Mark your calendars: Saturday, Oct. 5. All day party down by the river. It’s the official grand opening of the Mission Reach, eight miles of urban nature brought back to life in San Antonio.
It’s going to be a much cooler (and probably bigger) party now, coming in early October rather than in the dog days of August. The epic rains of May 25 ravaged the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River, causing millions in damage to the recently-restored banks, pools and riffles, and forcing a delay in the official opening ceremony.
Some stretches of the Mission Reach remain closed, but repairs are on schedule. The entire eight-mile linear park will reopen in time to celebrate completion of the Mission Reach Ecosystem Restoration and Recreation Project, which begins at Lone Star Boulevard South and extends down to Loop 410 South.
The official ceremonies will run from 10 a.m.-1 p.m., at the San Juan diversion point on the river near Padre Park, not far from Mission County Park where the festivities will end at 9 p.m.
Oct. 5 will be a festive day of live music, food trucks, games for kids, a canoe and kayak flotilla, and a variety of other activities unfolding along five miles of the Mission Reach at different gathering points easily accessible by vehicle, bicycle, on foot, and in some cases, kayak or canoe.
While there will be activities all along the river from VFW Boulevard to Mission Espada, most of the entertainment will run from 12-4 p.m. at the San Juan diversion point, the Acequia Park Pavilion and around the new Mission San Juan Portal.
The paddling flotilla will end near the Mission Espada Portal, where there will be educational offerings scheduled during the day as well. The four new Mission Portals are funded by Bexar County, with additional private funds for public art and other enhancements provided by San Antonio River Foundation.
Elected officials, including Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, a driving force behind the project since its inception, will be on hand to speak. So will the venerable 90-year-old former Mayor Lila Cockrell. She and Irby Hightower, a principle with Alamo Architects, serve as co-chairs of the River Oversight Committee, the most under-appreciated citizen group in the city. The committee has been meeting diligently since 1998 – 15 years — to help multiple levels of government work with neighborhoods and other stakeholders on each phase of the river’s $358 million redevelopment.
It’s arguably the most complex and collaborative project undertaken in the city’s contemporary history, at least since HemisFair ’68. Already officials with the San Antonio River Authority (SARA), which serves as project manager for the city, county and federal partners, have hosted tours for interested representatives from Asian, European and Latin American countries.
Many locals, I’ve come to realize, remain unfamiliar with the city’s namesake river and its many natural, cultural and recreational amenities. The coming fiesta on Oct. 5 has provided the Rivard Report with the perfect opportunity to share more information about the project. A decade ago, it was an unfunded dream that seemed to be beyond the city’s grasp. Today it’s living reality.
For readers new to San Antonio, or even longtime residents unfamiliar with the once-neglected San Antonio River, there is far more to it than the lively downtown River Walk (two words, not one) that is the focus of the city’s visitor and convention industry. That multi-billion dollar economic generator, along with the city’s military bases, served as the foundation of 20th century economy and growth here. It also caused civic and business leaders for decades to ignore the value of keeping the center city a place for locals to live and recreate, too. It’s as if the families and businesses displaced by the construction of HemisFair ’68 symbolized the end of downtown belonging to locals.
San Antonio is now coming full circle as locals move back in, reclaiming their place in the city’s heart. Nothing is driving San Antonio’s transformation to a more balanced urban core more than the rebirth of the river and its surrounding environs.
The San Antonio River is divided into four major sections. Officials gathered in May 2009 to celebrate the $72 million completion of the Museum Reach-Urban Segment, a 1.3-mile stretch that goes from Josephine Street down to Lexington Avenue, and takes in Pearl, a redeveloped brewery that is now a fast-growing, mixed-use community and host to a Culinary Institute of America campus and a growing number of destination restaurants.
Just about everything good that is happening along Broadway emanates from “Pearl,” or “the Pearl” or “the Pearl Brewery,” whatever you choose to call it.
The Museum Reach also includes VFW Post 76, the oldest post in Texas and a popular outdoor watering hole on the riverbanks, and the unique Brooklyn Avenue locks and dam, which is fun to experience on one of the river barges that ply the waters from downtown to the Pearl and back. South of the Pearl, you’ll find the original Lone Star Brewery, now the San Antonio Museum of Art.
If you have friends in town, this is one of the most pleasant walks or idles in our city. There are B-cycle stations at each end. It’s an easy 2.5-mile round trip on foot, pedaling or by barge. The banks are lushly landscaped with native flora and a mature tree canopy along the way.
(Thinking about getting married? Weddings on the Museum Reach are now possible. Contact SARA at 210-227-1373 for more information.)
Now, only the $13 million Museum Reach-Park Segment of the San Antonio River, extending 2.25 miles from Brackenridge Park north to Hildebrand Avenue, awaits restoration and improvement. Once finished in 2014, the Museum Reach in total will be nearly four miles long.
A short walk north onto the campus of the University of Incarnate Word will bring you to the river’s headwaters, or San Antonio Springs, a spot known to generations of locals as the Blue Hole. The entire campus and adjacent Olmos Basin is a significant archeological site with ample evidence of indigenous occupation dating back to the Clovis era.
The Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, who founded the school in the mid-19th century, created the Headwaters Coalition to preserve a 53-acre sanctuary that includes the Olmos Creek and extends from the west edge of the campus to the roadway along the Olmos Dam. The Olmos Creek and spring waters converge on campus to form the San Antonio River.
In an ideal world, UIW officials would work with SARA and City of San Antonio officials to find a way to connect Brackenridge Park to the lush, 154-acre campus and allow more people to experience the river at its headwaters. That’s probably not going to happen. The City of San Antonio thwarted plans by UIW to acquire portions of Brackenridge Park for student parking, and since then, university officials have cited security concerns in rejecting proposals to connect the campus to what will be a 15-mile long linear park.
College students are among the losers in such a standoff. Hildebrand Avenue, now under reconstruction as part of a major flood control project, is the most pedestrian and bike-unfriendly roadway crossing Broadway, even though its is bound by the city’s largest urban park and the college campus. UIW, meanwhile, is choked with vehicle traffic.
The Park Segment will connect the river to the growing cultural district there and along Broadway. The ever-expanding Witte Museum is bordered by the river, the park and Broadway, and will soon be a short walk away from the new Children’s Museum. Inside the park itself is the San Antonio Zoo, which is coming under long-overdue pressure to stop dumping animal fecal matter and waste directly into the river, rendering it unsuitable for swimming farther downstream. There also are plans to construct a wetlands and an Acequia Madre demonstration site near the Witte.
The Downtown Reach of the river was refurbished a decade ago. This is the heavily commercialized stretch of the river that includes the Paseo del Rio or River Walk, access to the Alamo Plaza and Alamo, the former Mission San Antonio de Valero, and the hotel and restaurant district.
Are you a tree lover? Read our stories about the storied Ben Milam Bald Cypress Tree on the River Walk used by a Mexican sniper in the Battle of the Alamo and then meander over to the Alamo grounds to see the heritage Alamo Pecan Tree.
The river courses south of downtown for a stretch now called the King William Paddling Trail, which prior to 2011, was inaccessible to paddlers without a permit. It’s now open year-around, and you can put in at a number of places convenient to on-street parking. The river and its shaded pathways take you by the graceful period homes of Historic King William. This stretch also is home to the San Antonio River Authority headquarters, where the river’s stewards work.
Unfortunately, some stretches of the riverbank here are choked with elephant’s ear and other non-native plant species. Hopefully, these will be removed in time and replaced with native plantings, which would enhance bird and insect life and provide more native color. Still, it’s a quiet, secluded stretch where one senses the river is leaving the city behind, moving through neighborhoods and heading south into a natural area.
The uncelebrated but beautiful Eagleland Reach is a one-mile stretch that includes the expanding Blue Star Arts Complex and Brackenridge High School. Work on this stretch of the river began in 2006, and workers continue to fine tune the incredible diversity of native plantings taking root, and they continue to remove invasive species reasserting their previous hold on the riverbanks.
But the Oct. 5 party is all about the river south of downtown. The $246 million Mission Reach Restoration Project represents the most ambitious and complex part of the river project. Officials essentially restored the river to its natural course before mid-20th century flood control channeling put in the place by the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers. The restored river maintains the same flood carrying capacity of the channelized river, but flood mitigation protection has been done in a more natural and native way.
The thinking in the 1950s was that communities had to choose between flood control and a healthy, native ecosystem. We now know the river can move flood waters away from downtown and still exist as a healthy ecosystem.
Restoration of the Mission Reach has taken place in phases. Ground was broken in June 2008 on Phase One, reaching from Lone Star Boulevard and the now-abandoned Lone Star Brewery, and extending for 1.25 miles down to the confluence of San Pedro Creek and the San Antonio River. That point was heavily damaged in the May 25 storm, and is now being repaired. It’s also the sight of the River Foundation’s planned Confluence Park, an outdoor science and nature learning center and the subject of a recent Rivard Report story.
As work on Phase One was completed, work on Phase Two began, connecting the river to Concepción Park and Mission Concepción itself, the first of the four 19th century Spanish colonial missions located along the Mission Reach. It’s also the oldest church in Texas, and the destination for the next Something Monday outing.
Phase Three encompassed the final 5.75 miles of the Mission Reach from Mission Road to Mission Espada, and, along the way, Mission San José and Mission San Juan. This stretch also posed some of the biggest engineering challenges in restoring the meander, riffles and pools to the river and reconstructing the riverbed and banks to endure floodwaters. The latter challenge remains one where SARA and its contractors are still learning and adjusting with each weather event.
Phase Three has been three years in the making. The Mission Reach completion, however, is more of a beginning than an end. While the end of construction will be celebrated at the October 5th grand opening, 18,000 trees and shrubs remain to be planted on the Phase Three stretch. Those saplings will be planted during November and December of 2013 and 2014. Once finished, there will be more than 23,000 newly planted trees and shrubs along the Mission Reach. Some will take decades to fully mature, meaning the Mission Reach we know today will be different for our children and different again for their children.
A new beginning for the river will be a new beginning for the city’s Southside too. The redevelopment of South San Antonio in the neighborhoods and streets along the river’s path has only just begun. No one can really say what communities here might look like a decade from now. But the Southside will now reclaim the river it once lost and that was the very reason for the city’s founding nearly 300 years ago.
That’s what the big Oct. 5 party is really all about.