Preliminary design rendering for a "Tree of Life" element of the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project.
Preliminary design rendering for a "Tree of Life" element of the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project.

Robert Hammond, the co-founder of Friends of the High Line, the catalyst for development of New York City’s celebrated High Line Park, was invited back to San Antonio, his hometown, earlier this year to speak about the celebrated linear park built on an abandoned elevated railway once slated for demolition in lower Manhattan.

While he was here, Hammond was taken on a tour of San Pedro Creek, which today exists as a concrete ditch, a largely invisible flood-control channel with few remaining signs of a living waterway. He then visited the offices of Muñoz & Co. where his tour guide, Muñoz Principal and Architect Steven Land Tillotson, showed him the preliminary design plans for the $175 million San Pedro Creek Improvements Project.

This first phase of the San Pedro Creek Improvement Project extends two miles, starting at IH-35 at the flood tunnel inlet near Fox Tech High School south to the confluence with the Alazan/Apache Creeks at IH-35 near the former Union Stockyards. Bexar County has dedicated $125 million to the $175 million-project, with the City of San Antonio contributing several million dollars in downtown creekside property, and the San Antonio River Authority managing the project.

Robert Hammond. Photo by Liz Ligon.
Robert Hammond. Photo by Liz Ligon.

“I was very excited as we toured San Pedro Creek,” Hammond said. “My Dad used to take me to the San Pedro Springs. I loved it and it was a very powerful memory. The opportunity is huge to do something different than the River Walk, knitting together the neighborhoods, making it part of a greater loop that connects to the San Antonio River and the Springs. The possibilities are big.”

Then Hammond looked at the design work and had concerns, the principal one being the absence of a noted landscape architectural firm in the project. Instead, Muñoz has hired a landscape architect, Todd Brant, to work on the project full time.

“Not to say that a consultant (architecture firm) can’t be integrated in to the team … but the relationship between architecture, landscape, and engineering is so interwoven (for the San Pedro Creek project), we – the San Antonio River Authority and Bexar County – wanted someone working full time on nothing but this project,” Tillotson said. “Not someone at arms length or out of town.”

HDR Engineering was awarded the primary contract for the flood control project, Tillotson said, while Pape-Dawson Engineers and Muñoz & Co. are subcontractors. The architecture firm, however, controls the design process, and that is at the heart of growing concern among some of the stakeholders.

Some major property owners along San Pedro Creek, others in the design and development community, and some members of the San Pedro Creek Subcommittee, a citizen review group, share Hammond’s concerns. Most are not commenting publicly, but one who has spoken out is developer James Lifshutz. He and his partners own the Soap Works, Soap Works II, and Towne Center apartment complexes along the uptown reach of the San Pedro Creek project near the “Tree of Life” element that Muñoz has illustrated in preliminary design renderings (see top image).

Lifshutz expressed his concerns in a June 16th letter to Suzanne Scott, SARA’s general manager.

James Lifshutz
James Lifshutz

“I believe that the 40% design drawings released some months ago were lacking,” Lifshutz stated in an email to the Rivard Report expanding on his comments to Scott.  “The design of the northernmost (Lagunillas) reach expresses an inappropriate grandiosity that does nothing to honor the history of San Pedro Creek, nor the generations of San Antonians who have lived and worked on or near its banks.

“This grandiosity distracts from, and cheapens, the history, context, and natural beauty of the Creek – and will not age well. The showiness of the design will make it more difficult to develop land next to the creek. Rather than an amenity that enhances neighboring development, the flamboyance of the creek will be something that has to be overcome.

“A project this important to downtown’s revitalization deserves better, and I strongly urge SARA to engage a landscape architect of regional or national reputation. This having been said, I remain hopeful that the 70% drawings will show an improvement.”

Scott said Wednesday that SARA has been diligent in seeking and considering input from the public and from property owners since the project began, and is committed to striking a balance between the architectural elements of the design and the extensive native plant and tree landscaping that is planned, along with restoration of aquatic life.

“We have heard from people who are concerned about some of the design elements, and we’ve heard from other people who embrace those same elements, so it’s our job and the County’s job to make sure we have a final design that responds to all the comments in the best way possible,” Scott said.

Design rendering for San Pedro Creek Improvements Project.
Preliminary design rendering for San Pedro Creek Improvements Project.

The original design plans have been modified, Scott said, and she anticipates other changes as the project progresses.

Some members of the citizen subcommittee disagreed with Scott’s statement, saying that Henry Muñoz, the CEO of Muñoz & Co., ignored the subcommittee went before Commissioners Court with the firm’s design without giving the subcommittee the opportunity to play a meaningful role.   

“We try to explain that this (what the renderings show) is not the final outcome,” Tillotson said. “It will evolve and change over time.”

Planning is now underway for the public art component of the project.

Steve Tillotson, Muñoz & Company architect and one of the San Pedro Creek design team consultants, said the final design will be completed by the end of the year. Photo by Don Mathis.
Steve Tillotson, Principal at Muñoz & Co. and one of the San Pedro Creek design team consultants, said the final design will be completed by the end of the year. Photo by Don Mathis.

“Architects typically aren’t artists and it’s good when we don’t pretend to be,” Tillotson said. “The public art component really is what transforms this into a ‘culture park.’”

A seven-member art subcommittee has been finalized and will select the artists for installations at 14 different sites along the project. The subcommittee is comprised of representatives from the local art community, the City’s Department for Culture and Creative Development, Bexar County, and design team consultants including a landscape architect. When initial renderings were released, many in the art community were concerned to see sculptures and designs uninformed by local culture or history.

“When we look at the really vibrant illustrations of the features … they’re really just fairly accurate placeholders,” said Jerry Geyer, co-chair of the San Pedro Creek subcommittee.

John Phillip Santos, author and professor at UTSA, has been hired to craft a narration of the creek’s “story,” a history that spans hundreds of years back to the indigenous peoples that first settled near the creek. It’s this narrative that will inform what kind of art goes where.

“History drives the story, the story guides the artist,” Geyer said, adding that there will be a concentrated effort to get local artists involved alongside national or international talent.

“When you’re working on a project where you’re trying to do something more than typical, you’re always getting into territory that can be a little bit design risky,” Tillotson said.

Scott echoed this sentiment.

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. File photo by Scott Ball.

“The designs on this project are quite a bit different than what people are used to seeing on the Museum Reach or the Mission Reach,” she said. “It’s a bolder design response. The design goals are different. This project will have its own unique characteristics that reflect the community and the culture and history of San Pedro Creek.”

A survey that drew 113 responses following the May 30 open house meeting at St. Henry Catholic Church Hall, showed general approval of the plans, Tillotson said.

“The negative responses are less than 20%,” Tillotson said of the results in June. “That’s a wonderful design check. … I think that 18 or 20% of the people didn’t like Hugman’s design at the time.” Robert H.H. Hugman designed the River Walk built in the 1930s.

“We’re designing this for people, not for critics,” he said.

What would Hammond do differently?

‘”The model for San Pedro Creek should be the Mission Reach, which means restoration of the natural environment, not heavy architectural intervention,” he said. “The bones are there, but it needs a much lighter touch. It really needs more landscape and less architecture.”

Hammond’s concerns might be written off by some as elitist, coming from a transplanted New Yorker with unrealistic expectations. After all, Friends of the High Line raised tens of millions of dollars in private funds to match public investment in that world-class park. The High Line attracts millions of visitors and locals a year and has generated billions of dollars in economic development along its 1.45-mile length.

High Line Park in New York. Photo courtesy of NYC Parks Department.
High Line Park in New York. Photo courtesy of NYC Parks Department.

Yet the two projects are not that different in scope. Phases One and Two of the High Line cost $152 million, and the third phase is budgeted at $75 million. One big difference between the two projects: No philanthropic or private sector funds have been raised to complement the public money being spent on San Pedro Creek, although significant development projects are planned along its banks, including the new Frost Bank Tower by Weston Urban.

The question now is whether public officials will respond to private sector concerns about some of the design features and, in particular, the absence of a landscape architecture firm in the planning. The design team will make its so-called “70% design completion” presentation to the San Pedro Creek Subcommittee on Friday, at 8:30 a.m. at SARA headquarters at 100 E. Guenther St., and again at a Bexar County Commissioners Court working session on Tuesday, 1:30 p.m. on the second floor of the Bexar County Courthouse.

Tillotson said not to expect updated renderings out of the meeting on Friday. Those will likely be developed and revealed closer to the 90% design completion mark.

“At this point in the process we’re really focusing on the technical aspects … how things go together, getting an accurate cost for the (engineering work),” he said.

The project timeline approved by the Commissioners Court last year calls for 70% completion of the design work this month. The 40% design that Lifshutz referenced in his letter was presented in April. The deadline for 90% completion of the design work is January 2016 and the 100% deadline is in March 2016. A two-year construction timeline calls for Phase One of the project to be completed in time for the city’s 300th anniversary celebrations in May 2018.

Supporters of the Muñoz design praise the Tree of Life Plaza, the Salinas Street Bridge and the Alameda Amphitheater and other exuberantly colorful elements as reflections of Hispanic culture. Critics want a quieter, more natural environment and say the major design elements remind them of the River Walk in the holiday season, seemingly designed to attract visitors rather than locals.

Preliminary design rendering for San Pedro Creek Improvements Project.
Preliminary design rendering for San Pedro Creek Improvements Project.

Interestingly, the exuberant use of color by noted Mexican Architect Ricardo Legorreta in designing San Antonio’s Central Library in the early 1990s set off its own wave of protest and debate over the use of his “enchilada red” exterior.

“Getting public art right is really, really hard: You have to spend a lot of money and get lucky, That’s why we only do temporary art on the High Line,” Hammond said. “You don’t want people to say the neglected part of town is getting the cheap version of the River Walk. Build an authentic design and people will populate it. You don’t need gimmicks to attract them.

“On the High Line project, the landscape architect was in the lead role,” Hammond said.

Hammond drew another comparison to the High Line Park and San Pedro Creek.

“The High Line is roughly 27 feet wide, and the creek and it’s space is actually very small, too, and that’s okay,” Hammond said. “You don’t need big spaces to make things work. You need to make connections to the past.

“People got excited about the High Line when we showed them a map and a mile and half of connections to the neighborhoods, and you can do the same with San Pedro Creek, see it as a line on the map that connects people and places and neighborhoods,” Hammond said. “You don’t always need something like the Tree of Life to attract people. People don’t go to the High Line because of the architectural experience, they go there because it gives people a new way of seeing and experiencing the city.”

Hammond said property owners who will benefit directly from the public project should consider funding a notable landscape architect to partner with the architect, and use their own funds to help enhance the final design.

“Most of the time the government is the client, and it’s really hard to get the government to take risks,” he said. “That’s why it’s so important to have that third-party, a private group, but usually you get that place at the table by raising money. That gives you a say. People had to listen to Friends of the High Line because we raised half he funds to pay for it. In this case, the principal players in San Antonio need to take on that third-party role.”

Hammond will be in San Antonio next week for Tech Bloc’s Summer Rally. The technology industry advocacy group has invited him to come speak on several public projects including San Pedro Creek, Hemisfair, the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River, and more. Click here for details about the Aug. 11 event at the Pearl Stable.

*Featured/top image: Preliminary design rendering for a “Tree of Life” element of the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project. 

Related Stories:

Survey: Public Supports San Pedro Creek Improvements

Art Curation Taking Shape for San Pedro Creek

#SATXnext Explores San Pedro Creek

San Pedro Creek: A River Walk for Locals

San Pedro Creek Project Designs Approved by Bexar County

Robert Rivard and Iris Dimmick

Robert Rivard is director of the Rivard Report. Iris Dimmick is managing editor.