A guest stands before the panel to ask a question. Photo by Scott Ball.

I go to a lot of meetings, public and private, for my job. After a while, one starts to see the same faces for certain agenda items. I’ve been to several (but not all) presentations about the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project, so when the Rivard Report decided to host its own panel on the topic, I knew what to expect – until I didn’t.

New faces. Everywhere. Younger, older, strangers.

I’ll use the same observation that 80/20 Foundation Operations Manager used to describe the recent TechBloc event that gathered the tech community together last week; I was happy to see the usuals and excited to meet people I’ve never met before. That means the community of engaged citizens is growing – even if they’re not showing up to committee hearings and input meetings. They are here in San Antonio (now get out there and vote).

The after-hours event featured beer and cocktails from Ranger Creek Brewing and Distilling and snacks – which certainly helped draw a crowd of about 200 people to the Southwest School of Art‘s Coates Chapel on Thursday for an evening of engaging conversation with the San Pedro Creek (SPC) project’s key players.

Panelists included Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff; Suzanne Scott, general manager of the San Antonio River Authority; Lori Houston, director of the Center City Development and Operations Department; Muñoz & Company Principal and Architect Steven Land Tillotson, and Centro San Antonio CEO Pat DiGiovanni. Robert Rivard served as moderator.

Muñoz & Company Principal Steven Land Tillotson. Photo by Scott Ball.
Muñoz & Company Principal Steven Land Tillotson. Photo by Scott Ball.

The northern section of the $175 million improvements project, phase one and two of the project, includes the more urban path of the creek as it weaves its way south from its spring at San Pedro Springs Park through downtown in concrete culverts and tunnels, touching the near Westside, and curving back through the Southside to meet with the San Antonio River. The southern section, phase three, is less channeled and more natural, but still flows largely unseen by passersby.

When hearing about the project, many San Antonians that live in or frequent downtown ask “Where is San Pedro Creek?” noted Rivard to the panel.

“People said the same thing about the Museum Reach,” Houston said. And now look at it; the Museum Reach has become the centerpiece for the Pearl Brewery, commercial development, and housing projects – totaling about 1,500 units. “We expect to see the same on the northwest quadrant areas (of the SPC project).”

Center City Development and Operations Director Lori Houston speaks with the panel. Photo by Scott Ball.
Center City Development and Operations Director Lori Houston speaks with the panel. Photo by Scott Ball.

Transformational development is already coming to the SPC’s shock radius. The Weston Urban/Frost Bank/City of San Antonio office tower and housing project construction and property swap will change the downtown landscape over the next 10 years (if approved by council next week); the pending Zona Cultural federal designation; the $8 million in Commerce Street improvements; the KIPP San Antonio Cevallos campus that will be completed at the southern end of SPC even before work begins on the creek; the Graystreet real estate play looming with development possibilities; and countless other projects downtown point to that conclusion.

The City’s “housing first” strategy to grow the urban core into a vibrant, walkable, economically successful asset to the City as whole, has been one of the smartest, “most incredible” decisions the City has made, Wolff said, nodding to Houston and the CCDO for that leadership.

Nelson Wolff speaks with Robert Rivard. Photo by Scott Ball.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff speaks with Robert Rivard. Photo by Scott Ball.

The urban section of the Museum Reach included 1.5 miles of improvements north of downtown. The total cost was about $72.1 million. The SPC project includes a little more than two miles at more than double the cost, Scott said. “If this project is successful and people want to see an extension (further north or south), then that’s something that City leadership can take up … there are so many other opportunities (in the creekway system).”

While residents and visitors will be able to enjoy recreational, aesthetic, and economic benefits of SPC, 75% of the project cost and design is geared toward flood control. “Not as sexy as some of the pictures,” Scott said, but restoring the water to a cleaner state and encouraging a natural ecosystem to return to the creek will be key.

San Antonio River Authority general manager, Suzanne Scott speaks with Robert Rivard. Photo by Scott Ball.
San Antonio River Authority General Manager Suzanne Scott speaks with Robert Rivard. Photo by Scott Ball.

The visible design, however, will be all about culture and connectivity, Tillotson said. Historically people have gathered around the creek for thousands of years, but within the last 150, it has become a void. Over time it also became a cultural divide.

“Basically, the west side was latino/hispanic and the east side (of the creek) was not,” he said. “It was like a threshold, a barrier. So in this project there is a very conscious effort to create a place that heals that damage, that heals that space. … Weaving the movement of water and people together.”

There are more than 100 cultural assets in the area, according to an inventory taken for the Zona Cultural‘s application for official designation Texas Commission on the Arts.

“It’s the birthplace of our city, that’s what is truly great about this area.” DiGiovanni said. “It has so many great historic bones.”

CEO of Centro Pat DiGiovanni. Photo by Scott Ball.
Centro San Antonio CEO Pat DiGiovanni. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Elaine Kearney, a landscape architect that works remotely for a firm in Portland, moved to San Antonio a little more than a month ago. She grew up on a ranch in Columbus, Texas, got her undergraduate degree at Trinity University and then left for a master’s degree at Harvard University. Then on to Portland.

She attended the panel out of pure curiosity and excitement about her new home town.

“I was excited to see that it was a littler edgier than I thought it was going to be,” Kearney said. “I’ll be really curious to see how that actually shakes out.”

Her husband works at Lake/Flato Architects, so that coupled with her chosen profession make her an astute observer of the project.

A guest asks a question to the panel. Photo by Scott Ball.
Elaine Kearney asks the panel a question. Photo by Scott Ball.

“I have young children now, I wanted them to have the experience of their Texas family and roots,” she said. “And so when it came time to look at where would we move (San Antonio or Austin) … we were both attracted to the motto, ‘city on the rise.’ It’s very exciting to go to a place where you can have an impact. It sort of feels like Portland has already pinnacled.”

Projects like the Mission Reach, Hemisfair and its public art development, and center city neighborhood affordability were all factors in her decision to come to San Antonio, she said.

In Portland, “people did (projects like this) 20 years ago and they were very forward thinking, but it’s really just the legacy of those decisions” that people now work with.

A public presentation and open house will take place this Saturday, 9-11 a.m. at St. Henry’s Catholic Church Hall, 1609 South Flores St. The community is invited to engage with the project team from SARA, Bexar County and the City. Click here for details.

*Featured/top image: A guests asks a question to the panel.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...