Pedestrians walk along the Museum Reach across the river from the San Antonio Art Museum.
Pedestrians walk along the Museum Reach where higher than average rains have benefited San Antonio waterways. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Before the picturesque Museum Reach of the River Walk opened in 2009 as a lushly landscaped linear park dotted with art installations, it was a muddy little ditch bordered by tall grass and weeds.

Ten years later, the River Walk extension north of downtown is a destination for locals and tourists alike, and considered the spark for over $2 billion in development, far beyond the projected $1 billion in new construction that was expected when it was first studied in 2007.

“It is a great example of if you invest in public infrastructure, you can catalyze development,” said Lori Houston, assistant city manager and former director of the Center City Development & Operations Department.

The San Antonio River near the San Antonio Museum of Art in 1966.
The San Antonio River near the San Antonio Museum of Art in 1966. Credit: Courtesy / UTSA Special Collections

Starting Friday, the San Antonio River Authority (SARA) plans to celebrate the anniversary and success of the river improvement project with a Museum Reach Decennial Fest 4 All featuring a full lineup of food, music, and other family-fun events.

In preparation for the 10th anniversary, river authority officials have been sizing up the overall economic impact of the Museum Reach project, one that began with a preliminary design in 2002, five years before construction began.

“We’re trying to use this as an opportunity to look at how this project has really transformed a whole area of our downtown, and how this public improvement project has really been a catalytic project for economic development,” said Suzanne Scott, the river authority’s general manager. “Often, people sometimes are hesitant to make an investment in big projects. But it’s important to see how these projects can really transform the economics of an area as well.”

The Museum Reach extends four miles from Hildebrand Avenue at Brackenridge Park south to Lexington Avenue. The 1.5-mile length between Josephine Street and Lexington is called the urban segment, and the remaining two miles that meanders through Brackenridge Park up to Hildebrand is the park segment. The last section of the park segment, near the Witte Museum, opened in April.

Based on data the river authority gathered recently from the City, in the 10 years since the opening of the Museum Reach, the urban segment of the Museum Reach has generated a return nearly $2 billion in investment. Land values between Lexington and Josephine have increased over 270 percent since 2009, and over 3,500 housing units have been developed.

In addition to the growth in housing, another 2.1 million square feet of office space and retail space has been developed, with employers such as Credit Human, Jefferson Bank, and Alamo Colleges planning relocations into the area.

The $71.2 million price tag for the entire Museum Reach project was funded by the City of San Antonio ($51.3 million), Bexar County ($13.1 million), private donations solicited by the San Antonio River Foundation ($6.5 million), and a San Antonio Water System payment of $300,000 for utility relocation.

The river authority oversaw the project – with Zachry Construction as the contractor and CFZ Group as the landscape architect – and supports ongoing operations and maintenance of the area with a budget of $1.4 million and 13 employees.

Since the project was completed, $42 million in additional public funding has been secured through the 2017 bond package for infrastructure improvements along Broadway Street, where explosive development has occurred mostly as a result of the Museum Reach project and the Pearl.

And ever since it opened on Memorial Day weekend in 2009, people have flocked to the river in growing numbers. The river authority installed a counter near the lock and dam in June 2014 to keeps tabs on the number of pedestrians and cyclists using Museum Reach sidewalks. Since then, it has counted over 1 million people on foot and 129,000 cyclists traveling in both directions along the river.

A new San Antonio River Barge passes over the holiday-covered spotlights along Museum Reach.
A San Antonio River barge passes over spotlights along the Museum Reach in November 2017. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Attendance at the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA), opened at the repurposed Lone Star Brewery along the river in 1981, also has increased, said museum Director Katie Luber. Since the opening of the Museum Reach, SAMA has seen attendance gone up by 60 percent, with about half tourists and the other half locals.

The uptick is due in part to the number of new residents, drawn to housing developments along the river. When the museum opened, the U.S. Census showed only 100 people living in the area, Luber said.

“It’s really been extraordinary, the impact, and I don’t think we’ve seen the full impact yet,” she said. “I came here in 2011, and in my time, there was still across the river the Quonset hut with a man with a pet raccoon, which was kind of wonderful and bucolic. But now the number of apartments and living units around the museum, it’s just extraordinary. I cannot even fathom how much has happened, and then there’s, of course, the Pearl.”

But, without the Museum Reach, there may have never been a Pearl. The development that turned an abandoned brewery complex into a world-class culinary destination would not be what it is today without the river improvement project, said Bill Shown, managing director of real estate for Silver Ventures, the Pearl’s developer.

“I’m not sure we would have done the Pearl without that,” he said. “The extension and the incredible job on the [river] turnaround was absolutely critical to our success.”

Today at the Pearl, there are 20 restaurants and bars, a variety of retail, office space, and a 146-room luxury hotel, in addition to 400 residential units – and counting.

A large crowd forms at the Pearl before the Olé San Antonio festival on August 3, 2018.
A crowd gathers at the Pearl before the Olé San Antonio festival in August 2018. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

It’s hard to guess how many jobs have been created by the Pearl and the Museum Reach, Shown said. But when the two office towers are complete at the Pearl, another 900 to 1,000 employees will be working there. Other residential developments and office buildings are going up along the Broadway corridor as well. “It’s one after another, after another,” Shown said. “I can’t say enough about how catalytic the project has been.”

Silver Ventures donated $3 million toward the river improvement project and completed some of the infrastructure work to ensure the project would be finished. Even at that, Shown said, he didn’t expect the Museum Reach to become what it has.

“I’m a San Antonian and have plied my trade downtown on the River Walk with several developments downtown, and I for one, believed that although it would be pretty, it would not generate much foot traffic,” Shown said. “And I have been astounded at the amount of foot traffic on the river, and the exciting thing about it is that it’s mostly locals.”

Most of the housing developments in the area have received incentives through the Center City Housing Incentive Policy (CCHIP), a program revamped in 2017 after it came under fire for incentivizing luxury housing.

“[The incentives were] necessary because land values have increased as a result of the improvements, but also because there was a nonexistent market for housing in the downtown area,” Houston said. “Until the river was extended, no one was paying attention to housing in downtown San Antonio, and that really helped kick off the market for downtown living.”

Saturated with market-rate rentals, the Museum Reach area has also attracted a population with disposable income that has supported more retail options as well as a medical office and, soon, a pharmacy.

“I truly believe it all started with creating the infrastructure that helped catalyze that market-rate rental, which helped with that disposable income, which helped create a neighborhood,” Houston said. “And now we’re seeing affordable housing, and office, and other developments occur in that area.”

On Wednesday, construction began on the first mixed-income housing project in the area. A nonprofit housing organization, Alamo Community Group, is developing the Museum Reach Lofts as a multifamily residential property on North St. Mary’s Street. It will offer 77 units for families earning less than 60 percent of the area median income (AMI) and nine units for those earning less than 30 percent of the AMI. The remaining units in the five-story development will be available at market rates.

The development received $4.2 million in incentives from the City via the Midtown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ), created in 2008 to channel tax revenue back into infrastructure investment in the area that includes the Pearl and Museum Reach, as well as some fee waivers and a state tax credit program. A similar mixed-income project by NRP, at Broadway and Jones Avenue, is also under construction.

“But for the Museum Reach expansion, the TIRZ wouldn’t have funding to make that project possible,” Houston said. “Affordable housing is a complex challenge and it’s only through the layering of incentives, and our partnerships, are we able to make it work.”

Development in the Museum Reach is subject to the guidelines of the River Improvement Overlay (RIO-2), a zoning overlay meant to protect the River Walk and surrounding areas that was established in 2002. For RIO-2, the guidelines are meant to encourage high-density, mixed-use developments as extensions of the downtown core. Scott said that has been helpful to the river authority in protecting the waterway from runoff and other effects of development along the Museum Reach.

As development continues, she said, “We need to look at any kind of threats to water quality, to the habitat that we’re creating there,” she said. “We have to embrace that this amenity is also a living ecosystem that we have to protect.”

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.