With two distinct waterways coursing through downtown San Antonio, a proposal known as The Link could add a third.
Last week, Bexar County commissioners approved spending $2 million on a preliminary engineering study for the project that would link the well-established San Antonio River Walk and San Pedro Creek Culture Park, which has been under construction since 2017.
As envisioned, The Link would be a four-block-long linear park running east to west along Savings Street, connecting the existing waterways via landscaped footpaths and water features.
As manager of the Bexar County creeks and trails program, the San Antonio River Authority will oversee the year-long engineering study.
It was an engineer named Al Groves who first came up with the concept.
Groves, known for his work in urban waterways, including the San Antonio River Walk extension and Hemisfair Plaza in 1968, died at age 88 in March 2022, just a few months shy of his vision moving to development.
“His background was urban and regional planning, and he just had a passion for working in the community,” said Melissa Bryant, director of technical services at the San Antonio River Authority.
She said Groves enlisted the help of local civil engineering and landscape architecture firm Vickrey and Associates on the waterway link idea more than a decade ago.
The firm’s president, Brenda Vickrey Johnson, pitched it to Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Calvert, in whose precinct the project would be located.
Calvert chose to support The Link over a proposed 7-mile linear park on the Southeast Side known as the Salado South Extension because it was the “most viable,” of the two options, he said.
In September 2021, commissioners put $41.1 million in the county’s 2021-22 budget for phase one of the project, which would cover the cost to build The Link from the River Walk to Main Street.
Other funding for the estimated $60 million to $80 million project could come from the Houston Street Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone, future city bonds, the Hotel Occupancy Tax and other federal assistance, Calvert said. The city did not earmark funding for The Link in the 2022-27 bond.
The Link is needed to help bring the north end of downtown to life, Calvert said.
“When … you can break up the concrete jungle and the heat and provide shade, trees and a cooler environment in the downtown area, it will be among the most unique downtowns in the United States,” Calvert said. “If you can provide a ‘park scape’ that enhances the ecology, it activates the whole north end of downtown.”
He has formed a 40-person advisory board that includes property owners, business owners, residents, neighborhood leaders and others with a stake in downtown development and who support the project.
“Obviously we support The Link … we are invested in this,” said Chuck Brehm of Universal Services Group at the recent commissioner’s court meeting.
Universal Services Group is behind the Thompson Hotel and Arts Residences, completed in early 2021, and the proposed mixed-use Riverplace development, set to be anchored by a 21-story Dream Hotel located at Savings and Soledad streets.
“The central business district … and what really transpires in this city and the county is in this area,” he said. “So it’s very important how we extend this, how we create the development and the ambiance of the area.”
In the four blocks where The Link could be built there is a hotel, several businesses, parking lots, ArtPace — and vacant property that a group of developers has sought for a new baseball stadium.
In recent weeks, it was reported that the group, led by Weston Urban, is trying to assemble land on the north end of downtown for a baseball stadium.
That effort apparently has been thwarted by property owners unwilling to sell. But plans for The Link do not have to stand in the way of a ballpark, Calvert said.
“There are several contingency routes that The Link could take,” he said.
“It could be worked out. But they’ve got to meet and start talking with people about it and they haven’t done that,” Calvert said of the anonymous group. “They’ve done a lot of things in secret. And so that ain’t working.”
At the July 12 commissioner’s court meeting, commissioners voted 3-2 to approve $2 million for funding the feasibility study by Vickrey, with at least one member asking to postpone a vote until the city commits to helping fund the project and another questioning how the engineering firm was selected.
A representative from Vickrey did not return calls for comment on the project.
“Vickrey was actually on our pre-qualified list [of engineers],” for the linear creeks and trails program, said the river authority’s Bryant.
The certified “historically underutilized business” is woman-owned and has the most history with the proposed project, she added. “We saw their experience as an efficiency in developing a preliminary engineering report.”
One proposal that Vickrey engineers will study calls for a street-level pathway connecting the two waterways, while the other involves developing a waterway below street level, similar to the River Walk and San Pedro Creek.
But because the state likely would not approve using water from those waterways for The Link, the three waterways would not actually connect, said Bryant. Instead, condensate from air conditioning systems of nearby businesses could be used to establish The Link’s water features.
Engineers will study which properties may need to be acquired for the project and identify property owners willing to donate or sell the land for the right-of-way and easements needed, Bryant said.
For now, the River Walk and San Pedro Creek will remain distinct parallel waterways in downtown San Antonio, the span between them occupied by urban streets and buildings.