Three landscape architecture firms from outside San Antonio will be hired this month by the San Antonio River Authority to review the much-debated design of the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project (SPCIP) by Muñoz & Co.
The panel’s recommendations will delivered to the Bexar County Commissioners Court and the public, according to San Antonio River Authority (SARA) General Manager Suzanne Scott, who is overseeing the hiring of the three firms. The ambitious creek reclamation and flood control project is being funded primarily by Bexar County and managed by SARA. The City of San Antonio is donating substantial right of way along the downtown portion of the creek.
“It makes good sense to have an independent review, I think it’s the right thing to do,” said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolf, who made the final decision to bring in landscape architecture firms. “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.”
Property owners along the downtown portion of the creek have become increasingly vocal in expressing their misgivings about the Muñoz designs, which already has resulted in substantially scaled back renderings that were shown Thursday when the SPCIP Subcommittee held its monthly meeting at SARA headquarters.
New renderings of the so-called Tree of Life Plaza and the Salinas Street Bridge, two major public gathering places along the one-mile Phase One of the project, are very different than those presented this summer to Commissioners, the Subcommittee and the public. Much of the highly colorful design elements have been removed and replaced with more trees and plantings, producing a more quiet design.
Representatives from just about every private and public stakeholder group were present at the meeting, a reflection of the heightened interest in the design revisions. Still, even with the more toned down public spaces, there was strong negative reaction to the presentation made by Muñoz landscape architect Todd Brant, who showed a slide of a “flower park” that displayed loose white, yellow and purple blooms strewn over a green and fuchsia colored sandbed that vaguely resembled an embellished Mexican flag. The word “Inspiration” appeared at the top.
Brant said his research indicated such flower parks might have been in use in the Canary Islands centuries ago and, therefore, made a cultural connection with the near-Westside and downtown Zona Cultural. No evidence was offered to support that assumption, and no one interviewed afterwards recognized San Antonio in the color palette. Other slides that showed native wildflowers seemed much more in keeping with the city’s color palette.
Marilyn Bradley, the Five Points neighborhood representative on the Subcommittee, asked Brant if the plantings would enhance the annual Monarch butterfly migration through the city by providing what scientists call a pollinator corridor. Brant said the plantings would promote Monarch activity, which requires native milkweed, Asclepias spp., the primary host plant. Migrating Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on the leaves of milkweed and after the eggs hatch into caterpillars, the leaves are eaten and fuel growth until the caterpillar metamorphoses into a chrysalis and later hatches as a new Monarch.
Scott later said SARA experts are reviewing Muñoz’s plant palette and will make sure all necessary native species are included and any invasive ones excluded.
“The panel of landscape architects will come in and review the design plans and the appropriateness of the plantings and the interaction of the public with the creek and the public spaces,” Scott said Thursday. “We are still working on the scope of the plan with the County, but we have been given direction to proceed. These will be very respected firms that come in and do the work. They will make recommendations and those will be used by the County. This should give us a better understanding of the changes, if any, that need to be made. The panel will give us a fresh perspective on the design.”
SARA faces an ambitious timeline of completing Phase One of the San Pedro Creek Project by May 1, 2018, when San Antonio’s 300th anniversary celebrations begin. Any delays now will affect the time needed to complete the design phase and then the starting date for construction.
“The sooner the better,” Scott said when asked how quickly the landscape architects could come in and do their work. “We want to have a diversity of professional opinion. We’ve talked to the firms and they know we are going through this process, but I just received the go-ahead and we haven’t finalized negotiations yet.”
Scott said she hopes the panel can complete its review by “late October or early November.”
Local and outside observers have agreed that the inclusion of a national caliber landscape architecture firm should have been part of the county’s plan from the start, a suggestion that Henry Muñoz, the firm’s CEO who is not an architect, is said to have resisted. Now it appears County Commissioners are agreeing with that viewpoint and have directed SARA to assemble the panel of three outside consultants.
The Subcommittee also reviewed some of the flood control, engineering and wayfinding issues associated with Phase I and Phase II of the project, as well as concerns about a lack of connectivity expressed by individuals representing the Christopher Columbus Italian Society, whose restoration of the original Italian settlement downtown is located on property near the start of Phase One. But the design activity update and landscaping dominated the meeting.
The Subcommittee will meet again on Oct. 8 at 8:30 a.m. and will hold a session on Oct. 13 at 6 p.m. to review a website design. All meetings are open to members of the public.