Commentary: Flood of Discussion Crests at San Pedro Creek Meeting

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Preliminary design rendering for elements of the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project.

Preliminary design rendering for elements of the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project.

Plans for a complete reworking of the San Pedro Creek downtown – a flood-control project that will include monuments, plazas, amphitheaters, playgrounds and dog parks – are flowing much like the creek itself; flooding one day and barely trickling the next. The goal is to have at least the first two phases functionally complete by the city’s 300th birthday in May 2018.

The Aug. 6 article in the Rivard Report, “The San Pedro Creek Project: Getting it Right,” which included a letter from a stream-side property owner, caused a flood of discussion during the Aug. 7 San Pedro Creek Improvements Project Subcommittee meeting – but it needn’t have.

Some committee members do not attend every meeting. The June meeting did not even have a quorum to approve the minutes from the May meeting. More frequent attendance by committee members would have prepared them for opposition to the 40% plan and facilitated acceptance of other ideas. Participation is essential.

The letter that generated so much discussion was from James Lifshutz, a co-owner of several apartments along the San Pedro Creek, to Suzanne Scott, the general manager of San Antonio River Authority (SARA). It expressed displeasure with several features of the plan.

Scott in turn forwarded the letter, with others, to subcommittee co-chairs Jerry Geyer, a Friends of Casa Navarro member, and Michael Cortez of the Cortez Family of Restaurants, which includes Mi Tierra. They did not share all of this information with all of the other 15 committee members or six alternate members.

CEO of Centro Pat DiGiovanni. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Centro San Antonio CEO Pat DiGiovanni. Photo by Scott Ball.

Pat DiGiovanni, Centro San Antonio president and CEO, was not pleased when he learned of the letter. “From Centro’s standpoint, we want more communication on this,” he said.

And he is right. Communication is the key to prevent such problems. In the future such letters will be brought to the committee so they can be part of the record.

But education is important as well. The documentation about the improvements project is increasing at an exponential rate. The 40% plan had two volumes; the recent 70% plan is three. It’s going to be hard for the planners, the developers, the committee members, the Commissioners Court, concerned property owners, and the general public to keep up. But it is so important – and so worthwhile.

Some critics of the “Tree of Life” art installation, for instance, wanted to prune it. In the eye of a knowledgeable arborist, pruning can be beneficial to a plant. In the wrong hands, such shearing can destroy the plant.

The colorful columns in the promotional picture were just that – promotional. They were designed to catch the eye. Some people saw a theme park atmosphere. Others saw the assembly as a good distraction to the nearby convergence of expressways. And planners wanted something to divert attention away from the industrial grates of the adjacent drainage structure.

The 12 columns of the “Tree of Life” were placeholders, but not everyone understands that concept. It was more than a bookmark in an ongoing story.

Preliminary design rendering for a "Tree of Life" element of the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project.

Preliminary design rendering for a “Tree of Life” element of the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project.

One column, for example, was to represent faith. Faith was important in the history of San Antonio. Indeed, Mission San Antonio (which was later moved and became the Alamo) was originally founded on the banks of the San Pedro Creek. Points up and down the stream relating to other religious aspects were to be identified with the emblems or colors of this column.

Another column was to represent conflict – and there have been many disagreements along the creek (of which the committee discussions are but the latest). Military garrisons once paraded on the site of City Hall which is but a building away from the creek, and it was called Military Plaza (Plaza de Armas). A pecan shellers strike in 1938 was another conflict that occurred on the banks of the San Pedro. It paved the way for inclusion of Mexican-Americans into South Texas society. Other areas of conflict would be referenced to the codex of the “Tree of Life.”

Other columns might represent freedom (a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence is remembered in the Navarro House), commerce (Penners Store has been in business for almost a century), or culture (an Italian neighborhood once flourished in this area). The history of the area (which was to be included in a codex in the columns), written by local scholar and poet John Phillip Santos, will be presented soon.

And the grouping of columns, these mythic touchstones, was to be built in such a way to align with the sun’s rays on the first day of winter. The June solstice too would be a focus of the “Tree of Life.” I applaud the architectural integrity of a design that celebrates the shade of a summer day.

But will the “Tree of Life” survive the axe of premature judgment? It’s one thing to survive budget cuts, but with such strong opposition, will the tree even be planted?

Muñoz & Company Principal Steven Land Tillotson. Photo by Scott Ball.

Muñoz & Company Principal Steven Land Tillotson. Photo by Scott Ball.

“It’s never wrong until it’s drawn,” quipped Steve Tillotson, Muñoz & Company Principal Architect and one of the design team consultants, at a meeting in June.

Those who speak against components of the development plans should be aware of all aspects of the plan and how those parts fit together. Education is another key to making a plan that will benefit the common good.

And finally, involvement. The public was encouraged to offer feedback at the open house in May or in the survey which closed in June. The committee will present the 70% plan to Commissioners Court on Tuesday, Aug. 11, at 1:30 p.m. on the second floor of the Bexar County Courthouse. The next Subcommittee meeting is Sep. 10 at 8:30 a.m. at the SARA board room, 100 E Guenther. There is no charge to attend and the public is invited to these events.

Plans for the San Pedro Creek are still evolving. The first shovel of dirt has yet to be dug. Plans for the creek will dovetail with plans for the new Frost Bank building and Federal Courthouse which are still on the drawing board. The San Pedro Creek improvements design is not yet set in stone.

Participation, communication, education, and involvement. If these components can come together, we will have more than a decorated ditch. We will have a public area that links neighborhoods, that joins culture, that promotes history, that provides a place to play, one that enriches our daily lives.

As Tillotson said, “It’s not just a place to go to get from one place to another. It’s a destination.”

The plans for the creek will be 90% complete in December. See you at the next meeting.


*Featured/top image: Preliminary design rendering for elements of the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project. 

Related Stories:

Committee Reviews San Pedro Creek Design Critiques & Update

The San Pedro Creek Project: Getting it Right

Survey: Public Supports San Pedro Creek Improvements

Art Curation Taking Shape for San Pedro Creek

14 thoughts on “Commentary: Flood of Discussion Crests at San Pedro Creek Meeting

  1. Thank you Don Mathis for a thoughtful and well balanced article! For you readers, Don Mathis comes to the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project subcommittee meetings, and workshops, and he collects the handouts, gets the presentations, and follows the progress/changes as the design continues to mature. He is an astute observer. “Participation, communication, education and involvement” are essential components to getting this job done right. The subcommittee meets monthly, the website is posted when new information is ready……and using modern media channels, there are many ways to stay informed and get involved. For the design phase underway now, time is of the essence. The San Pedro Creek project comes with a host of constraints and challenges, but the goal remains to make the results the best possible. Thank you all for you inputs!

  2. “Their skepticism is understandable. If the Gehry-led group helps shape a sturdy new consensus about remaking the river as a civic amenity, Garcetti’s gamble will have been worth it. If renewed attention to river planning gives rise to a truly substantive public conversation about water policy, drought and climate change in Southern California, even better.

    If on the other hand it becomes the vehicle for attempts by Gehry’s firm to turn out grand, signature infrastructure in the way it has sometimes turned out grand, signature buildings, or generates more photo ops than progress, it will undermine important work on the river that goes back decades.”

  3. Re: Use of sculpture to divert attention from “nearby convergence of expressways [and]…industrial [drainage] grates”:
    First, there are expressways, utility structures, industrial ruins, etc. along the Mission Reach pathway. I view such “eyesores” as unique urban sculptures. Each is isolated in view, some are historical, and all offer an interesting human-made contrast to the native-plant restorations. I love seeing them ass I bike along
    Second, rather than diverting attention from an “eyesore” (like drainage gates), the planners should do something TO the drainage gates to make them part of the creek experience — perhaps hire artist(s) to do something to the front of the structure, etc.

  4. Great title. Also thanks for the info to get involved at the meeting s as it happens rather than just commenting after the fact on a website.

  5. A wonderful read, and a great article. I will definitely be attending the September meeting to gain more knowledge about this.
    I am excited to say that I will be assisting some representatives from the San Pedro Creek project tomorrow, August 11th at the Tech Bloc event. Can’t wait for them to get out there and show attendees their progress as well.

    • It’s not wrong or right. It’s not a test. Although it would be very helpful to say what parts you like. That’s what a design discussion is about. You start to see things in a way other people do that you might not have noticed before, and/or you find you have your own sense of style that most people don’t.

  6. What happened to Robert Hammond’s suggestions? Seemingly they’ve been poo-pooed in an attempt to discredit Hammond’s concerns. Why is this project such a wild and wooly departure from the Mission Reach? And do we have to turn every square inch of our linear parks into showcases for public art? And did anyone ever answer why a firm that has ZERO creek reclamation experience is the lead designer for the project? So confusing. I thought the team was bigger somehow and would have many projects of this type in their portfolio. What gives?

    The overwhelming majority of comments I’ve seen are very opposed to the direction of the project. Writing happy talk articles doesn’t change that.

    • Mary–please see my below response to “SA Rentals”–some helpful information on the team awarded this project. It’s so sad how blatantly corrupt our city is

  7. Any idea where we might be able to see and read the Lifshutz letter?
    I would like to read and know his concerns on this project.
    Like Ms. Nethery, I am curious to know exactly HOW did this firm become the lead designer for such an ambitious project.

  8. Having worked in the architectural industry for many years, I’m well aware of the Politics of Architecture and know all the players. Having left it, I’m allowed to discuss publicly. If there are other design firms on the team, why aren’t we seeing their influence? Would the Rivard Report have the gumption to take that on and discuss it openly? Or do we all continue to rue the day Plaza de Armas shut down their incredibly open blog? This should all be a matter of public record, yet we allow our County Judge to run roughshod and change the nature of design teams. Someone has that power and it can only be Nelson. Please. Someone report on why we are only seeing the work of one firm on this project. Other than the engineering consultants doing the “unseen” elements.

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