The process was very fun, Barrios said, even though some students had to negotiate. They allowed themselves to reappropriate some of the unused alleyways and lots when necessary but the majority of the students picked project sites that were already empty.

Projects were developed based on what students found Alamo Heights to be lacking or intriguing aspects of their research. Montiel was interested in the way Broadway’s activity revolves around local stores but felt there should be pedestrian options for traveling between points of interest. Research also found active local residents who needed recreational space. After discovering several disconnected sidewalks along the street, she and classmate Bernardino Quintanar decided to pursue a different kind of project than their classmates — developing the infrastructure that would become The Third Condition.

“For me, this is a space to reconnect the community with Broadway,” said Montiel. “We found really set boundaries, both physical walls and more ephemeral boundaries. The Third Condition reintegrates the residential area with the more commercial, active part of Alamo Heights so it becomes a place to be instead of just a corridor or drive-through area. It also welcomes visitors so they can experience the space differently even though they don’t live in Alamo Heights.”

In addition to the striking conflict between public and consumer space they found, students were also surprised to discover the lack of public parking on Broadway. Drivers can only park if they will be purchasing something and their cars are likely to be towed if they walk from business to business. Councilwoman Billa Burke’s input was crucial in the development of her project said Lee, who designed a parking garage near the corner of Broadway and Austin Highway. Billa Burke was discussing the possibility of a nearby business park with Lee’s classmate Yoana Penelova and they all agreed the entire area could use development.

“We were taking out some parking spaces but people there already complain about parking, so we wanted something in a central location,” said Lee. “I was not planning on doing a parking garage. But I’m glad I jumped on it because I’m really happy with what happened.”

To mitigate Broadway’s current parking problems while keeping an eye toward the future, Lee designed a parking garage that will transform, in ten-year increments, into a 24-hour open air recreational area that will include a running track and pool. She felt the building should exemplify the way Alamo Heights could potentially change over time, from a car-driven culture into a community with fewer cars. In its original state, her design features a central panorama surrounded by a parking garage. Through the structure’s evolutions, the panorama remains as a constant landmark to help establish the identity of Alamo Heights.

“We all know that we need a parking garage,” said Mayor Cooper. “To see it visualized, it really says we need to get back on that and decide where we’re going to put it.”

Freeman concluded there was an implied line between the San Antonio Museum of Art, the Witte Museum, and the McNay. She wanted to extend the cultural corridor into Alamo Heights and designed a natural space where studios are merged with a butterfly garden so artists can live in a residency and create while intimately experiencing the landscape. Barrios’ design for a community-based gallery incorporated indoor and outdoor gallery spaces, while an outdoor amphitheater developed by Fernando Garcia also plugged into this cultural strip. Aaron Stone was interested in the distinct socio-economic conditions of the community and wanted to address statistics showing that young adults are leaving Alamo Heights; he proposed a house for startup companies across the street from the Alamo Heights High School.

Lee previously had trouble transitioning from drawing and modeling to digital application, and said this studio helped students combine them all. “Dr. Petrov also really helped with thought process and diagramming,” she said. “I would have never approached a project this way, where we did so much research first. I learned this can be the process of getting to your design and it helped everything else run more smoothly.”

Many of Petrov’s students knew he would address larger urban issues with this particular studio and had taken it to challenge themselves. They commented on how well the group worked together and agreed it has been a unique and rewarding experience. Barrios said their research informed every part of the proposal, something she will apply in the future. Stone said the studio changed almost everything he thought of architecture up to this point, while Freeman appreciated the way their professor assessed a current problem and turned it into real project for students.

The concept for The Third Condition has continued with a subsequent spring 2016 studio, in which Petrov and the students have enlarged their focus to include the stretch of Broadway leading into downtown and the untapped potential there. “1000 Parks and a Line in the Sky: A Broadway Avenue of the Future” is the new iteration of the project. Petrov welcomes the opportunity to connect to the Museum Reach and other cultural pillars on Broadway — he hopes the think/do-tank will bring about the establishment of a lab within the UTSA Department of Architecture to investigate issues related to urbanization.

Participating students: Sarah Barrios, Mehrdad Berenji, Jessica Gameros, Fernando Garcia, Jose Antonio Herrera, Victoria Freeman, Mariano Garcia, Austen Keithly, Jessica Lee, Michelle Montiel, Gerson Mora-Field, Yoana Penelova, Bernardino Quintanar, Aaron Stone, Juan Carlos Ramirez

“1000 Parks and a Line in the Sky: Broadway, Avenue of the Future” will next be displayed and presented from 6:30 – 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 30 at the Pearl Stable as a part of the Build Your Own Broadway ideas and design competition launched by the Rivard Report, Centro San Antonio and Overland Partners. Learn more about the UTSA project and engage with us via social media on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter (@utsacacp), and Snapchat (skyridesa). Learn more about the BYOBroadway competition here. Tickets for the March 30 event are $15, click here to purchase.

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