Less than five months after moving from Tennessee, new University of Texas at San Antonio President Taylor Eighmy is moving closer to a major expansion and reimagining of UTSA’s downtown campus that could nearly quadruple its enrollment.
The idea, as Eighmy describes it, is to make the downtown campus a “livable hub that adds to the vibrancy of downtown and adds the intellectual capital production that this city needs.”
The planned launch point for the historic undertaking is a UTSA-owned site immediately west of Interstate 35 and north of the campus’ main structures that Eighmy said could become home to a multistory development that includes more space for students and faculty and a new residential component that brings a 24-hour feel to the area.
Eighmy pitched the idea for an expanded downtown UTSA campus while interviewing for his new job. Since his start in San Antonio in September, he has continued to meet with civic, business, political and educational leaders to gauge their interest in the possibilities of big changes for the 20-year-old urban campus.
President Taylor Eighmy is moving closer to a major expansion and reimagining of UTSA’s downtown campus.
Several of those leaders, including San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, believe Eighmy’s plan could accelerate a larger urban renaissance in the Alamo City.
Eighmy has roots in the Boston area and is familiar with the impact urban university campuses have had on that city’s development into a global economic player. He said the window of opportunity to expand UTSA’s footprint, influence and impact on San Antonio’s center city is wide open as the public and private sectors have made new investment in the city’s urban core a key priority.
“We have a path forward that I believe is very obvious,” Eighmy said. “Now is the perfect time to triple down on what we do with the downtown campus as I don’t want to miss this window of opportunity.”
Planting the first flag
UTSA’s downtown campus has about 4,000 students enrolled, and Eighmy envisions that number getting closer to 15,000 over the next 10 years.
Such growth in the student population would require a significant increase in downtown staff and faculty. Eighmy said the numbers for those positions could rise to 1,000 and 500, respectively, over 10 years. Currently, UTSA employs 274 staff and 200 faculty downtown.
UTSA’s Downtown Campus
A look at UTSA’s downtown campus as it is now.
VIEW SLIDESHOW 16 photos
UTSA’s center city campus houses three colleges: Architecture, Construction and Planning; Public Policy; and Education and Human Development. Eighmy is pursuing a plan that could include adding up to three new schools built around urban science, data science and entrepreneurial innovation. Also, he would also like to expand the College of Education to include more collaboration with the San Antonio Independent School District and other area schools, and to possibly create an urban education innovation institute.
Such aspirations will require considerably more space. The first place UTSA is considering a brick-and-mortar build out is a 2.1-acre site bordered by Interstate 35 to the east and by South Leona, West Commerce and Buena Vista streets to the west, north and south, respectively. The land is near the Cattleman Square Historic District — consisting of 19th and early 20th century commercial and industrial buildings — and is currently used for surface parking.
Eighty believes that real estate can be put to better use.
Ideally, he said the Cattleman Square project will be a public-private development that would include underground parking, two or three floors of street-level retail supporting anywhere from five to as many as 15 floors of new urban housing for undergrads, graduate students with families and potentially even staff and faculty seeking a downtown residence.
The project’s price won’t be clear until more details are flushed out. But the investment would be substantial and, according to Eighmy, the impact would be game changing.
“We need to send a signal to the rest of the city. We need to plant a flag in the ground, and Cattleman Square is the first, best and fastest way to do that,” he said. “I believe this is doable and we can get going on this right away.”
Include Nirenberg among the key leaders who believe Eighmy’s plan is more than a pipe dream.
“Building a stronger campus presence for UTSA would be the single most transformative thing to happen in downtown San Antonio in a generation,” said Nirenberg, who has had multiple discussions with Eighmy about his vision and the role the city can play in bringing it to life.
“Eighmy is an astute observer of how a university’s presence can positively impact a city — and vice versa,” Nirenberg said. “We’ve talked about how the city’s trajectory and the vision we have for San Antonio is very much aligned with his hopes for UTSA.”
The city and county control several acres of real estate near UTSA’s downtown campus. Access to some of that land or other type of assistance will be critical to a comprehensive expansion plan.
The Phoenix model
Some of the inspiration behind Eighmy’s plans for UTSA come from Arizona State University, which built a downtown campus in Phoenix that helped transform its center city. San Antonio City Manager Sheryl Sculley is quite familiar with that project as she helped bring it to fruition while she was assistant city manager in Phoenix.
ASU’s downtown campus now serves about 12,000 students.
“There was nothing. We started from scratch,” she said.
Now, ASU, whose main campus is in the suburban city of Tempe, has a stand-alone downtown campus with about 12,000 students.
“The whole dynamic of downtown Phoenix has changed with the university,” Sculley said.
San Antonio City Manager Sheryl Sculley is familiar with the process that made Arizona State University’s downtown campus what it is today as she helped bring it to fruition while she was assistant city manager in Phoenix.
A key aspect of that Phoenix campus, Eighmy said, is that it’s completely autonomous campus.
“We can’t do what we need to do around this grand mission until we make our downtown campus autonomous,” he said.
In addition to assistance from the city and county, UTSA will need support from the development community and industry leaders to help pull of such a lofty transformation.
San Antonio Economic Development Foundation President Jenna Saucedo-Herrera, who has talked with Eighmy about his vision for the downtown campus, said it could ignite new ideas and create more momentum for a growing tech sector in the urban core.
“The early dialogue has focused on turning our UTSA downtown campus into an epicenter of high-tech innovation or a maker’s space for students to create tomorrow’s cutting-edge technologies,” she said.
San Antonio Economic Development Foundation President Jenna Saucedo-Herrera said a revitalized downtown UTSA campus could create more momentum for a growing tech sector in the urban core.
Saucedo-Herrera said what Eighmy envisions “has the potential to bring more students and UTSA employees to the urban core, where they will spend money at restaurants and shops and on apartments — which all contributes to the growing vibrancy of our downtown.”
Eighmy said UTSA needs to convene thought leaders across the city to “discuss agnostically” what can be done collaboratively.
“We can’t do it by ourselves,” Eighmy said. “What I need to be able to do is to explain to the city, the county and the development community our plans for the next 10 years so they can bank on that and know it’s real. … We have to demonstrate that we are going to do this. There are certain projects that we will need to launch right away to send the message to everyone that this is serious and we mean business.”
It’s an attainable goal, Nirenberg said.
“Together we can leverage our strengths,” he said. “We have long wanted downtown to be a more vibrant live, work and play community for mixed incomes and all ages. This would be a big shot in the arm.”