The revised designs of the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project won unanimous approval and praise Friday from members of the SPC Subcommittee, made up of property owners, downtown stakeholders and other citizens with a vested interest in the major project slated for completion of its first phase by May 2018, the city’s 300th anniversary.
It took two hours for the three-person presentation team to explain in detail to committee members and members of the public the many changes in the design and engineering and, ultimately, the impact on the $97.8 million budget for phases one and two. The first phase of the project begins at the Tunnel Inlet at IH-35 and West Quincy Street near Fox Tech High School and extends south to César Chavez Boulevard. Phase two extends the project to Guadalupe Street.
The entire project, originally budgeted at $175 million by Bexar County, will result in the restoration of two miles of San Pedro Creek all the way to its confluence with the Alazan and Apache Creeks at IH-35 near the former Stockyards. It also will serve as a catalyst for major redevelopment and cultural revival of the western sector of downtown. The San Antonio River Authority is serving as the project manager for the County Commissioners. Jeff Mitchell, with HDR Inc., led Friday’s presentation of the design revisions, and afterwards, also discussed the significant ramifications for a changed design and construction timeline and ultimately, the budget implications.
In sum, the design has evolved significantly in response to feedback from the various stakeholders, but the May 2018 deadline means some of the changes will require additional funding even after other “value engineering” cuts resulted in $30 million in cost-cutting. Mitchell also said the project team now would now recommend to County Commissioners that they alter the original plan of completing all design work by April to extending that timeline to November, while moving forward in April with the selection and hiring of a general contractor in what is called Construction Manager at Risk (CMAR) contract. Under the recommended approach the County and River Authority would contract directly with the designer and the builder and retain control of both entities. Construction would start on select pockets of the project before design work is completed for the entire creekway.
The AT&T Center and Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, two major projects completed by the County on tight deadlines, were done under CMAR contracts. A follow-up article in the Rivard Report will explore the timeline and financial implications in greater detail.
Friday’s presentation was mostly about design. It gave Subcommittee members their first full appreciation of the collaboration between the architects at Muñoz & Co. led by Principal Steve Tillotson, and landscape architects at the Mexico City firm Grupo de Diseño Urbano led by Principal and Landscape Architect Mario Schjetnan.
The collaborative effort has led to a major realignment of the project’s key features, a greater emphasis on moving water, native plantings, “strong trees,” and deeper integration of the creek with pathways, benches and other pedestrian features. That is what Schjetnan and his team have brought to the project. At the same time, the Muñoz influence is seen in the use of exuberant color in a more contained way, and with the weaving in of mythic, historic and folkloric design elements on the walls that separate the creek from the streetscape. Cork as a medium to reflect culture also emboldens wayfinding signage, historical narrative elements, and vibrant tile work that will appear at key junctures along the way. Linear benches now line many stretches of the creek, and discreetly follow its curves downstream. The benches evoke the color of Ricardo Legorreta’s Central Library, and near the northern reach, form an inviting keyhole-shaped refuge that bridges the creek.
Friday morning belonged mostly to Schjetnan, who at times with his passionate voice, shock of white hair and expressive arm movements, resembled a symphony conductor. People listened as he brought the site maps and renderings to life, and invited subcommittee and audience members to pass around delicate scale models. It was a lesson in masterful presentation. Simply stated, people loved what they saw and heard Friday morning. Stakeholders have watched the design evolve from the original renderings first presented months ago to what will be now be presented to Bexar County Commissioners on Tuesday.
“We want to play more with water, we want people to interact more with water, we want children to play; this is a linear park, more so than the River Walk, more community oriented, something that goes right through your downtown, which is fantastic!” Schjetnan said.
Even if Subcommittee members didn’t say so in their many words of affirmation, people seemed to see something uniquely San Antonio in the new renderings and site plans –a creek that carries the city’s 300-year European influenced history with it and what Schjetnan described as 8,000 years of earlier indigenous occupation. The result is a design that is like the city and its people, deeply influenced by its Mexican roots, its Mexican-American history and culture, and its spare Southwestern landscape of stone, earth, trees, native grasses, and precious water.
The changes to the design start right at the Tunnel Inlet and the so-called Vila Lagunilla reach lined with cypress trees. The Tunnel Inlet has been sheathed in sturdy, yet delicately crafted worked metal with a Tree of Life inspired motif. The metalwork leads to a vertical wall of falling water as it descends into the creekway, enters a wetland and courses through the keyhole-shaped benchwork and then through a series of limestone arms embracing the passing water and slowing it into standing pools.
“It’s going to be more lush than you see in the rendering, there are going to more plants,” Schjetnan said. “People are going to be able to get into the pool.”
To the east, Camaron Street poses both opportunity and challenge not previously addressed in this project or in any urban renewal conversations. Yet the street originally named for the freshwater shrimp that once thrived in San Pedro Creek is one of the few extant historic streets in the city, and deserves to be reimagined with the creek project, Tillotson said. To not do so will be seen later as a tragic oversight and missed opportunity.
“It ought to be given new life all the way to Five Points,” Tillotson said after the formal presentation, suggesting an even deeper reconnection of the near-Westside with the heart of downtown and the waterway.
Schjetnan called the next section, from Santa Rosa Street to Martin Street, “el paseo,” buffered by a large bioswale and wildscape on the west bank and dense tree cover on the eastern bank, with shaded benches and overlook views inviting passers-by to stop and sit. From Martin Street down to Travis Street, the Salinas Bridge is being removed and converted into an overlook, and at its southern edge, water from the creek is diverted to flow into the new acequia feature added along the western bank south of Travis Street. A street level overlook deck has been added at the high point of this reach.
The relocation of a proposed amphitheater and performance stage farther south to the east bank of the creek at the Alameda Theater has opened the view south to the Alameda’s landmark sign, which now serves as a beacon framed by mature trees on both banks. Several mature oak trees on the Weston Urban site for the new Frost Bank Tower will be relocated to the east bank of the creek, an exciting new addition to the landscape. Across from the mature oaks, a waterfall element will further contribute to the natural setting. Water will cascade down along this same stretch.
One of the most dramatic design changes is dependent on the County successfully negotiating the purchase of the Dollar Store from the Penner family that now sits on the eastern edge of the creek on West Commerce Street. The building is slated for demolition in the plan, which has not been subjected to review by the City’s Historic and Design Review Commission. If approved, the cleared property would allow widening of the creek and construction of a “floating island” accessible to pedestrians south of the amphitheater and the Alameda Theater. West Commerce Street pedestrians walking along the newly-designated Cultural Corridor would have a visual and physical entryway into San Pedro Creek.
Friday was a day for imagining a restored San Pedro Creek in harmony with the city and its culture, but much will depend on the funding and the timeline. Inclusion of the project in the City’s 2017 bond as a citywide project now seems critical to determining whether the project is one that will be lauded as world-class or one that is forced to be completed on an inadequate budget.
“If we do it right, years from now, people from San Antonio and all over the world will look at San Pedro Creek and marvel, they won’t talk about the budget,” Schjetnan said. “We have to be realistic, but we also have an obligation to make this something truly special that changes the city.”
*Top Image: San Pedro Creek below the Tunnel Inlet with limestone paths and wading pools. Image courtesy of San Antonio River Authority.