“We’re going to Vegas,” said one cocky member of Team #11834 from the stage of the Pearl Stable Wednesday night.
The audience cheered and laughed as one of three winning teams accepted its $15,000 check from San Antonio River Authority General Manager Suzanne Scott and David Batts, the Houston-based chair of the Texas Land/Water Sustainability Forum, co-hosts of the first-ever San Antonio Low Impact Development Design Competition.
Wednesday evening was the finals event, a chance for a sold-out audience to experience what the best and brightest in the local design and engineering community want to do in bringing LID practices to San Antonio’s urban core. In some ways, it was a chance to see the city not only as it is now compared to what it could become in the years ahead. The difference is breathtaking.
Three spaces were the center of competition: Hemisfair Park, Port San Antonio, and Evers Road in Leon Valley. The competing teams had been reduced from 12 at the start to eight finalists in the three categories. Each category winner would earn bragging rights and a $15,000 check, and, above all, the chance that their design concepts just might be adopted.
Each team was invited to assemble up to four members on stage for a PechaKucha-like slide and verbal presentation.
At one point in the evening, during a presentation outlining a low impact development (LID) design for Hemisfair Park, one team member humorously provided the judges with banking information to electronically deposit the team’s anticipated winnings. The speaker even described how the team would rent a hybrid gas and electric Prius limousine to reward the team.
Jokes and some pretty good on-stage antics aside, teams members that have worked for four months on the LID challenge weren’t doing it for the money. The check likely doesn’t come close to covering the time and resources spent by the teams that were assembled from more than 25 architecture, engineering and development firms, most of them local.
The competition was both an experiment and learning opportunity for the firms and environmental stakeholders who set out to demonstrate to public officials and developers alike that sustainable, water-wise projects are not only possible, they’re also profitable. The evening’s message: You can make good money doing good.
Green Roadway Project: Leon Valley (Evers Road)
Team #31813: GeoSolutions, MIG, URS Corporation
Urban Redevelopment Project: Hemisfair Park (Plaza de Artes)
Team #11834: Bain Medina Bain, Fisher Heck Architects, MLA
Multi-Family Mixed-Use Redevelopment Port San Antonio (Billy Mitchell Village)
Team #21824: Atkins, Ford, Powell, and Carson, Rialto Studio, University of Texas – Austin
The money was really more of an after-thought … albeit a Vegas after-thought.
Team #11834 – made up of architects, civil engineers, and landscape architects, from Bain Medina Bain, Fisher Heck Architects and MLA – proposed “the ultimate recycling project” for Hemisfair Park’s existing historic structures, and outlined how to fully utilize the space while keeping on-site treatment of water and other environmental concerns in mind.
Each of the eight finalist teams presenting last night and competing for $15,000 grand prize in each of the three project categories, was assigned a team number to keep out bias in the first round of “expert” judging conducted in June. Judges at that time focused on the technical aspects of design. The competition then was narrowed down from 12 to eight teams, with scores from these expert judges making up 80% of team totals.
The Magik Theatre had a “green roof.” A learning center occupied one of Hemisfair’s historic homes, art elements using reclaimed materials dotted walkways and open spaces, and a “feed forest,” complete with a composting area, provided food, drink and recreation for mixed-use inhabitants. An elevated walkway amid the trees created a digitally rendered path through the urban park in its presentation.
Water catchment cisterns? Of course. Permeable surfaces to allow water to naturally filter out pollution? Check. Native landscaping? Naturally.
These features were common throughout all of the designs – for Hemisfair, Port San Antonio, and Evers Road in Leon Valley. While other environmental considerations were certainly considered, the teams and the competition was centered around the use of LID features that address the challenge of storm water runoff that carries pollutants (trash, bacteria, etc.) into the region’s creeks and San Antonio River. Storm water runoff, driven by development, is the leading cause of poor water quality in the San Antonio River.
“Imagine the water cycle before it was developed,” Steve Graham, San Antonio River Authority (SARA) assistant general manager, said of the design goals during his opening remarks. “(And) develop a ‘treatment train’ unique to the site.”
Every development project is different: soil, climate, use, location will vary, so features that work wonders in one place won’t be viable in others, he said. “It’s about using design process methodology to find the best solution.”
Batts, chair of the Texas Land/Water Sustainability Forum, started the first LID design competition in Houston in 2007 after two years of failed efforts to get people’s attention. LID isn’t a new concept – Portland, Seattle, and other progressive municipalities have been adapting these best management practices (BMP) for at least a decade. But LID seminars didn’t catch on in Houston, so Batts and his team developed a competition to showcase its water-saving wisdom.
“Texans are stubborn,” Batts said. “We won’t believe it until we see it working here … if it can work in Houston, Texas, it can work anywhere.”
Troy Dorman, stormwater resource engineer for the local design firm Tetra Tech, teamed up with other locals as well as an architect in Seattle for his team’s proposal.
“(Tetra Tech) uses (LID) in other parts of the country all the time … based on research we have to go this route as a country,” Dorman said before the presentations and award ceremony. “You can certainly (practice environmental sustainability) here and it doesn’t mean it’s going to kill the project.”
Though his team didn’t win, the biggest piece of its project design for Port San Antonio’s multi-family, mixed-use development was its “economics and marketability,” he said.
Leon Valley Mayor Chris Riley, City Councilman Ricardo Ruiz and City Manager Manuel Longoria Jr. were on hand to get a first-hand look at how to improve a 1.2-mile stretch of heavily trafficked, flood-prone Evers Road that runs through their northwest suburban municipality.
“Evers Road is a high priority project for us, we’d like it to become a main street,” Ruiz said. “We saw a great opportunity in this competition … as a parent and a cyclist, we need to make (Evers Road) safe.”
Along with features like permeable pavement and increased vegetation to capture and slow down stormwater, the design teams also made Evers Road a “complete street” that accommodated safe pedestrian and bicycle traffic and buffer islands of native plantings that kept vehicles away from people on foot and on bikes. All of the competing designs reduced the street from four to two lanes. Speed limits were lowered, and a greater sense of neighborhood was encouraged.
City Manager Longoria was impressed. “We want to create an identity for the community and this road can amplify that … we’ll have to convince (local residents) that these kinds of plans will keep traffic moving while benefiting its neighbors,” he said. “We’re going to look into these features and how they fit into our budget in the future.”
Adam Reed with local firm Ford, Powell, and Carson, representing the winning team of the Port San Antonio project, said that what it really came down to was the technical aspects of the proposals as judged by the first round of expert judges.
“We know how well our design responds to the existing environment and drainage patterns,” he said of his team’s work. “For this presentation we got rid of our technological stuff and made a sexier Powerpoint … in the end, we just made a community that’s fun to live and work in.”
This was Reed’s first residential, mixed-use design project, so this was a learning experience for him as he worked with team members from other fields to figure out the best design. “We now have more exposure and experience to demonstrate that this (LID design) will work in San Antonio … pretty soon, you’ll see this kind of development pop up everywhere.”
To help designers and developers understand LID best practices for San Antonio and surrounding counties, Aarin Teague and her colleagues at SARA have created a technical guidance manual – informed by similar guides from other cities and more than 1,700 comments and edits from local industry representatives. The first two-day workshop hosted by SARA will start on Tuesday, August 6 at 8 a.m. and will provide an overview of LID objectives, design principles, and management strategies Teague said.
“The workshop and guide are tailored to (account for) local climate, soil, culture, native plants and species … as well as the engineering nuts and bolts,” she said. The guide also explains which complicated local ordinances and code to be aware of while in the design stage.