A large crowd listens to the speeches at the opening celebration of Confluence Park.
A crowd listens to speeches at the opening celebration of Confluence Park in March 2018. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

In its first year, Confluence Park exceeded Director Frates Seeligson’s wildest expectations. Not only did the park draw thousands of visitors and hundreds of students to learn about the San Antonio River’s importance to the city, but community members also have embraced the facility as an all-purpose venue.

“It’s not something we anticipated, but organizations use the facility just for their own meetings,” Seeligson said. “We offer it for free for other nonprofits. As a venue to host their events, it’s been really well-received.”

Since opening to the public a year ago, the park located at the junction of the San Antonio River and San Pedro Creek has seen more than 15,000 people participate in over 240 events.

Many were educational, designed to provide students with in-person lessons on the environment and the river’s role in the local ecosystem. San Antonio River Authority General Manager Suzanne Scott said that students are able to better connect their school lessons once they see, touch, and smell natural resources at the park. More than 50 schools in 10 school districts have brought students to the park on field trips. Many of the 3,200 students – and their teachers – who attended the park’s education programs told park staff that those trips are among their favorites, Scott said.

“Not only can they see the river, they can also get a little more intimate with plants and understanding what they do, what their function is, how it’s important in an ecosystem to have various types of plants, and how the vegetation survives on the different ecotypes,” she said.

The landscape of Confluence Park add to its “living laboratory” concept. Rialto Studio partners and landscape architects Jim Gray and Bobby Eichholz designed ecotype “zones” around the park to showcase different native plants from around Texas. Even the choice to not mow the grass adds to the educational experience, Eichholz explained.

A young boy sits next to the bridge at Confluence Park which crosses the so-called embayment, where underground rainwater harvesting structures are buried.
A boy sits next to the bridge at Confluence Park, which crosses the so-called embayment, where underground rainwater harvesting structures are buried. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“This is what it looks like if grown wild,” Eichholz said. “It’s nature. It’s real. It’s not a contrived exhibit that’s manicured and whatnot.”

Scott hopes to continue bolstering the educational programming of Confluence Park. Local real estate investment firm Hixon Properties awarded a $100,000 grant to the San Antonio River Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the river authority responsible for fundraising, to support its educational mission. And the River Authority has been gathering feedback from teachers about how visits to the park impact students’ performance and will continue to do so, Scott said.

“I think over time we’ll have better statistics to say, ‘How did they connect that as it relates to test performances? How did they recall the water cycle because they experienced it?’” she said. “Anecdotal data [shows] that teachers are saying it helps, and based on demand, we continue to see teachers that want to bring their students down.”

Field trip slots are booked up for the rest of spring, Seeligson said. Nearly 200 programs have been scheduled for this year, including dance performances, reading series, and movie nights.

Confluence Park, which was built on the site of a former construction storage yard, also has been nationally recognized for its design. The park recently won a top award from the American Institute of Architects, putting it in the likes of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and the rotunda restoration at the University of Virginia, originally designed by Thomas Jefferson.

Lake Flato designers conceptualized the multipurpose educational center of the park, as well as the the centerpiece pavilion, with Andrew Kudless of the Matsys design studio in Oakland, California. The pavilion was formed from Kudless’ artistic vision and built by local contractors who meticulously poured and lifted the large concrete pieces into place, Lake Flato associate designer Tenna Florian said. And the acoustic success of the pavilion happened as “a happy accident,” she added.

A man sweeps the inside of the Estela Avery Education Center before the opening of Confluence Park.
A man sweeps the inside of the Estela Avery Education Center before the opening of Confluence Park. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“People have talked to me about doing different events there, and they loved the sound,” she said. “With one speaker in the pavilion the sound bounces around, and [that was] without having an acoustic designer on board. And there are places in the pavilion where you can stand and … you hear the sound of the river even though you’re way up above it and pretty far from it.”

Though the park has been open for a year, Lake Flato has not completed its role with it yet, Florian said. Designers will continue to monitor the multipurpose building’s energy use to ensure that air conditioning and heating are used appropriately, she said.

“The goal of the project is for it to operate at net-zero energy, meaning it produces more energy from the solar panels on the building that the park uses as a whole,” she said.

The net-zero energy goal falls in line with the river authority’s goal to teach the community about sustainable practices. Confluence Park features a water-catchment system throughout the park and most prominently in the park’s centerpiece open-air pavilion. The pavilion’s concrete “petals” direct rainwater into the soil to irrigate the park’s landscape. Native plants and soil filter stormwater before it enters the river.

Scott said she hopes the park sparks curiosity about sustainability that visitors can take home with them.

“It starts the conversation of, ‘How can i be a better steward of my own property?’ Everything [at Confluence Park] was planned for a purpose,” she said. “Although it’s beautiful, it all ties together and is functional in the landscape.”

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.