San Antonio Will Never Be Austin

by William O. Pate II

San Antonio will never be Austin.

San Antonio will never be a “creative class” city because it doesn’t have a 24-hour coffee shop.

San Antonio, much like New Orleans, has a bit of an inferiority complex when it comes to viewing our neighbors to the north in Austin. While I find this comparison ridiculous, as each city has its own culture and positive and negative attributes, when it comes attracting people to live downtown and create well-paying “high-tech” (meaning everything from developers to designers) jobs, San Antonio will continue to lag Austin until some much-needed changes are made.

Not all of these changes can be made by the City Council. For some, it will require private citizens and private businesses to step up to the plate to serve cultural and economic development. For instance, coffee shops.

There’s a reason Seattle, Austin, Portland, Boston and a few other cities are those with the largest creative-class populations: They have coffee shops.

The San Antonio coffee shop with the latest daily closing hours is Halcyon Southtown, a branch of the original Halcyon I frequented at Fourth and Lavaca in Austin. That is, the latest-closing San Antonio coffee shop is an Austin transplant. All the other coffee shops — actual local coffee shops — in town shut their doors by midnight; many much earlier. Where are the late-night artists to go? Where do college students spend their evenings gathering after drinks or while cramming for an exam? Where do people sit around and share ideas and stew in a creative atmosphere late into the night and into the early morning?

I’m not the only one bemoaning the lack of such coffee shops. Look at Yelp. Anyone from outside the city is disappointed. Those from San Antonio don’t seem to understand why you can’t drink coffee at home or at Starbucks.

Simply put, you can’t rely on Starbucks because it isn’t a local company. Their corporate policy does not allow for the creative expression a true coffee shop can achieve — from hanging local artists’ work on the walls to holding poetry readings and music open mic nights.

San Antonio is most significantly missing a bohemian coffee shop with long hours and an ownership that isn’t in it for the profit (’cause students and low-paid artists don’t buy much more than a coffee and a snack while they hang out for hours).

San Antonio will never be Austin because it is better-planned and has adequate infrastructure. Like Austin, that infrastructure may not always be the best in the world, but unlike Austin, San Antonio has built out its roads, especially, to more-than-accommodate its population. San Antonio doesn’t experience any of the traffic issues — constant standstills on I-35 and MoPac — Austin does. That’s because the city and county planned for growth rather than let NIMBYism retard it.

San Antonio will never be Austin because you don’t get the opportunity to closely examine every inch of the freeway on your way home from work.

San Antonio will never be Austin because — for now — San Antonio’s downtown isn’t livable or even interesting for residents.

This may be “The Decade of Downtown” for some San Antonio politicos, but you could hardly tell it. In fact, the San Antonio skyline leaves much to be desired. The Austin skyline is far more attractive. The Tower of the Americas hardly outweighs the density of the Austin skyline with the Capitol and UT Tower in the background. The San Antonio skyline doesn’t offer the magic that looking over the Austin skyline while driving on the upper deck of I-35 offers.

San Antonio is getting a new Frost Bank tower, however. The building of the Frost Bank tower in Austin heralded the city’s demise, as it became a playground for wealthy tech bros, pricing out the artists and musicians who created the cultural fabric of the city that made those bros want to move there in the first place. But San Antonio isn’t going to become Austin. Its downtown is too dedicated to tourists. Further, there’s no parking that doesn’t cost an outrageous amount of money.

Again, this is something private citizens must solve. The city can only do so much to spur development downtown without pricing out the few who currently live there and those who might venture into new units. (This means restricting the use of short-term rentals platforms, like Airbnb, downtown, but also ensuring there’s affordable housing generally.)

It’s important to remember that USAA, headquartered in San Antonio, located its design lab in Austin. That shows a lack of confidence in the creative talent pool in their home city. It also shows an unwillingness to shore up that talent pool by hiring local talent or luring outside designers to San Antonio.

This begs the question. Where is the talent? I submit that a better question – one that helps answer the question of why there isn’t more creative tech talent here – is, “Where are these designers and developers supposed to spend their late nights/early mornings working on wireframes/coding? Where are the 24-hour coffeeshops?”

San Antonio will never be Austin because its local universities’ six-year graduation rates are abysmal compared to the universities in Austin – UT at Austin, St. Edward’s, Concordia, et al.

San Antonio will never be Austin, but that’s a good thing.

San Antonio has museums – real museums – and festivals and a laidback nature that extends beyond just a cold-ass swimming spot (ahem, Barton Springs) or nude beach (Hippie Hollow).

Yes, San Antonio is filled with tourists visiting the Alamo and the Riverwalk and the Missions. But Austin can’t claim UNESCO sites. Nor can it claim its 300th anniversary this year.

As the seventh largest city in the nation, which is quite a bit bigger than Austin, San Antonio has done just fine without being Austin. Sure, the median income could be higher (then again, so could the cost of living), but the return on investment is much higher. Sure, we could use more direct flights from our airport. Austin may have more international flights, but we have far more international flavor (Austin is so white).

San Antonio should stop comparing itself to Austin. But it does need a 24-hour coffee shop.

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