The Tribute to Freedom monument is lit up for the first time.
The Tribute to Freedom sculpture is lighted for the first time. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

In 2013, Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) had a vision for his traditionally neglected Southwest San Antonio district: a grand gateway welcoming visitors to the city and providing a backdrop for military graduation ceremonies at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland.

After years of diligent work by a broad partnership among multiple agencies, the expanded version of Saldaña’s vision came to fruition Wednesday evening with the formal dedication of the $54 million Lackland Corridor Gateway Project’s first phase.

The project is an unusual marriage of interests and funding that combines a massive work of public art, subtle natural remediation to relieve drainage issues on the Lackland property, street improvements along the West Military Road corridor, the creation of an extensive network of linear parkways, and other infrastructure improvements. The completed first phase includes a parking-accessible public plaza and picnic area in the shadow of sculptor George Schroeder’s 75-foot-tall Tribute to Freedom monument.

At the December dedication of Schroeder’s artwork, asked whether such a far-reaching collaboration is rare in San Antonio, Saldaña responded, “Yes, it absolutely is rare. And what we learned is there’s a reason why it’s rare, because it takes much longer.”

Sculptor George Schroeder signs posters.
Sculptor George Schroeder signs posters with an image of the sculpture. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Many civic projects are geared toward a council member’s re-election cycle, Saldaña said, and so are generally planned as one- or two-year undertakings. Conceived in 2013 and approved the following year, the gateway is now officially open, just as Saldaña prepares to step down later this year after eight years in his term-limited office.

“I’m a big advocate for term limits, because it gives folks a sense of urgency,” he said. “If I had into perpetuity to serve in this seat, I might say to you, ‘Oh, I’ll put that on my to-do list, and we’ll get it done at some point. Remind me later.’”

Such an ambitious project, with its first $7 million phase completed six years after inception and completion of the full project still years away, takes time and nurturing, he said. “A transformational project that has a regional impact” will take at least five or six years, he said, “and you can’t point to it in your re-election [after two years], but you know you’ll have at least eight years if you’re doing your job right.”

Knowing the project will be handed off to his successor in the upcoming May city election, he said he’s confident the project will be seen through to completion. “We’ve been trying to pick up as much speed [as possible] so it’s so hard to stop a train moving with this much momentum.”

Momentum includes land acquisitions to create a linear park and trail called the Leon Creek Greenway, connecting nearby 46-acre Camargo Park with 150-acre Levi Strauss Park on the northern side of U.S. Highway 90 and to Pearsall Park south of the military base.

“That’s probably a couple years from completion,” said Brandon Ross, Parks and Recreation Department manager for linear creekway parks. In total, the full gateway project could encompass 200-250 acres, he said.

The gateway at the 16-acre corner of Hwy. 90 and West Military Drive features the towering Tribute to Freedom monument, a highly visible symbol serving multiple functions, Saldaña said.

First, it lends immediate visibility to a quiet population of 29,000 members of the military in San Antonio.

“What I love about adding public art to our infrastructure enhancements is that every piece comes from an artist’s inspiration that is touching ground with some San Antonio element,” Saldaña said. “In this case, it’s the military.”

Second, the monument places the Southwest Side in equal importance to other areas of the city with prominent public artworks. And last, it lends visibility to the subtle infrastructure projects that don’t tend to draw much attention, but are necessary.

Before a master plan could be drawn up, Saldaña said, the U.S. Department of Defense had to agree to give a 16-acre portion of its right-of-way to the project. The benefit would be improved drainage for the site, fixing a flooding problem that had persisted for years.

Schroeder’s monumental sculpture helps makes visible what might otherwise be invisible, Saldaña said. But for the monumental collaboration, “this is just a drainage channel that people drive by every single day, and have no sense of whether it … impacts them in any other way other than, ‘Yeah, I think water is flowing better.’ This is beyond that.”

Sandy Jenkins, Parks and Recreation Department manager for park projects, termed the new monument plaza “a social space,” and said “this is a contemplative space that used to be a nasty, ugly drainage ditch. And now that we have this wonderful artwork, it opens it up, and makes it a very reflective, family-oriented [place]. It’s something completely transformative.”

Jenkins pointed to a similar project currently in the works for the Northside’s McAllister Park, which also combines a drainage project with public art and collaboration among multiple interests. “It’s really a new way of thinking about how parks, stormwater, and art can work together,” she said.

During the year it took for the master plan to be developed, engineers, artists, stormwater specialists, landscape designers, and city departments all consulted on various aspects of the project. Once approved, the Transportation & Capital Improvements Department (TCI) envisioned connections to nearby parks and expanded the project in 2016.

Undertaking such complex, multi-year projects is ultimately worthwhile, Saldaña said. “That’s why these bold projects – that take collaboration, require time, and some frustration at the front end – really bear fruit. Because they have much greater impact than something you drive by every single day and don’t notice.”

Though infrastructure in itself does not seem bold, he said, “I think when you live in a city, you want it to be a place that inspires, you want it to be a place that has a little bit of flavor and zest to it. Because that’s the way we [in San Antonio] love everything, from our food to our relationships. Why not our city and its infrastructure?”

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...