A bike lane separated from the main road by a small buffer line, sun sets in the background behind trees, car drives by on the opposite lane.

The Changing San Marcos: The Austification of San Marcos

By Emily Martin
News Director

Residents love San Marcos for it’s beautiful Sewell days and it’s wild square nights. On the surface this town is one that is on the up with urbanization; seeming to introduce a new restaurant, shop or apartment complex every few months. Yet, what many may not realize is that these new commodities are the result of gentrification. 

To break it down with the help of sociologist Dr. Gloria Martinez, gentrification is a social, political and economic process. 

A cafe and lamp post are shown with pedestrians walking past the building
New businesses have put a strain on some local restaurants. Photo by Nicholas Rodriguez.

“So when they economically redevelop a city or area, they tear down something that is old and replace it with something that is new,” Martinez said. “So when we think about it with gentrification, usually tearing down an old building. Then what happens when you tear down old housing stocks, this creates an economic development and the taxes of physical spaces, plowings change when you start economically developing, it increases the taxes of people’s home or property and its through this process that people get priced out of a community because they cant afford to pay their taxes… so what happens is people get taxed out of their own properties … and people that have been living there ten, 15 years, all their lives, can’t afford the property anymore so they move.”

According to census information, San Marcos is currently home to over 63,000 residents. From April of 2010 to July of 2018, the city has experienced a population growth of 40.7%. At first glance, one may attribute the large growth in population to the growth of students attending Texas State. However,  when looking at census data from the years 2000 and 2017, while college aged students, 18 to 24, account for the largest age demographic of the city, their proportion to the rest of the population has remained roughly the same. 

 While a significant number of San Marcos residents remain cost burdened, there has been a decrease in the lower income population and an increase in the high income population. According to Dr. Martinez, this is a direct result of gentrification. 

“Any population that’s always moving tends to be a socioeconomic vulnerable population. and those populations are less likely to have stability and engage socially and politically into the community and that has a neg effect in that their voices are not heard in the community or they’re not seen, right, we don’t hear about the effects of gentrification and how it negatively affects a group of people in our society.”

Private sector student housing accounts for 42% of all residential permits between the years 2007 and 2018. Yet, student housing apartments have higher average rent in comparison to conventional apartments. According to San Marcos Councilwoman “Joca” Marquez, it is not the students to blame but Texas State University. 

“I really blame the University as a system, it’s a very predatory system because A, the university doesn’t cap enrollment, B, really aligns itself with apartment complexes that kind funnel students into these very predatory apartment complexes that are rent by the bed and are really problematic because rent by the bed is an amazing deal for developers because they can make a lot of money,” Marquez said. 

In April of 2018, the city council approved Code SMTX. This code changed the water quality standards, protection of green spaces, building types, zoning districts and the zoning change process in existing neighborhoods. As framed in the city’s Preferred Scenario Map, this code inspires development and redevelopment in already existing neighborhoods and more development in medium to high intensity zones. 

These areas are downtown, midtown, and space east and west of I-35. In the year since it passed, the city has seen the effects by the development of new apartment complexes such as Aspire, the 13 story apartment complex complex being built behind the Taco Bell off of N. Guadalupe street.

Students walking through the Texas State University campus with a construction site present in the background.
Construction projects around town are reaching the Texas State campus as well. Photo by Juan Garcia.

Marquez disapproved of the new high-rise, stating it’s just another reminder that the town is becoming gentrified and being taken over by big money. Marquez said there is power in the people to prevent future changes that they do not want to see happen. 

“That’s what developers wants us to believe, that we have no power but we do have power. If we united if we communicate if we take action if we demand that our government, at council meetings having our voices heard, then things will start to change, and I have a hope that things will change. We are trying to keep it from being Austin.”

There is no denying that San Marcos is growing fast. The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization predicts that the population of San Marcos will reach 90, 500 by 2025. That is a 37% increase in growth since 2015. KTSW’s Juan Garcia has more.

A path was cleared and the ground flattened through some grass to make a makeshift sidewalk.
Many sidewalks in San Marcos need an upgrade to provide a safe way to travel on foot. Photo by Juan Garcia.

This increase in population will put a strain on many roadways, as well as crowding public transportation for students and other citizens. The City of San Marcos adopted a master transportation plan on Dec. 12, 2018. This plan is designed to optimize the use of roads and walkways to reduce the use of major roadways by providing pedestrians a safe alternative for their commutes. 

Project Manager Rohit Vij said the goals of the plan revolve around efficient use of multimodal roadways.

“The corridors we develop in the future will all be multimodal corridors,” Viji said. “We need to accommodate pedestrians, cyclists, and other modes of transportation.”

The multimodal corridors would seek to improve safety for bicycle commuters by improving the available infrastructure for cyclists. The bicycle lanes on roads with a 35 mph speed limit and lighter traffic will be enhanced with a three foot buffer lane separating the lane from the main roadway. Busier roads with higher speed limits will see improved safety measures including a shielded bike lane with a curb and multi use paths wide enough to accommodate cyclists and pedestrians.

Texas State University is the destination of many commutes. It is one of the primary drivers of the increased demands on the city’s infrastructure. Texas State’s transportation services office is working closely with the city to advocate for the needs of the University as well as the citizens of the city it calls home. Transportation Services Director Steven Herrera said the school is working with the city to identify ways for the school to better serve the students and the city.

“Really the biggest focus that we’re working on in coordinating with the city is we’re trying to work with them on a coordinated transit planning effort,” Herrera said. “The university and the city have jointly gone into a contract with a new service plan that will… really identify if there’s any real opportunity to expand and create more opportunities for the citizens of San Marcos to really have more mobility options.”

The ideal effectiveness of the plan is based on how effective the bike and pedestrian infrastructure is at making commuters feel safe. The city hopes to convert 5% of trips shorter than one mile to a walking trip, and 10% of trips shorter than five miles to a bike trip. Currently, 80% of all commutes in San Marcos is less than five miles, while 14% are less than one mile long. 

If all goes according to plan, San Marcos will be able to keep up with the demands on their roadways without building too many new roads. The city hopes to keep demand on the roads low, keeping long commute times short and affecting the many natural attractions around San Marcos as little as possible.

The city is estimated to have collected more than %35 million in sales taxes last year alone. The Greater San Marcos Partnership, a community organization aimed at promoting economic growth in and around the city, says that more than 35 hundred new jobs were created in the area in less than a decade.  What does this kind of rapid influx of money mean for San Marcos? For Hays County Commissioner Lon Shell, there’s a fine line to walk in balancing the economic boom this growth is bringing with the city’s native businesses and traditions.

“One of our goals has been to accommodate the growth to be able to deal with those challenges successfully,” Shell said.” We obviously don’t want to jeopardize what we consider to be our values and the quality of life that we have, and what makes us the place that people want to come too.”

The Commissioner represents the county’s third precinct, which has jurisdiction over Wimberley and much of San Marcos west of the interstate. Shell is both a county commissioner and a member of the Greater San Marcos Partnership. He has been involved in promoting growth in the city from both positions. Shell said Texas State University is a big attraction for new businesses looking for workers and the university’s graduates are helping expand the growing market sectors in the area.

“We consider ourselves to be in that tech corridor because we’re so close to Austin and I think that we’ll see a lot of benefit from that,” Shell said. “It will be an option for a lot of those companies in the technology industries that are going to need places to do the work that they do. They’re going to need employees and I think the university is a great creator of future employees and then we have a good base of potential employees here in the region already.”

Towns in the rural portions of the county have not been hit quite as hard by the growth and have been very successful in maintaining local identities. San Marcos still retains a distinct streak of localism, but the southward migration of Austinites along I-35 has made it more difficult. Shell said the challenge is one San Marcos will continue to face as long as the city remains an attractive location for new businesses and new residents.

Regardless of what actions the city or the county take in the future, the area will still see new arrivals as Austin’s tech industry continues to grow into the national hub it is becoming. Businesses and people will still find their new homes in San Marcos, and just what this town will look like in the coming years rests in the hands of public figures like Commissioner Shell, of private organizations like the Greater San Marcos Partnership and of engaged, informed citizens looking to make a difference in this steady growing, rapidly changing town we all call home. 

In 2017, San Marcos saw nearly 35 hundred crimes reported to law enforcement, according to the FBI. Of those crimes, 3 thousand of them consisted of property crime and theft. Violent crimes made up for 222. For those who have lived in the city for years, these numbers might be concerning. It even poses the question of whether nearby metropolitan cities such as Austin and San Antonio have some kind of influence on the cities safety.    

San Marcos Assistant Police Chief Brandon Winkenwerder says that the city’s location to a highway makes it more appealing to criminals. 

“We live in a very mobile society today and that applies to criminals and we see it quite a bit in like burglaries that we get in apartment complexes,” Wienkenwerder said. “We have some many apartment complexes right off the interstate that it’s easy access for them and when  we catch some of these guys they are out of Austin and San Antonio.”

Burglaries, thefts and assaults are the main types of crimes the city sees according to Winkenwerder. However this year, San Marcos has seen an influx in violent crime. 

“A lot of those crimes that we’ve had here this year, have had a narcotics nexus to them,” Winkenwerder said. “Somebody owed somebody money, somebody was upset with somebody because of narcotics dealings and they got shot. We did have a murder suicide earlier this year that was family violence related but the other ones we had, four of which I can think of had a narcotics nexus to them.”

Keeping residents safe doesn’t just mean protecting them from crime. It also means protecting them from any fire hazards that may occur as well. 

In 2018 The San Marcos Fire Department received 5,701 calls compared to the one thousand 983 calls the city received in 2001. The calls received to the fire department has gradually increased over the years. Fire Chief Les Stephens said these increases are normal when a population density shifts.

“We already have a fairly dense population because of the number of people that live in multi-families here in San Marcos,” Stephens said. “The denser the population the higher call volume you have per square mile. that’s the same if you take Austin, Austin’s is higher than ours because Austin more densely populated but if you compare Austin to a Chicago or New York or even Dallas.”

When it comes to responding to calls, Stephens says they try to have a drive time less than 8 minutes but dispatching also plays a role in the total response time

“Ideally, we like everything in the city for EMS-type calls to be within 44 minute drive time and about a 7 minute total response time,” Stephens said. “For structure fires its 6 minute drive time and about 8 or so minutes total response time. In most of the city, we meet that.”

San Marcos has five fire stations scattered around the city with three firefighters at each apparatus. As the population continues to grow,  Stephens said more fire stations are expected to be built in the coming years and other existing fire stations will be replaced. 

Both the San Marcos Police Department and the fire department are continually hiring to help offset the growing population. They also are adapting new ways to bring the community a safer San Marcos.

Featured image by Juan Garcia.

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