"El Merodeo" stretch of San Pedro Creek Improvements Project. Rendering courtesy of Muñoz & Company.
"El Merodeo" stretch of San Pedro Creek Improvements Project. Rendering courtesy of Muñoz & Company.

The San Pedro Creek Improvements Project advanced one more step forward on its multi-year timeline Friday morning as the San Pedro Creek Subcommittee reviewed the design team’s 70% design plan views. Though not on the official agenda, almost an hour was spent reviewing design criticisms outlined in an article published on Thursday by the Rivard Report, “The San Pedro Creek Project: Getting it Right.”

Some owners of property along the creek, local and national architects/designers, and even a couple subcommittee members are concerned about the design process behind preliminary project renderings that some have called “overdone,” “theme park-like” and have an element of “inappropriate grandiosity.”

There are no updated visuals for this stage of the design yet, as the 70% design stage is more about the “guts” of infrastructure – the flood control elements that the public won’t see, but will benefit from. However, the design team said a few last-minute renderings would be ready for its presentation to the Bexar County Commissioners Court work session on Tuesday at 1:30 p.m.

The design team has also received positive feedback on the preliminary renderings, said Suzanne Scott, general manager of the San Antonio River Authority (SARA) which is overseeing the project’s development.

The main aesthetic – bold colors and vibrant patterns – will remain, Muñoz Principal Architect Steve Tillotson said. Another subcommittee will be curating artistic elements/installations.

“The design direction is definitely pursuing an aesthetic that is more colorful, more patterned, more exuberant,” Tillotson said. “It’s not like we’re showing something like that (original, vibrant renderings) and then going back to a neutral (theme).”

Preliminary design rendering for a "Tree of Life" element of the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project.
Preliminary design rendering for a “Tree of Life” element of the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project.

“This has to be not just a place to walk along to get to other places,” he added. “It has to be a destination in of itself. Nobody has made an effort to do anything positive along the creek. We’re the first ones to do it.”

The design team explained that the preliminary renderings created several months ago – some as far back as 2013 – by the project’s lead architectural firm Muñoz & Co. were meant as guiding placeholders for landscaping, main features, and art elements along the creek. Bexar County approved the 40% package and will have an expectation that the “exuberance” will be maintained, Scott said.

“The romance of it, the Latino urbanism concept that I think was brought forward in this document in some of the designs … that’s what they (Bexar County Commissioners) felt like they were buying for the community,” Scott said. So that’s not going away.

Pat DiGiovanni of the Downtown Alliance/Centro Partnership was surprised at the content of the letter from James Lifshutz. “From Centro’s standpoint, we want more communication on this.” Photo by Don Mathis.
Centro San Antonio President and CEO Pat DiGiovanni reviews documents before the meeting. Photo by Don Mathis.

Scott and Tillotson fielded questions, mainly from Centro San Antonio President and CEO Pat DiGiovanni, about these concerns – specifically those of downtown developer and property owner James Lifshutz, who sent a letter to SARA, addressed to Scott, outlining a suggestion to slow down the process and “aspire for better.”

Click here to download his letter.

“This content was troubling to me when I read it,” DiGiovanni said of Thursday’s article. “Why wasn’t this full committee made aware of a letter that was sent in June? … What is the purpose of this committee if we can’t also be made aware of concerns.”

Scott explained that the letter was taken into consideration along with other public input that is informing the design team as it moves forward. The subcommittee has been given an overview of public input and survey results, but this letter was not singled out in those reviews.

“We don’t have a design response (to Lifshutz’s concerns) yet,” Scott said, but they’re being worked on as many feature areas are working with other downtown developments like the new Frost office tower and are under review because of budgetary restraints.

“There could be a whole redesign of that entire block,” Scott said, referring to the section adjacent to the future tower site.

After the meeting, Scott also addressed comments made by Robert Hammond, the co-founder of Friends of the High Line, the catalyst for development of New York City’s celebrated High Line Park that criticized the project.

‘”The model for San Pedro Creek should be the Mission Reach, which means restoration of the natural environment, not heavy architectural intervention,” Hammond said during a previous interview. “The bones are there, but it needs a much lighter touch. It really needs more landscape and less architecture.”

The High Line attracts millions of visitors and locals a year and has generated billions of dollars in economic development along its 1.45-mile length. Hammond was born and raised in San Antonio, graduated high school in Alamo Heights, and moved to New York after college.

“(Hammond is) making a judgement about this project but he has really not seen the evolution – has not been part of the conversations of where we’ve changed,” Scott said.  “I think to some people that kind of hit them (hard). If he would catch up as to where we are … the process has moved forward since (he saw it),”

Tillotson and Scott said they didn’t think he saw the full scope of the project.

“He’s a respected individual who has had success with his project,” Scott added. “But I think it’s important before you make those kinds of comments that you completely understand the project in total.”

Representatives of HDR Engineering (Jeff Mitchell) and San Antonio River Authority (Suzanne Scott) address questions from the audience. Photo by Don Mathis.
Jeff Mitchell of HDR Engineering and San Antonio River Authority General Manager Suzanne Scott address questions from the audience during a previous meeting. Photo by Don Mathis.

Scott and the design team said they hoped Hammond would have time to do so before his speaking engagement during the Tech Bloc’s Summer Rally. The technology industry advocacy group has invited him to come speak on several public projects including San Pedro Creek, Hemisfair, the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River, and more. Click here for details about the Aug. 11 event at the Pearl Stable.

The $175 million flood control project that runs through some of downtown San Antonio’s most historic and culturally rich places – as well as some of its newer projects – is expected to have a multi-million dollar impact on surrounding areas. Residential and commercial projects are already sprouting up in its wake.

The renderings depicted far less than a fifth of the total length of the project, subcommitte co-chair Jerry Geyer pointed out, and the actual flood-control infrastructure – the whole purpose behind the project – is essentially in visible.

“These specific features are beginning to eclipse the overall design,” Geyer said, adding that the subcommittee will focus on landscaping during its September meeting.

Bexar County has dedicated $125 million to the $175 million-project. The City of San Antonio contributing several million dollars in downtown creekside property.

“So there’s already a funding gap,” said Jeff Mitchell of HDR Engineering, the primary consultant for the project. The design team has shifted its focus on Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the project, the latter of which contains the bulk of flood-control engineering work.

“We’re trying to bite off what we can chew right now,” Mitchell said. Construction costs had increased  from $115 million to $171 million (at the 40% design) to $179 million (at 70% design). The budget they have on hand today is $100 million for construction.

“Rather than to try and cheapen the whole project to get it down to $100 or $115 million, we will construct it in phases and let that build on itself and attract interest and investments and then build the whole thing according to the final vision,” he said.

Phase 2, 3, and 4 will not have as many amenities as the first phase, but will be added in later as more funds become available.

*Featured/top image: “El Merodeo” stretch of San Pedro Creek Improvements Project. Preliminary rendering courtesy of Muñoz & Company. 

Related Stories:

The San Pedro Creek Project: Getting it Right

Survey: Public Supports San Pedro Creek Improvements

Art Curation Taking Shape for San Pedro Creek

#SATXnext Explores San Pedro Creek

San Pedro Creek: A River Walk for Locals

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org