More than 120 creative spirits and engaged citizens gathered Saturday morning to help design the $175 million redevelopment of San Pedro Creek through downtown San Antonio.
It was the first of many public workshops planned for the project, which will transform a long-ignored ditch (see video below) into a linear urban park while advancing flood mitigation, revitalizing ecology, and sparking cultural and economic development along its path.
“This is another opportunity to reenergize people’s connection with water, history, and culture,” said Suzanne Scott, general manager of the San Antonio River Authority (SARA), which organized the meeting with the City of San Antonio and Bexar County. “Historically, the creek is so important to the development of our community.”
Armed with coffee and refreshments, “energized” is a good description of the conversations participants were having. The din of the design process often caused citizens to lean across tables to better hear ideas, concerns, and questions – a good problem to have at a public planning meeting, especially on a Saturday at 9 a.m..
Think of the Mission and Museum Reaches of the San Antonio River, but shorter and quite narrow in some sections. The two-mile stretch of San Pedro Creek is often crowded by commercial buildings, flanked by parking lots, and hidden from pedestrian and vehicle view. Project leaders expect to draw commercial and housing investments to the area, similar to investments now being made on the Mission and Museum Reaches.
“Although this project is downtown, it’s more about connecting the community. Connecting our Westside and our Southside to our downtown and vice versa,” Scott said of San Pedro Creek’s role in the larger Westside Creeks Restoration Project. “The city has invested more than $10 million in linear creekway connections.”
To tackle the complicated terrain of the project, the creek has been divided into six segments or “character areas.” Each area has unique features and urban landscape, so divvying up the design will help engineers and architects – HDR, Inc. and Muñoz & Company, respectively – incorporate assets and address challenges for each character area.
Each table at the meeting was assigned a character area. Citizens then moved to the table that most interested them. At the Canal Principal/Main Channel table, participants focused on how to restore the narrow, paved-over sections of the creek to a more natural state. One such section is flanked by hotels and residences with little to no access to the actual creek.
“We need to take this ditch and turn it into something for people,” said Tony Cantu of the San Antonio River Oversight Committee.
He and the other planners at the table emphasized the importance of creating a multi-modal pathway that restores the ecology of the area – a place for humans, water, and wildlife. Signage and pathways to and from the creek will be a crucial part of this section. But designers will have little to work with.
“Maybe an elevated pathway, like High Line Park in New York?” proposed Nita Shaver. The table was excited about this idea.
“That’s a wonderful suggestion,” said Michael Guarino of Ford Powell & Carson Architects, facilitator of the table discussion.
Guarino was furiously taking down notes as the table occupants talked, laughed, and pointed out troublesome areas of the map. He was pleasantly surprised with the turnout and impressed with community feedback. His notes will be added to dozens more, notes on all the section maps will be analyzed – including the note about protecting turtles in the Canal Principal – and designers will come back in November to present the mashup of ideas to the public at another public workshop.
“The key will be making it an inviting, walkable place for people,” said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff as he watched the workshop. “There’s a lot of congestion along the River Walk around the bend. This may alleviate that.”
Much of the design stage is scheduled to be completed by February. Scott said the goal is to schedule construction over two years, with completion by San Antonio’s 300th anniversary in 2018.
Bexar County has committed $125 million so far, Scott said. The unfunded remainder likely will be filled by various public and private investments from area businesses and downtown development initiatives. The “right-of-way” costs and complications of acquiring or using surrounding properties downtown will be one of the main hurdles.
“Private property rights are extremely important and we don’t want to assume anything at this point, so we’re going to continue to work with property owners,” she said, adding that SARA will seek property donations. “I think that many of them see that it could be financially beneficial – obviously the value of their land and the opportunities of their land could be enhanced (by the redevelopment) but also they’re concerned about parking and access – rightfully so. We need (business and property owners) at the table.”
The San Pedro project should benefit from the successful and well-received completion of the Museum and Mission Reaches of the San Antonio River. People now understand the benefits of bringing a moribund waterway back to life, both for aesthetic reasons and as an economic development initiative.
“We have a recent example of how public investment can spur economic development. It’s not a pipe dream or something that we don’t know about,” Scott said. “And if people appreciate their waterways more, they’re going to want to protect them. They’ll become more curious about storm water, trash, flora, fauna. It’s an opportunity to change the narrative about our creeks.”
If you missed this meeting, but would like to stay up to date about the redevelopment of San Pedro Creek, contact SARA by phone at (210) 302-3257, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit their office at 100 E. Guenther St.
*Originally published on Aug. 24, 2014.