More than 100 people interested in winning $15,000 packed the American Institute of Architects gallery in the Pearl‘s Full Goods building Wednesday evening to get a jump start on the competition. The money is not for prettiest building or most innovative design, it’s for which design team can create the most affordable, environmentally friendly project using low-impact development practices (LID).

Registration for the competition, a collaborative effort between the San Antonio River Authority (SARA) and the San Antonio Land/Water Sustainability Forum, closes on March 5. Winning design teams will be announced in May.

While aesthetics and innovation of design will be factors in the judging process, what takes precedent in this competition is how teams avoid the traditional negative environmental impacts of development by engineering LID systems that allow for the surrounding water and natural habitat systems to thrive.

“We’re excited because we get to work on a real project,” said Caleb Etheredge, landscape architect for TBG Partners, an Austin based landscape architectural firm. “I’m most interested in the Port (San Antonio) project … there’s a real opportunity to create something cool.”

Bruce Miller, President and CEO of Port San Antonio Board, gives a presentation about what  Port SA is looking for in a residential complex.
Bruce Miller, President and CEO of Port San Antonio Board, gives a presentation to potential project design teams about what Port SA is looking for in a residential complex.

Port San Antonio, a former Air Force logistics base turned industrial complex south-west of downtown, is one of three competition properties, calling for a design for a multi-family, mixed use residential complex. The Hemisfair Park property, Plaza De Artes, is looking for an urban park design, and a “green roadway” is needed for Leon Valley’s flood-damaged Evers Road.

Though the properties aren’t required to use the designs presented in this competition, each of the property representatives stressed that LID features will most likely be incorporated in their projects.

“What you do will not only be noticed, but integrated in some fashion into the end result,” said Andres Andujar, CEO of Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation.

The winning projects will also have to show that incorporating LID will reduce overall costs of the project – one of its main selling points.

“Competitions like this have been able to prove time and time again that it’s possible,” said David Batts, chair of the Texas Land/Water Sustainability Forum.

Competitions in Houston, Dallas and Austin have spurred the spread of LID practices, Batts said, much more than seminars and workshops, “because they give us tangible information about how (the logistics) of LID will work.”

The challenge, he said, is getting all parties – developers, designers, engineers and city planners – to take a chance and diverge from the status quo.

The information gathered from this competition and other local projects will inform a working manual for future developers and design teams working with SARA. Currently, planning and city codes don’t take into account LID practices.

Why LID?

For decades, most civil engineers and developers have operated on the general premise that land and water are meant to be dominated – nature tamed to fit strict right angles, optimized for maximum efficiency.

Natural disasters such as flooding, drought, and earthquakes, have taught engineers that a different approach is needed to take nature into account. Water management has become one of the most important factors in Texas land development. Low impact development (LID), a more holistic approach to land development, has become the centerpiece of sustainability efforts at SARA.

These efforts, though still in their beginning stages in San Antonio, recently earned respect from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) representatives yesterday while touring local examples of LID practices. Only two stops were on the tour, something that SARA hopes will change by the next time the EPA stops by for a visit.

“I can’t tell you how impressed I am,” said Ellen Gilinsky, EPA’s senior policy advisor for water.

William Honker and Ellen Gilisky
William Honker, director of EPA Water Quality Protection Division and Ellen Gilinsky, EPA’s senior policy advisor for water. Photos by Iris Dimmick.

She and her colleague Willam Honker, director of EPA,’s Water Quality Protection Division, were in San Antonio last week to speak at the annual National Association of Conservation District conference. They both carefully stepped through grasses and dirt to inspect the restored East Salatrillo Creek that runs through Judson High School. The creek was chosen as an example of LID to highlight its use of natural materials to repair flood and erosion damage.

Representatives from the EPA tour the restored creek at Judson High School.
Robert Jenkins, SARA engineer (left), explains that the creek at Judson High School now has more flood capacity thanks to LID practices to William Honker, director of EPA Water Quality Protection Division and Ellen Gilinsky, EPA’s senior policy advisor for water.

“We didn’t want to see another concrete ditch,” said Robert Jenkins, SARA engineer and the creek restoration project manager.

By utilizing pervious soil and natural vegetation and barriers, this creek can now better accommodate floods and local wildlife – besides, “It just looks better,” Jenkins said.

Natural ways to protect water quality and natural channel designs are always preferred, Gilinsky said. “Three years later, you can’t even tell (the creek) was engineered.”

After a heavy rain, contaminants from streets and sidewalks are washed into the San Antonio River. Photo courtesy of SARA.
After a heavy rain, contaminants from streets and sidewalks are washed into the San Antonio River. Photo courtesy of SARA.

All of this is to mitigate the deleterious effects of urban stormwater runoff – nonpoint source pollution – that is “the most serious threat to water quality in San Antonio,” said Steve Graham, assistant general manager of SARA.

Water that flows into street gutters and streams doesn’t go through treatment plants like the water that flows through residential or commercial systems, he explained. That means that whatever is on the ground – trash, chemicals, biowaste – gets carried straight into the San Antonio River. This water also makes its way into the Edward’s Aquifer.

“As engineers, we were taught to just get water off the property and into a pipe as fast as you can,” Graham said. “Now we need to look at water as a resource … use it where it falls whenever possible.”

LID features also “polish,” or clean, urban runoff by using the natural environment (usually vegetation, soil and/or rocks) to filter out pollution. LID does not replace major flood management practices but it can ease the pressure on those systems and reduce the impact of the more frequent, smaller rain events that San Antonio experiences.

The “Triple Bottom Line”

But this idea isn’t just for environmentalists – “It’s good business,” Graham said, because it satisfies the “triple bottom line.”


By taking into consideration the impacts to society, or “quality of life,” and the “environmental” bottom lines, the “economic” bottom line can be satisfied – if planned properly, Graham said.

The triple bottom line is also often characterized with the phrase, “people, planet and profit.

Graham  used a typical subdivision, as an example of this model:

A traditional subdivision. Photo courtesy of SARA.
A traditional subdivision. Photo courtesy of SARA.

In a traditional development, as many large plots as possible are jammed into a given space, leaving little or no room for green spaces or natural habitat corridors. However, if consideration for quality of life (i.e. open spaces and trails for the community) and the environment (i.e. water and wildlife management) were employed, the developer could feasibly sell the plots for more money – possibly breaking even or better, according to Graham.

A subdivision designed with LID practices in mind. Image courtesy of SARA.
A subdivision designed with LID practices in mind. Image courtesy of SARA.

“If you clearly explain to businesses these principles, you won’t have to mandate (LID),” Graham said, “People will do it voluntarily.”

The structural features and concepts involved in LID are relatively simple, but require a different design approach which can be intimidating for developers. “An interdisciplinary design team; engineers, ecologists, architects, geologists … are needed for the process,” Graham said.

Some LID tools and implementations are noticeable, some are subtle and could be easily overlooked by the untrained eye. Both were demonstrated at the tour’s second stop at the Madison High School Agriscience Magnet Program’s campus.

"Curb cuts" at Madison High School's Agriscience Magnet Program.
“Curb cuts” at Madison High School’s Agriscience Magnet Program.

Simple “curb cuts,” breaks in curbs that allow water to flow into lowered planters/medians for flowers and trees, permeable surfaces and simply turning a gutter drain 90 degrees to point towards a planter instead of street drainage systems are but a few examples of structural LID practices.

More visible LID practices at the school include the building’s living green rooftop – complete with solar panels – that demonstrates the use of native plants and underground irrigation that uses rainwater collected in a large cistern.

“Often times (sustainable features) are an afterthought for developers,” Graham said.

LID needs to be considered at the beginning of the planning process – not the end – in order to fully realize the return on investment, said SARA’s Sustainable Watersheds Program Leader Karen Bishop. A project’s site needs a unique “treatment train,” that uses many different tactics to polish and distribute water properly.

“That train has to turn piece by piece,” Bishop said. “We’re starting to feel some momentum.”

Bishop has hosted seminars and encouraged webinars for the design and development community, but she has come to same conclusion as Batts: an LID competition will bring more data and people to the party.

LID practices like curb cuts and using porous pavement are small steps towards natural resource and environmental sustainability, but combined with whole-building, community-wide or statewide plans to manage water, they add up.

“Quality of life is effected by land development,” said Darryl Byrd, SA2020 CEO who spoke at the competition kick-off last night. If San Antonio wants to continue to be “sixth in the nation that attracts college educated talent,” Byrd challenged the prospective competitors, “Create something extraordinary.”

It’s not too late to enter the competition or join a design team, contact Karen Bishop for more information at 210-302-3642 or at 210-227-1373.

Iris Dimmick is managing editor of the Rivard Report. Follow her on Twitter @viviris or contact her at

Related Stories on the Rivard Report:

Green and More: Architecture/Design for Low-Income, Sustainable Housing February 2013

Water Security: Will Texas Leadership Finally Act? February 2012

The San Antonio River: Respected Around the World December 2012

Welcome Water-Savvy Ways in Lucky ’13 December 2012

SAWS to Take Water Conservation Outside: Just Say “NO” to Automatic Water Sprinklers September 2012

Keeping our Water Healthy: New Easements to Protect Edwards Aquifer September 2012

‘Old Man Water’: A Longtime Observer Surveys the San Antonio Landscape October 2012

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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