A Fantasy Look Back: Plans Canceled for Downtown River Project

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The aftermath of the 1921 flood of the San Antonio River. Photo courtesy of SARA.

The aftermath of the 1921 flood of the San Antonio River. Photo courtesy of SARA.

Editor’s note: The following story is, of course, a satirical account of what might have happened to San Antonio’s famed River Walk if the political environment had been different in the 1920s and 30s – perhaps it would not have been built at all had petitioners, firefighter and others galvanized enough opposition in Monte Vista, Alamo Heights, Olmos Park and some of the other outlying communities. Author DF Salvador explains, “While many of the facts are accurate, it is written as if the political climate in 1938 were the same as it is today.”

August 4, 1938

After seven years in the works, the initiative to turn the San Antonio River into a concrete ditch running through downtown San Antonio, dubbed the San Antonio Beautification Project, has finally been defeated.

The project was born after the great flood of 1921 that devastated San Antonio, taking fifty lives (see photo above). After the mass destruction of downtown businesses, city leaders proposed plans to alleviate future flood risks.

From the outset, the projects surrounding the river and downtown area have been met with controversy.  The greatest beneficiaries seemed to be the powerful downtown business owners who were vocal in their push for changes to the river.  Support, however, was far from unanimous. Public outrage intensified with the building of the pricey Olmos Dam, which was constructed at a price tag of $3 million to stop floodwaters from rushing through the Olmos valley into downtown. Detractors of that project were quick to point out that the flooding of 1921 was far more serious on the Westside where the vast majority of lives were lost.  Only $6,000 was allocated to alleviate flooding along the Alazon and San Pedro Creeks. Opponents argued the River Project was just one more attempt by city officials to redirect government money to benefit only a select few.

Ardent supporters of the project argued that the plans of architect Robert Hugman would be a great benefit not only to downtown but to the city as a whole.  It would give the city an important landmark, encourage business growth, and beautify a downtown in decay.

When President Roosevelt’s Works Project Administration (WPA) agreed to provide funding for the project, it seemed like nothing could stop the plan. WPA’s district director Edwin Arneson became a passionate supporter of the project and enthusiastically embraced Hugman’s designs.

The support soon began to run dry, and city councilman and notable fiscal conservative Joseph Sewer launched a petition to oppose large-scale, government-funded projects such as the River Project.

Plans that seemed destined to go forward were now in jeopardy.

“The idea that ‘if you build it, they will come’ is a ludicrous proposition,” Sewer said, commenting on promises of downtown revival by advocates such as Maverick and Hugman.  “City planners were trying to sell us on the idea of river parades and barges to navigate these new channels.  San Antonio is not Venice.  There will never be river parades.  The people who are urging us to do this are the same people who convinced us five years ago to tear up our beloved streetcars and replace them with smoky buses. We won’t be bamboozled again.”

The River Project also ran into opposition from the San Antonio Conservation Society, which opposed any efforts to alter the flow of the San Antonio River, including the initial plans to convert the San Antonio River into a concrete storm sewer.

“What this really was about was a city-sanctioned destruction of nature for the benefit of a few businesses,” said the spokesman for the San Antonio Conservation Society.  “There were other places in San Antonio that had much more pressing flood control concerns, and yet our city leaders were going to allocate government money to turn our river into a concrete ditch?  It didn’t make any sense.  The people weren’t going to buy it.  Who would want to walk alongside a river with straight edges and ninety degree turns?”

With the death of Edwin Arneson, the San Antonio River Project’s most vocal supporter, the plans took another blow.  Sewer gathered signatures to take the project to a referendum, and support from the community began to wane as the issue of government-funded projects became increasingly toxic.  The political winds have changed after the country has finally begun to emerge from its great financial depression.  In the clearest sign of changing public sentiment, former congressman Maury Maverick, one of the biggest champions of Roosevelt’s New Deal government bailout program (his name will surely be referenced by future generations of liberal thinkers), lost his primary bid for reelection.  Now, he is running for mayor of San Antonio and knows his support of the River Project could hurt his chances of winning.

Maverick could not be reached for comment, but his despondent secretary, a young man named Lyndon Johnson, had this to say: “The raging debate over this River Project has convinced me to stay away from politics forever.”

The nearly two-mile long landscaped walkway along the San Antonio River included dozens of stairways and bridges, allowing for both flood prevention and enormously successful commercial development. Photo courtesy UTSA Institute of Texan Cultures.

The nearly two-mile long landscaped walkway along the San Antonio River included dozens of stairways and bridges, allowing for both flood prevention and enormously successful commercial development. Photo courtesy UTSA Institute of Texan Cultures.

*Featured/top image: The aftermath of the 1921 flood of the San Antonio River. Photo courtesy of SARA.

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Progress versus Protest: The Path to Smart Preservation and Development

Petition to Change City Charter Falls Short

Rideshare Companies Unfazed by Unanimous Advisory Board Rejection

City Council Rescinds Streetcar Funds, Approves Charter Review Commission

SARA Documentary Chronicles Story of the San Antonio River

16 thoughts on “A Fantasy Look Back: Plans Canceled for Downtown River Project

  1. What an incredibly offensive and condescending article.

    The rhetoric has reached quite a fanatical hysteria at this point.

    Being close minded and incapable of listening to opposing viewpoints seems to be the “political climate.” That isn’t much different from 1938 sadly.

  2. What is the obsession with streetcar project? These peeps just can’t let it go. I can think of many things that San Antonio needs to focus on right now .. long term water supply being the primary. Note to Hipsters … your urban playground is at the bottom of the list.

  3. As usual, Dan has found an insightful way to encourage thoughtful reflection. You know, thinking. Back when Obayashi Corporation was digging a huge tunnel beneath downtown, I thought it was a perfect example of a government boondoggle. The rains that came in 1998 changed my mind. Perhaps a streetcar on Broadway is a good idea, but it’ll have to rain pretty hard for me to reconsider that one.

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