Standing in Padre Park Saturday morning under an open-sided tent crowded with public officials, dignitaries, long-serving river restoration devotees and some of the Southside’s finest, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff began with a gentle warning.
“We’re going to have a ‘little celebration’ this morning, so you’ll have to be patient,” he told more than 70 people gathered for the Grand Opening of the Mission Reach.
“We’re going to try to recognize all the people who had something to do with this day.”
That would not be easy: 15 years of planning, politics, and public works, multiple mayors, county commissioners, various public agencies, long-serving citizens, $245.7 million, eight miles of restored river. Wolff had some helpers.
The next Southsider to the microphone was young Bryanna Rich, a Terrell Wells Middle School student and member of the Harlandale Mariachi. The crowd stood – including a man on a passing kayak – as she delivered a flawless a capella rendition of the national anthem.
A few yards away, kayakers passed through a nearby water chute and cyclists and strollers rolled by on the riverbank’s concrete pathway, everyone celebrating the rebirth of the river in their own way. For many, it was a morning to pause in place and share credit for a job well done.
Burning incense wafted in the air for an indigenous ritual followed by Catholic prayer, not far from the old Spanish Missions where native Americans and New World immigrants first lived and work side by side.
Linda Ximenes, a descendant of the Tap Pilam group of Native Americans that were here before the Spaniards arrived, raised an incense offering to the Four Points of the Earth.
“We offer this blessing to the four directions and to the native people, all the people who will visit, even the animals and everything that will live here,” Ximenes said. She turned North to “the place of the buffalo nation, the green grass,” then East, “to the eagle, cedar and the wind, the place of starting over,” then South, “the place of innocence, unanswered questions, the child and the coyote,” and then West, “the place where spirits go, the pace of forgiveness, wisdom, the bear, the place of letting go.”
Then came Fr. David Garcia, the director of the Old Spanish Missions.
“God, we give thanks for gifts. The first gift is creation, and the first and greatest of your gifts,” he prayed. “We care for what you have given us…Thanks to all of the many people who helped recreate what has always been here — a beautiful, meandering river. help us do this in our community again, and again and again.”
The San Antonio River Improvements Project is arguably the most transformative undertaking in San Antonio’s contemporary history, a marathon project that began two decades ago with a handful of people with little funding and no sense among the public that this day would one day be possible.
Former Mayor Lila Cockrell and Irby Hightower, principal at Alamo Architects, served as co-chairs of the San Antonio River Oversight Committee for all 15 years of the work.
Cockrell, whose life of public service is an unwritten book, shared two stories of lobbying local officials for river improvements. She met once with then-mayor Phil Hardberger after hearing rumors that the locks would be cut from the Museum Reach budget.
“I didn’t actually cry in the meeting, but he might of thought I did,” she remembered, saying she left his office with a promise the locks would be built.
On another occasion, she met Judge Wolff for breakfast, which ended with him agreeing to increase Bexar County’s river improvements budget from $75 million to $125 million.
Hightower said the river south of the city was in such a state of abandonment that plans were drawn up by others to fill it in and eliminate it. Noting that others considered it a “concrete ditch,” he said it as actually worse, that it had become a riverfill of sorts for dumping unwanted concrete, old sidewalks and other construction refuse.
What made Saturday so remarkable was that over those 15 years the impossible became possible and an extraordinary alliance of government entities pulled together and endured to find the money, agree on a plan, and get the job done.
“This is the most important public works project of our time,” Judge Wolff declared as he began a litany of thanks to the many people who can claim a direct role in the revival of a river once thought all but dead. Wolff praised David Zachry, noting his company finished the last seven of the eight miles of the Mission Reach in the same time The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed the first mile.
As he stood at the microphone, Wolff was one of four former mayors on hand whose terms of service reflect how long it took to turn the river restoration project from a dream to reality: Cockrell, Howard Peak, and Hardberger also were there.
District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran, new to public office but not to the Southside, was on hand to represent City Council and Major Julián Castro, who was not present.
“I am honored to be among all of you today in an area where I actually learned to ride my bicycle and now I serve you,” Viagran said. “The Southside is a place of beauty, of culture, and the future.”
Wolff also was joined by the rest of the Commissioner Court, each of whom took a turn at the microphone.
“We all have Southside blood running through our veins,” Wolff said. “We have not forgotten about the Southside.”
Pct. 1 Commissioner Sergio “Chico” Rodriguez extolled the Mission Reach as a community gathering place.
“You know how you see some people only at weddings and quinceañeras, well, that’s how it is when you come down to the river,” Rodriguez said. “You see people you haven’t seen since high school.”
Pct. 2 Commissioner Paul Elizondo recalled many past contributors to the project, including Milton Guess, whose family was on hand to be recognized in his memory.
“Back then we kept talking about this project but it wasn’t until Nelson Wolff became county judge that we got it done,” Elizondo said. He went on to predict that the restoration of San Pedro Creek from its headwaters to its confluence with the river would be the city’s next great accomplishment – “unless Nelson can think of something even more grandiose,” he quipped.
Pct. 3 Commissioner Kevin Wolff reminded the audience of his own Southside roots, while promising to keep his remarks short.
“Fr. David, blessed are the politicians who are brief, for they shall be re-elected,” Kevin said.
Pct. 4 Commissioner Tommy Adkisson traced his own family’s history on the river and said the San Antonio River, the arrival of the Spanish to build the Missions, and the progression from Spanish to Mexican rule to independence to statehood served as the gateway for the development of the nation West of here.
The San Antonio River Authority’s board chairman, Gaylon Oehlke, of Karnes City, praised Suzanne Scott, SARA’s general manager.
“I don’t know if Suzanne was the most important person on this project — I think she was — but she was the glue who held this all together,” he said.
Frates Seeligson, Jr. chairman of the San Antonio River Foundation board, grew emotional as he spoke of his pride in the city’s success in bringing the river back to life. He also spoke of the Foundation’s effort to raise funds now to construct Confluence Park, an outdoor learning laboratory “where art and science will meet where there was just a parking lot.”
Others who didn’t speak publicly said it was Judge Wolff who deserved to be thanked first among all others.
“Hands down, this is Nelson’s biggest accomplishment in public life,” said Sally Buchanan, a SARA board member, the river foundation board’s vice-chair, and president of the San Antonio Conservation Society. “This is transformative. This is huge, this is right.”
Judge Wolff praised the river in literary prose, calling it a “winding blue ribbon connecting the Missions,” and a “confluence of two historic jewels, the San Antonio River and San Pedro Creek.” He said the city could now take pride in a “park bigger than (New York City’s) Central Park, 2,400 acres of public land, the largest restoration of an urban river in the United States.
“Canoe, kayak, walk, run, jog, bike, picnic, fish, listen to the music at the pavilions, play sports at the Concepción Sports Park, or simply sit and contemplate nature,” he said.
All along the Mission Reach, from Saturday morning into a cooling evening, hundreds of San Antonians did just as Judge Wolff suggested, skipping the speeches and ceremony and instead savoring the river as a place to recreate and commune.