One year ago, the three-acre lot at 310 W. Mitchell St. was just a parking lot and a grassy, weed-infested field. Today, piles of dirt and clusters of equipment surround the frame of an education center, the beginnings of an advanced water catchment system, a mold for the first piece of a sculptural pavilion, and "rescue trees" awaiting final adoption by the soil.
By the end of 2017, these elements will become part of the "giant teaching machine" that is Confluence Park, San Antonio River Foundation Executive Director Robert Amerman said while touring the site with the Rivard Report and project partners.
The learning and nature center, located at the convergence of the San Antonio River and San Pedro Creek on the Mission Reach, represents the largest capital project managed by the River Foundation. It also embodies the foundation's sharpening focus on watershed education and stewardship.
Even at this early stage of construction, a lot of the work is already hidden from view, Amerman said, as 12,600 water catchment cells have already been buried underneath tons of earth. The entire park is one big example of low impact development practices for rain water and irrigation. A 130,000-gallon underground "tank" will provide all the water that the indoor classroom and restrooms need. Most of the electricity will be generated by a solar array on the grassy roof.
"We're going to [have] at least a net-zero [carbon footprint], if not net positive," he said, noting that the panels will likely produce more energy over time than the classroom needs, allowing it to put energy back onto the CPS Energy grid.
The most prominent feature of the park will be the large gathering pavilion that can be seen from the street and river. Too big to be transported, the 27- and 17-foot "petals" of the geometric structure required for new technology to be invented in order for them to be built, Amerman explained. Concrete will be poured into large forms on-site, the first pours taking place this month.
While there will be other artistic elements in the park, including a relief map of the watershed and a bench that incorporates local artist Gary Sweeney's work, the pavilion itself "is essentially the main sculpture," said Confluence Park Project Manager Stuart Allen. Preliminary plans to include larger art pieces were scrapped when he and his team realized that they wanted more subtle art elements to "celebrate the pavilion rather than compete with it."
About 180 trees recently made a 200-mile journey to the park from a ranch near Stephenville in Erath County, said Bobby Eichholz, a partner at local landscape architecture firm Rialto Studio which is working with architects from Lake|Flato, California-based Matsys Design, and others on the project.
Most of the trees, including species of oak and elm, are sitting on the sidelines of the construction site, waiting to be planted. Others have found a home on a small, man-made hill off of Mitchell Street. Standing at the top, you can see the park starting to take shape.
The River Foundation wants to fit a lot of information on three acres, said Confluence Park Director Frates Seeligson. The flat, lifeless lot will soon be transformed into five distinct ecotypes: grassland, live oak savannah, Trans Pecos/Chihuahuan Desert, and the San Antonio River. Three smaller pavilions will allow for multiple class tours to take place at once.
During the weekdays, Seeligson – whom Amerman referred to as the "cruise director" for the park – wants students from all over San Antonio exploring the park, where they can "spend a whole day away from sterile classrooms."
The park should also be a place for non-traditional education and community entertainment opportunities, he said, mentioning conversations with the CHEF program at the Children's Hospital, the Witte Museum, and even salsa dance instructors.
"If it's not being used all the time, we're failing," Seeligson said.
The capital campaign for the $13 million park is still underway to close the final $344,000 gap, Amerman said, and the River Foundation is still actively seeking donors and partners. An additional $463,000 will be needed for operations and maintenance.