A model of the new river barge design by METALAB. Photo by Lea Thompson.
A model of the new river barge design by METALAB. Photo by Lea Thompson.

The new river barge design that was selected through a City-sponsored international competition last week was well received by City Council members on Wednesday who received an in-depth look at the craft’s specifications.

If the design receives official approval from City Council on April 28, an aggressive schedule for selecting a manufacturer and operator will be triggered to make sure the barges are tested and ready before the city’s Tricentennial celebrations in 2018, said John Jacks, interim director of the Center City Development and Operations. The City expects to purchase about 44 new barges, expected to cost between $45,000 to $60,000 each, and spend a maximum amount of $4 million.

“(The barge design) reimagines the San Antonio experience, and responds to the needs of tourists and residents,” Jacks said.

The winning design came from Houston-based architecture and product design firm Metalab and was selected by a panel of 11 jurors during the international competition organized by the City and AIA San Antonio. The City’s Historic and Design Review Commission also approved the design on Wednesday afternoon.

“I think everyone is very excited about this,” said Mayor Taylor. “This barge really is important because it helps form initial impressions of our city for many of the people who visit here.” 

The design was selected for its flexibility, durability, aesthetic design, and single-level deck – which will allow individuals in wheelchairs to move directly on to the barge and sit next to other passengers. The seating can also be arranged to host a variety of users and events including yoga, dancing, special meals, parades, commuters, residents, and visitors.

All Metalab construction documents will be finalized this June, a request for proposal (RFP) will be issued for the barge fabricator in July, and the City will work with Metalab to produce a prototype barge for river testing by September. The City will make their final recommendation for a manufacturer to City Council in November, and a new fleet of river barges will be in the water by September 2017.

“As we develop the new RFP, we’ll be looking for the operator to define the different uses, and how those will welcome the community,” said Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1). “We want these barges to be the City’s barges.”

And indeed the City will own the barges.

Rio San Antonio Cruises, the company that owns and runs the current barge fleet, has requested a contract extension that will allow it to operate until September 2017, when the new barges should be in the river. The company has also requested that the City allow it to raise ticke prices to pay for increased payroll, healthcare costs, and credit card charges. The City’s revenue could increase from from $6.5 million in FY 2016 to up to $7 million in FY 2017 and could use the extra money to pay for the entire new fleet in three to four years, Jacks said. City Council will vote on the proposed increase and extension on April 28 when the new designs are also considered.

To view the project timeline and action items, click here.

“Everything on the boat including the railing is modular in nature,” Metalab Principal Joe Meppelink told the Rivard Report. “We can attach railing, seating or removed and replaced. Besides the patterns and forums, we’ve talked about creating (Spurs-themed) railings, in case they win the Championships this year. There could even be local artists who contribute to the designs.”

Some San Antonians were disappointed that a non-local firm won the design competition, but Council members were confident that the new design reflects local flavors and experiences – citing the lengthy competition process and cultural/professional diversity of the jury panel.

“Once the barges are here, people are going to fall in love with these pieces,” Treviño said. “This is, in addition to a barge, public art. It’s about that emotional experience, connecting with our city, loving our city.”


Top Image: A model of the new river barge design by Metalab. Photo by Lea Thompson. 

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Lea Thompson

Lea Thompson, a former reporter at the Rivard Report, is a Texas native who has lived in Houston, Austin and San Antonio. She enjoys exploring new food and culture events.