Robert Rivard

Some day soon, Confluence Park, a hands-on science and technology learning center, will come to life on an empty three-acre lot where the San Antonio River and San Pedro Creek meet. What was once a fenced-off storage yard for CPS Energy that sat between the river and nearby homes will be transformed into a showcase Southside destination where learning will be fun.

For now, the ambitious undertaking that will create a hands-on, indoor-outdoor laboratory for students and adults to study water, ecology, and the river basin’s natural life forms, still exists only on paper. That’s real progress, however, as the project now has evolved from vague concept to detailed plan awaiting execution.

Great Ideas Require Great Designers

The final design by the Los Angeles-based internationally known Ball-Nogues Studio is, conceptually, an entire park as a work of public art. The Main Pavilion seems to be alive and breathing. It beckons as both edifice and sculpture, with ribboned fences of vegetation and a floating shade roof that suggests a silvery section of riverbed has elevated into the sky as shelter. The pavilion sits amid a fantasia of water features, winding walkways, shade trees and native plantings, all overlooking the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River as it flows under Mitchell Street south of Concepción Park. Undulating concrete forms will be used to create a topography that turns a flat, scrubby overlook into an inviting  labyrinth of changing natural landscapes.

Confluence Park, in the hands of such creators, will do something more: Unlike anything ever seen on the San Antonio River, it will serve as an early demonstration of the many creative possibilities that one day could flow out of the river restoration project.

Confluence Park, designed by Ball-Nogues Studio. Rendering courtesy of San Antonio River Foundation.
Confluence Park, designed by Ball-Nogues Studio. Rendering courtesy of San Antonio River Foundation.

Partners Benjamin Ball and Gaston Nogues marry art, architecture and innovation to delight and teach. Their work is on public display from Beijing to Paris to the desert reaches of Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California. The Ball-Nogues team is working in tandem with Confluence Park project manager Stuart Allen, a San Antonio-based artist and sculptor whose work is probably better known nationally than locally. People can see Stuart’s installations on the Museum Reach of the San Antonio River, or watch his recent PechaKucha demonstration here.

“We see the park as a big, organic, learning machine,” Allen said. “We’ve partnered with Ball and Nogues and their work is simply extraordinary. They’ve taken this project to heart and come up with some very cool ideas and designs. We also have plans to include on-site housing for interns who will come from Texas A&M University-San Antonio and who will live, work and learn there and serve as park stewards.”

Confluence Park map

The design of a solar-powered water collection, distribution and irrigation system is among the most innovative of the teaching tools designed for the park, a kind of 21st century elevated acequia that will artfully demonstrate water conservation and management. Three rainwater catchment reservoirs will send water through above ground pipes to distribution tanks that resemble giant metallic test tubes calibrated to distribute water to the surrounding grounds at different rates, depending on the zone’s ecotype. Four different native Texas ecotypes will be planted: Native Grasslands; Texas Oak Conservatory; Trans Pecos/Chihuahuan Desert and a Texas Like Oak Savannah. There will be no St. Augustine grass or other non-native species, and thus no need for a lawn mower.

Eleven educational play zones will introduce students to an equal number of learning experiences: soil ecology, gardening, hydrology, solar energy, plant biology, sustainable practices, wildlife, river and marine biology, stream bed topography, sustainable dwelling, and composting. It’s education disguised as outdoors play in nature – sure to appeal as much to the inner child in adults as the busloads of children who will find their visits to Confluence Park far more inspiring than science studies in a traditional classroom.

Stuart Allen
Stuart Allen

The next step is to move from great design to breaking ground. That’s actually a $10 million leap, and that’s where Estela Avery comes into the picture. Avery is the quietly confident, very determined executive director of the San Antonio River Foundation, the private, non-profit that supports the publicly funded San Antonio River Authority (SARA), and project manager of the $365 million San Antonio River Improvements Project. The River Foundation, for example, raised the funds and led the efforts to install public art all along the Museum Reach.

Much more than a fundraising enterprise, The River Foundation promotes “educational, cultural and scientific projects and activities that enhance the conservation, stewardship, restoration, preservation and enjoyment of the land and water resources of the San Antonio River basin and its tributaries.” Noble work.

Want to contribute to the creation of Confluence Park? Donations, no matter how modest, are welcomed. Just click here. Naming rights can be had for as little as $2,000 if you’d like to be remembered on the park’s three bike racks, $10,000 to place your name on the park’s entry gate, all the way up to $1.5 million to sponsor the Main Pavilion.

Because Avery, Allen and others on their team want the project to be fully funded before they break ground, Confluence Park probably won’t be built for several years.

“We want every penny in the bank before we break ground, that way we won’t have any worries about completing the project,” Avery said as we toured the property. “It’s going to be an amazing park that shows what is really possible down here along the river. For years, our friends at the River Authority have conducted education programs inside classrooms all over the city. Now there will be a living laboratory where students can come learn in a much more inspiring and natural setting.”

Use your imagination: the River Foundation's Estela Avery gestures over an empty expanse that one day will come back to life as Confluence Park. Photo by Robert Rivard.
Use your imagination: the River Foundation’s Estela Avery gestures over an empty expanse that one day will come back to life as Confluence Park. Photo by Robert Rivard.

Estela Avery is the wife of jewelry designer James Avery and the family has given a $1 million gift to the River Foundation to fund education programs at Confluence Park.

Fundraising could be completed by 2015 and final construction by 2017, in time for the city’s 300th anniversary. It’s the first of what could be many private-public improvements along the Mission Reach’s eight-mile course through some of the Southside’s most underdeveloped and forgotten neighborhoods.

As public improvements continue south of downtown, private property values rise accordingly, along with interest from urban core developers and individuals attracted to the inner city.

Confluence Park will be both a park and an indoor-outdoor learning laboratory. Rendering courtesy of San Antonio River Foundation.
Confluence Park will be both a park and an indoor-outdoor learning laboratory. Rendering courtesy of San Antonio River Foundation.

The River Foundation also is raising funds to build four river portals to each of the Missions, so that people better appreciate the connection of the Missions as they reach points on the Mission Reach closest to each of the Missions: Concepción, San José, San Juan and Espada. The portals should bring more people from the Missions down to the river, and more river traffic up to the Missions.

San Antonio River Authority (SARA) officials, meanwhile, are setting their sights on an early October official celebration of completion of the $250 million Mission Reach Ecosystem Restoration and Recreation Project, a collaboration of Bexar County, the City of San Antonio, The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and SARA.

“Confluence Park is the perfect complement to the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River,” said Bexar Country Judge Nelson Wolff. “It will illustrate water’s vital role while providing us an innovative space to learn and play.”

The grand opening, once scheduled for early August, was delayed for two months after record rainfall in late May caused millions of dollars of damage now being repaired. It could come as early as Saturday, Oct. 5, but that’s the subject of another article we will soon post.

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.