Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / Rivard Report
Elmendorf Lake Park, a well-known gathering place for the Hispanic community on the Westside, had fallen victim to deterioration and lack of investment over the years.
But on Saturday, hundreds of people joined elected officials and community leaders on park grounds to celebrate the completion of a $16.2 million improvement project, marking one of the biggest investments in public space for a side of town that often goes overlooked.
The project, approved by voters in the 2012 Bond, is jointly financed by the City of San Antonio and Bexar County and managed by the San Antonio River Authority. The community engaged in the park’s design through a series of public workshops that began in March 2013. Terra Design Group and Arcadis made the project come to life.
“I’m so excited to be here and see how wonderful the park looks today,” Mayor Ivy Taylor told the crowd. “It’s truly a jewel here for the community … I’m so excited to have the partnership for a shared goal and for a joint investment, which leveraged resources and created this tremendous treasure here on the Westside.”
Improvements to the 30-acre park include additional pedestrian bridges, a splash pad, picnic areas overlooking the lake, a new playground, two miles of trails, expanded parking, and improved lighting. The additional bridges connect to the island in the middle of the lake, which were improved with a paved trail, a picnic plaza, and a floating fishing pier.
Park-goers are now able to cross underneath Commerce and 24th streets thanks to the added trails, which also provide connections to Our Lady of the Lake University (OLLU) and the existing Apache Creek trail that connects Commerce and General McMullen streets.
“The biggest thing going into the project was two-fold: one was water quality and the other was the community getting engaged with the lake,” River Authority Project Manager Jeff Tyler told the Rivard Report.
The County and the River Authority spearheaded improvements on drainage and water quality by collaborating on designs that restore the lake’s ecosystem and shoreline. Rain gardens, wetlands, lake aeration devices, and biofiltration swales will improve water quality for wildlife and reduce surface runoff and sediment in the lake.
People of all ages took to the park’s trails, rode bikes, fished on the banks of the lake, and ran through water jets on the new splash pad during the celebration Saturday. Free programming provided by the San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department and OLLU included nature walks, Zumba, yoga classes, food trucks, and a daytime fireworks show.
The improvements, which extend from 19th Street to Commerce Street, are part of the Westside Creeks Restoration Project, which focuses on ecosystem restoration and public enhancement of the Alazán, Apache, Martínez, and San Pedro creeks. The Westside Creek hike and bike trail improvements will ultimately connect the Westside creeks to the San Antonio River Mission Reach Project at the confluence of San Pedro Creek and the river.
“This connection provides a wonderful link to these communities along the great waterways of San Antonio,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said. “This park is very significant to this part of the city but it also has that connectivity along the creek that will take us into the downtown area where we are presently putting a great deal of money into restoring San Pedro Creek.”
To view the final park design, click here.
According to Sr. Ann Petrus of the Sisters of the Divine Providence, the park and the banks of Elmendorf Lake have been home to hundreds of sisters and thousands of OLLU students over the past 120 years.
The park is named after late Mayor Henry Elmendorf, who deeded 18 acres of land to the Sisters of Divine Providence in 1896 to build Our Lady of the Lake College, now OLLU.
“The proximity of the park and the university enhances the beauty of each, a marriage made in heaven,” Petrus said. “I wonder if either has ever looked more beautiful than they do today – what a vista.”
On Saturday, Taylor told the crowd that more investments in Elemendorf Lake Park are underway, including the addition of a new swimming pool.
“On Thursday, the City Council and I unanimously approved the 2017 Bond package, that if approved by voters in May, includes a new swimming pool for the park,” Taylor said. “So we need you to go out and vote for that bond.”
Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5), whose district the park is located in, said the pool has not been completed yet because “we wanted it to be spectacular,” and it needed to be accessible to everyone. Plans for the new pool include individual swim lanes for adults and a negative slope so children safely play in more shallow water.
For several longtime residents on the Westside, Elmendorf Lake Park brings back childhood and family memories. Commissioner Paul Elizondo (Pct. 2), who could not attend the event Saturday due to a sprained ankle, told the Rivard Report Thursday that he remembers attending family gatherings at the park and swimming in the community pool as a kid.
“A lot of us that have been around since the 40s and 30s have a great deal of background [connected] to Elmendorf Park because it was a recreation area for the Westside,” Elizondo said. “People used to swim in the lake, and there was a pool that the Hispanics [would] use.”
When Elizondo joined the Bexar County Commissioners Court, the water in the lake was so polluted that people stopped swimming in it altogether, so the lake was dredged.
“Over the years the park grew more and more neglected,” Elizondo said. “The City didn’t do much about it, then the rest of the park fell [apart]. It became a place for undesirables, drug deals … it wasn’t a place that families in the community would feel comfortable using.”
Volunteers from OLLU have been helping clean the park and pull debris from the lake since 2004.
“We use special tools from OLLU’s Physical Plant to reach tires and other bulkier items while we stand at the shoreline,” OLLU Center for Service-Learning & Volunteerism Director Jennifer Bendele told the Rivard Report. “We also help Parks and Rec with general beautification efforts for the park facilities.”
Bendele recalls pulling car bumpers, crates, lumber, trash, shopping carts, clothes, and tires from the lake. In one instance, volunteers removed a plastic ring from around a duck’s neck and saw firsthand the negative impact littering has on natural habitat.
“I’m excited to experience this renovated community space and for OLLU to continue to serve and be a part of our Westside community in this way,” Bendele said.
Efforts to breathe new life into the park go back more than 10 years, Elizondo explained, and community activist and former River Authority board member Roberto Rodriguez was a key player in pushing for restorations.
“Rodriguez and then-Mayor Julián Castro approached me to see how to get the County involved with the City to improve the park,” he said. “It’s been a work of cooperation – that’s what we’re celebrating.”
The improvements will not only restore the park to its former glory but improve it and make it a better place for the neighborhood, Elizondo said, in addition to creating an economic boom for the businesses around it.
“Thank you for being here in el mero corazón del Westside,” Rodriguez told the crowd. “… Mayor Elemendorf is the one who gave the land to the university [OLLU], but he told them, ‘We want to preserve this park.’ So it’s thanks to him that we have this park here today. Let’s enjoy this beautiful park that God has given us.”