Neighborhood Placitas

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Urban Planning and the role of the Plaza

The idea of the livable city is important to the contemporary conversation surrounding urban planning and design. Cities are socially constructed to correspond with the ideas and ideals of their inhabitants at the intersection of community, economy, and faith. Historically, the neighborhoods and streets of the city radiate from a central point of civic, religious, and commercial communion. Central open squares are circumscribed by public buildings important to the lives of the citizens, usually the cathedral, administrative center, and some representation of the law court or government leadership. This planned city center is known as a plaza in cities of Spanish American and Spanish East Indies. Symbolic and lived city centers such as these shape communities through reciprocal relationships between commerce and the public. San Antonio is built around this plaza design, reflecting the Spanish-American roots of the city and its essential balance between private and public, commercial and noncommercial, civic and community structures within the urban environment.

Based on these same foundations of religious and civic orientation, smaller centers grow to fulfill the needs of urban residents. As religious centers move in to provide for the community, schools and community-oriented social spaces and businesses follow. Built along intersections and major thoroughfares, the mixed-use neighborhoods that result are supported by small plazas, or placitas, that emerge organically. These streets then become a harmonious space of transit and pedestrian use, with resident needs and interests met by the structures and implementation of the area; for example, the employment of green space, small parks, and integrated building design; elements that create a sense of place and impart the city with a spirit, a way of life instead of a design program. 

 

Beacon Hill’s Neighborhood Placita

The buildings along the 700 block of Fredericksburg Road and its cross streets exemplify this organically assembled placita, an essential community feature of Beacon Hill. The development of this commercial corridor was initiated by the neighborhood, seeking a center for community and fellowship in the early-mid 20th century. The establishment of St. Ann’s Parish, the Uptown Theater, and the commercial structures surrounding them fulfilled these needs and further prompted public use of the neighborhood in open spaces such as the triangular park separating West French Place and Michigan Avenue and the enactment of street parking.

The basic framework of this original placita can still be identified. St. Ann’s has an enduring impact on the neighborhood structure, leasing the old school to KIPP Aspire Academy and purchasing the old Uptown Theater and renovating it as an activity center. Today, community-oriented structures such as these continue to anchor the placita. Beacon Hill Elementary is just down the street at West Ashby. Surrounding neighborhood restaurants including Martinez Barbacoa and Garcia’s Mexican Restaurant create common spaces to enjoy food. The business buildings along Fredericksburg and Michigan, now house Jumpstart Theater, Uptown Studios, a bike shop, law offices and hair salon providing residents of Beacon Hill with services and cultural spaces. Many of the original buildings remain, the designs of which reflect the Spanish Colonial Revival style with stucco exteriors and design elements, evoking the historical aesthetic of the Spanish American plaza.

 

Positive Influence of Mixed-Use Development on Urban Neighborhoods

The establishment of micro-centers like this one reflects a trend in early 20th century cities in which amenities including cultural institutions, vendors, and service businesses are within walking distance of the homesteads. Urban activist Jane Jacobs expands on the mixed-use urban neighborhood, the success of which is characterized by three main qualities; the first being a clear demarcation of public and private space, enacted through building design and placement. The streets—sidewalks and roadways—are public space, residences are designed in order to keep a friendly distance from the public sphere in mind. Front lawns and porches at once separate the homeowner from the public street and allow for interaction with it. Commercial spaces provide a buffer between the busiest streets surrounding the neighborhood and the residences. These structures usually abut the sidewalk, immediately welcoming visitation, and reflect a public image as well as the character of the neighborhood in their facade design. 

Jacob’s second qualification for a successful urban neighborhood is the provision of eyes upon the street. Mixed-use areas have the advantage and added security of a continuous observation of public life. Proprietors are open during the day and can keep watch over residences, while at night, homeowners are present to assure the safety of the businesses. Lastly Jacobs states that, sidewalks should be used, and used frequently, by strangers and residents alike. This gives people incentive to be aware of the neighborhood, keeping it clean, safe, and keeping an eye on activities. Populating these urban areas with cars and people also makes for safer and more cautious use of the roadways. On-street parking provides important benefits for pedestrians, primarily working as a safety barrier between pedestrians and moving vehicles and making drivers more mindful of their surroundings. 

The overlap between social and economic activity encourages accessibility and familiarity between residents as well as a safer and more livable urban area. The resulting community space in small parks and outdoor cafes, prompts interactions among involved citizens and affirming social connections. These community-oriented neighborhood centers have been compromised by the employment of more detached city models, where amenities must be remotely accessed by automobile or public transit. In strengthening and retaining the character of contemporary cities, it is clear that these organic community centers should be supported in the interest of the people who live there in order to promote social integration and recreate space for public encounters. Further, such public spaces impart in the surrounding community a sense of cultural inclusiveness, as interests and histories are shared in the spaces provided there. 

Sources

Davis, Lisa. "Uptown." City of San Antonio Office of Historic Preservation. February 2009, www.sanantonio.gov/historic/Surveys/Uptown.aspx. 

Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House Inc., 1961.

Rudofsky, Bernard. Streets for People: a primer for Americans. New York: Doubleday & Company Inc., 1969.

Essay by Kathryn Zimmerhanzel