The Tree of Life Plaza is being redesigned. The existing Salinas Street Bridge is being removed. A wetlands boardwalk is being added between Martin and Travis Streets. The Amphitheater is being moved from north of West Houston Street near the site of the new Frost Bank Tower to a more fitting place on the east bank next to the Alameda Theater with a creekside performance stage added. A natural grassy bank will be added to the west side of the creek below a new acequia feature, one of several ways the design will become more about water and less about new surface structures. The former Dollar Store building between West Houston and West Commerce Streets will be demolished, allowing for an expanded project development area.
More native landscaping, including aquatic plantings, enhanced creekside and elevated walkways, and a more nuanced use of bold color all signal that the San Pedro Creek Improvement Project design is evolving and remains a work in progress. With San Antonio’s 300th anniversary looming in May 2018, the design phase of the project remains on a tight deadline.
An information-dense presentation Thursday to the San Pedro Creek Subcommittee left audience members agreeing afterwards that the San Antonio River Authority, the project manager, and its many partners, are responding to public critiques of the designs shown at the 40% design completion in April, and the 70% design completion in August.
The site maps and design changes discussed Thursday are the product of a collaborative effort between Muñoz & Co., the lead architectural firm, and Mexico City landscape architect Mario Schjetnan Garduño of Grupo de Diseño Urbano (GDU), who was added to the team in early October. The two teams met for an “intensive, bringing up to speed” session Oct. 14-16, and held a landscape architecture charrette on Oct. 29-30.
“This is a collaboration, one that is about bringing some different ideas into the project,” Muñoz & Co. Principal Steven Land Tillotson told Subcommittee co-chairs Jerry Geyer and Michael Cortez and a bare quorum of other citizen appointees present Thursday. Only six of the 21 subcommittee members and alternates were present at the start of the meeting. “The overriding challenge that GDU has brought to the table has been to be more creative with the water, from the inlet all the way down.”
Tillotson said the designs will undergo further refinement and review at what he called an important second landscape architecture charrette scheduled for Nov. 18-20. He and Schjetnan Garduño will appear before the Subcommittee with new work on Dec. 3 and before the Bexar County Commissioners on Dec. 8. The project timeline calls for the design to be 90% complete by January 2016 and 100% complete by March 2016. That leaves approximately two years for construction of Phase One, or the downtown reach, of the SPC Improvements Project.
“So much of the project is sensitive to the hydrology, the engineering, there are limitations to what we can do,” Tillotson said as he presented new site maps showing the location and descriptions of the many changes in the design. “We do have a lot of new ideas on the table, without starting over from zero.”
Tillotson was joined in making Thursday’s presentation by Jeff Mitchell with HDR Engineering, the project manager. He suggested to Geyer and Cortez that the many design reconsiderations likely will result in a proposed change to the completion deadline when the parties make their next presentation in early December.
“In recognition of all that change, there are some scheduling issues,” Mitchell said.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff told the Rivard Report earlier that he wants to see the project completed in time for the city’s 300th anniversary, but would rather see revitalization of the creek done well with broad community approval.
San Pedro Creek was the site of indigenous life for millennia and then home to the city’s earliest settlement by Spanish colonizers, including the first site of the original Mission San Antonio de Valero. Over the span of San Antonio’s development in the 18th and 19th centuries, it became home to a predominantly Mexican and then Mexican-American population, and by the early 20th century was seen as dividing line between the city’s Mexican-Americans and increasingly dominant Anglos. Debate about some of the design elements has at times resurfaced long simmering feelings about that history.
Bexar County is leading the San Pedro Creek project and providing $125 million of the original estimated $175 million of projected costs. The project’s cost has since risen to $206.8 million, and some of the design changes, Mitchell and Tillotson said Thursday, are driven by cost-cutting measures rather than design critiques.
The City of San Antonio has deeded a total of 19 land parcels along the creek’s right-of-way valued at $4.1 million. City and County officials also are discussing additional funding being included in the City’s 2017 bond which is projected to total $700 million. River Authority officials are meeting with 15 private property owners who own an additional 19 parcels of creekside land in hopes of negotiating deals.
“We would love private property owners to donate as the City has done here. That is one reason why this action by the City was so important because many property owners were saying, ‘Why am I going to donate if the City hasn’t donated theirs?’” SARA General Manager Suzanne Scott said after the City Council vote to deed the land in October. “I think it gives a good signal to the private property owners that the City has now stepped up as that lead donor, and hopefully, that will stimulate private property owners to do the same.”
Thursday’s meeting also included a presentation on story telling and the wayfinding signage that will be found all along the creekway that will focus on the city’s early history and the important role the creek played in the formation and development of San Antonio. San Antonio author, documentarian and UTSA lecturer John Phillip Santos, who has been hired to help tell that story, spoke as Subcommittee members got their first look at a draft of a historical narrative Santos is writing. That narrative, “A Creek Tells Its Story,” also appears on the Rivard Report in tandem with this story.
Santos told Subcommittee members that in his narrative and in the wayfinding signage and storytelling, he and Munoz & Co. seek to tell the 300-year narrative of San Pedro Creek and the mythic indigenous creation story embodied in the Aztec Codex, which expands the story of San Pedro Creek to reflect the initial clash of cultures when Spanish forces first encountered Mesoamerican peoples and began to impose their control in the New World.
“As our city prepares for its 300th anniversary, it’s clear how profoundly San Antonio’s long history testifies to a unique mingling of cultures and heritages in the borderlands of the United States,” Santos wrote. “Our history is a unique testimonio to the way encounters between peoples shape a new kind of humanity. We are older than the Republic, but we also are an emerging capital of America’s undeniably mestizo future. The San Pedro Creek linear park will offer visitors a pathway into deep currents of San Antonio’s history and memory.”
Historian Maria Pfeiffer narrated a presentation of early maps and illustrations of both indigenous and early settler life along the creek.
“We have some images, very few, of the earliest history before European settlers and there was hunting, fishing and I’d like to think, pickup all those pecans,” she said.
The meeting concluded with a presentation of the project’s environmental graphics and color palette, still vibrant and distinctly rooted in Mexico, yet more subdued and restrained in form and presentation. The public conversation about the design, Co-Chair Geyer told Scott, is a process that should be encouraged.
“We want to see more synergy between us, the public, and the County,” Geyer said.
“The County (Commissioners) understands that is important to the process,” Scott said.
This story was originally published on Monday, Nov. 16, 2015.
*Top image: A rendering by Muñoz & Co. of San Pedro Creek in the downtown reach with added plantings and creekside and elevated walkways. Image courtesy of Muñoz & Co.