As San Antonio begins to rebuild our streetcar system it’s important to reflect on how the streetcars of the past helped shape our center city. This is a good piece written by Christine Vina.
Building San Antonio: The streetcar suburbs of old and new
Written by Christine Vina and posted in the San Antonio Express-News on November 27, 2011
If you take a look at the streetcar map of early 1920s San Antonio, it is quite easy to identify the neighborhoods that were connected by the 19 different streetcar lines that existed at the time. If one lived or worked within the original 36 square miles of the city (roughly the area bounded by Hildebrand Avenue, Rio Grande, Division/Morill Avenues, and 19th/24th streets), you were ‘free’ to travel around the city, and the local commerce located along these major transit routes offered additional economic development benefits to the community.
During the heyday of the streetcar, the new “streetcar suburb” neighborhoods became more valuable. The closer a property was located to the streetcar, the more valuable it became, and the names of the streetcar lines, San Pedro Avenue, Tobin Hill, Denver Heights, South Flores, Collins Gardens, West Commerce-Prospect Hill and Beacon Hill, still resonate today as neighborhoods where there are great opportunities for rebirth and investment.
In the early 1920s, the motorbus began to compete with the streetcar, as it offered more flexible routes for transportation. By 1926, there were 90 miles of tracks serving the suburban streetcar system, but the concept of freedom, being able to access most any part of the city by streetcar, slowly transitioned into the freedom of the individual automobile, and thus, the streetcar system was dismantled by 1933.
With the advent of an improved roadway system and the ability for families to own their own car, the concept of being able to live in endless areas of new suburbs became for many, a true American dream.
In the last decade, however, our dependence on the automobile and the cost of fuel has provided an impetus for reexamination of housing location options. Now there’s a focus on increased transit options that will be in place over the next few years and into the next decade.
National trends continue to indicate the living preferences are shifting toward these types of communities with more compact, mixed use patterns of development, and that much of the new development, which can easily bear higher rental rates, will consist of multi-family rental product concentrated around transit.
There is much local evidence, in the number of multi-family projects that are currently under construction in and around the near downtown area, such as those along Broadway, S. Flores and Cevallos Streets.
The streetcar suburbs of the 1920s, that existed along the original streetcar lines, still have the same basic infrastructure and a street network based on a grid pattern that will allow them to accept updated levels of transit service. And the housing stock, which has still survived the test of time, will be not only viable in the 2020s, but desired as a luxury to be within the thriving inner city.
These long-standing neighborhoods will once again be in the best position to reap the financial benefit of their great location, increase the local tax base, and transform the community at large.
Christine Viña, AIA, is an architect and urban planner and serves as chair of the AIA San Antonio Editorial Board Committee.