Bexar County Commissioner Paul Elizondo delivered an unusually blunt and strange lecture to Weston Urban CEO Randy Smith in open court this week: Don’t criticize the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project design via the Rivard Report or other local media.
The design work presented to Bexar County Commissioners and the public by Muñoz & Co. has been strongly criticized in the downtown and development community and in articles on the Rivard Report, though not by Smith or anyone else at Weston Urban.
Elizondo’s comments, not reported in other media this week, were made at the weekly Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday. Smith appeared before the Court to discuss Weston Urban‘s $3 million tax incentive for developing the Weston Urban Frost Bank Tower next to San Pedro Creek in the Houston Street Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ). The routine exchange appeared to come to a conclusion when Elizondo reached for the microphone and launched into a long and rambling public rebuke of Smith for what Elizondo alleged was inappropriate and even racist criticisms of the county project in stories that appeared on the Rivard Report.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and the other commissioners did not interject themselves as Elizondo, who is a close political ally of Muñoz & Co. CEO Henry Muñoz, continued. There is widely held view in the local architectural and development community that Elizondo led the effort to select Muñoz for the project over other more qualified firms.
“Some of the stuff that started playing in the Rivard Report, we don’t need that,” Elizondo told Smith. “What we need is to work together to consult y’all because you are making a large investment that needs to be respected. This project that we’re working on, San Pedro Creek, is also an extremely important project to us and we were there first in getting it designed.”
Smith did not respond directly to Elizondo’s comments.
Interestingly, Smith did not even appear in the Aug. 7 article written by Robert Rivard and Iris Dimmick that carried the headline, “The San Pedro Creek Project: Getting it Right.” The article relied heavily on Rivard’s on-the-record interview with Robert Hammond, co-founder of Friends of the High Line, the grass-roots group that initiated efforts for what became the development of an abandoned elevated railway line into the now world-renowned High Line Park in lower Manhattan in New York City. Hammond was invited back to San Antonio, his hometown, earlier in 2015 when he was shown the Muñoz plans for San Pedro Creek. Hammond told the Rivard Report he was critical of the plans because of the many design features being added to what he thought should be a more minimalist landscape, one designed by landscape architect rather than architects.
The article also cited a critical June 16th letter sent by developer James Lifshutz to Suzanne Scott, general manager of the San Antonio River Authority, which is managing the project for Bexar County.
“I believe that the 40% design drawings released some months ago were lacking,” Lifshutz stated in an email to the Rivard Report expanding on his written comments to Scott. “The design of the northernmost (“Tree of Life”) reach expresses an inappropriate grandiosity that does nothing to honor the history of San Pedro Creek, nor the generations of San Antonians who have lived and worked on or near its banks.
“This grandiosity distracts from, and cheapens, the history, context, and natural beauty of the Creek – and will not age well. The showiness of the design will make it more difficult to develop land next to the creek. Rather than an amenity that enhances neighboring development, the flamboyance of the creek will be something that has to be overcome.
“A project this important to downtown’s revitalization deserves better, and I strongly urge SARA to engage a landscape architect of regional or national reputation. This having been said, I remain hopeful that the 70% drawings will show an improvement.”
Lifshutz’s letter expressed concerns that were being widely discussed in downtown and development circles. Numerous individuals spoke with the Rivard Report in background interviews to express their concern that a potentially transformative project for the redevelopment of the west side of downtown was heading in the wrong direction with no one at Bexar County or SARA challenging Muñoz.
Some members of the San Pedro Creek Subcommittee, a citizen review group, shared concerns expressed by Hammond and Lifshutz and told the Rivard Report they felt the committee was not playing a real role in the design review process. Muñoz, they said, went before Commissioners Court with the firm’s design without first briefing the subcommittee and giving members the opportunity to play a meaningful role.
Two subsequent stories appeared on the Rivard Report on Aug. 12 and 13 that centered on a Tech Bloc event at Pearl Stable in which Rivard moderated an on-stage conversation with Hammond, who was invited back to San Antonio by Tech Bloc to talk about how grass-roots organizations can affect public policy through civic engagement and participation in the political process. Hammond discussed his admiration for the Pearl development, the Museum and Mission Reaches and the transformation of Broadway. He also repeated his criticism of the Muñoz design of San Pedro Creek, and urged locals to bring a national caliber landscape architecture firm into the design process.
You can read both stories here: Tech Bloc Rally Fills Pearl, Mayor Hints at Date with Uber, and Hammond Comes to Inspire Change in SA.
One month later, SARA’s GM Scott told the Rivard Report that she was negotiating with three landscape architecture firms that would be hired by Bexar County to review the Muñoz & Co. designs and serve as consultants reporting directly to the County: Outside Landscape Architects to Review San Pedro Creek Design.
“It makes good sense to have an independent review, I think it’s the right thing to do,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolf, who made the final decision to bring in landscape architecture firms, told the Rivard Report at the time. “We want to get this done by the City’s 300th birthday, but you know what? It’s far more important to get this right, and that’s exactly what we are going to do here.”
Smith and other Weston Urban representatives were not quoted in those stories.
Sources close to the process said the plan to hire three firms was to include one firm from Mexico requested by Muñoz, but that he and Elizondo both opposed giving landscape architects any authority in the design review and they did not want to work with the U.S.-based landscape firms Scott had contacted. In early October SARA announced it had hired the Mexico City-based landscape architect Mario Schjetnan Garduño with the firm Grupo de Diseño Urbano (GDU), as its sole consultant on the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project: SARA Alters Course, Hires Landscape Architect.
Smith and Weston Urban, meanwhile, announced the selection of New Haven-based Pelli Clarke Pelli to design the new Frost Bank Tower, and Smith said Weston Urban also would hire its own landscape architect to work with the architects in integrating the new tower and surrounding new developments into San Pedro Creek.
That announcement must have set off Elizondo, who incorrectly asserted in his remarks that Smith was the source of the Rivard Report’s coverage of the design process.
“We invited (Weston Urban) to come participate in our meeting groups. We have a public process that we put together that involved stakeholders of the design and consultation from people in the affected area. At that time they weren’t even there,” Commissioner Elizondo said on Friday. “They have since stepped up and said they want to be a part of the process.”
Commissioner Elizondo said the County “tried to coordinate and consult” but Weston Urban was noncommittal at the forefront of the project.
“Instead of coming to us and saying we don’t agree with this (design), the next thing we know we are reading in the Rivard Report what appeared to be criticism,” he said in a Friday interview. “I don’t believe in doing things in the media. You don’t get good work done.
“You don’t get a project designed like this on the 5 o’clock news or on the front page or back page of the paper,” Elizondo added.
Smith later said in an email response to a request for an interview that he hopes that all parties involved in the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project work together to transform downtown San Antonio.
“The San Pedro Creek Improvement Project has the potential to truly transform downtown, a transformation that is the heart of everything Weston Urban is doing in the same space. Our hope is that all parties – property and business owners, residents, local government at all levels – will collaborate to achieve the best possible outcome for the entire community,” Smith stated in the email. “It’s not about whether this project belongs to the County or ‘who was there first.’ We’re just enthused to get started on our adjacent developments and collaborate where it makes sense.”
In his remarks at the Tuesday meeting, Elizondo indicated he believes the project is exclusively in the County’s hands. Elizondo told Smith that he is “looking forward to working together on the (San Pedro Creek Improvements) Project … but it is the (County’s) project … so we are going to be the ones to design it.”
Elizondo, a Westside native, said the design critiques were racially motivated.
“All of a sudden there is a project in the near-Westside and it needs to be critiqued. ‘You’ve got locals doing it so you need to be guided on what fits and what doesn’t fit.’ It’s patronizing,” he said Friday. “Its got a certain color to it, a Westside color. It’s not the same as the River Reach or the Museum Reach. We want the creek to bring economic development, but we also want it to be a place for people on this side of the city and all of the city. We have unique neighborhoods in San Antonio that were wiped out by urban renewal and were wiped out by the freeway. You get all of these snide remarks like it is too Mexican, it’s too Latin. Heck, that’s what it was.”
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The San Antonio River Authority will host its next San Pedro Creek Subcommittee Meeting at 8:30 a.m. on Nov. 12 at the River Authority Board Room. Garduño, who visited San Antonio last week, will return to San Antonio next week for a formal work session with the design team. The outcome of that session, whether it be renderings or sketches, will be presented during the Nov. 12 meeting.
After Commissioner Elizondo finished speaking on Tuesday, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff added his sentiments before moving on to the next agenda item.
“We do have phone numbers,” he said. “We don’t need to go through a third-party communicator.” Reached by phone Friday, Wolff said Elizondo was critical of community members who commented with complaints on Rivard Report coverage.
“I think his concern was, ‘Hey, we are fixing this up for you guys. If you think something was done wrong, why didn’t you call us?’” Judge Wolff said.
A video of the Bexar County Commissioners Court meeting can be viewed here.
*Top image: (File photo) County Commissioner Paul Elizondo speaks to a crowd about raising the living wage in Bexar County during a press conference on June 10, 2015. Photo by Scott Ball.