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A hundred years ago, the creek beds that converged near what is now the Interstate 10 bridge on San Antonio’s West Side swelled to a raging torrent. Heavy rains turned San Pedro and Apache creeks into a mass of ripped-apart homes, trees, and the bodies of people and animals swept away in the current.
Fast-forward to today, and a visitor to the area can see a confluence of concrete walking and biking trails. More changes are on the way for the West Side as local governments expand the area’s trails into linear parks similar to those already built on the San Antonio River and its tributaries on the North Side.
As part of a nearly 10-year, $616 million infrastructure program, Bexar County is proposing spending more than $227 million building miles of new greenways and accompanying facilities along local waterways. Of that, $57.6 million is intended for the Alazán, Apache, Martinez, San Pedro, and Zarzamora creeks, which together make up what’s known as the Westside Creeks.
“Their time has come,” said Steve Graham, assistant manager of the San Antonio River Authority, which often works for the county as a project manager building linear parks along local waterways.
But the deluge of public funds has sparked a fear among affordable housing advocates: gentrification. As money pours into the Westside Creeks, will rising property taxes and aggressive tactics from land speculators end up forcing residents from their longtime homes?
“For many of my neighbors in District 5, when we hear or see beautification, it’s often synonymous with increasing property taxes, predatory real estate practices, and displacement,” said Teri Castillo, the newly elected council member whose district includes much of the West Side.
Castillo’s concerns have precedent. On the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River south of downtown, an early 2000s overhaul that reshaped the river and added new trails led to the displacement of residents in the Mission Trails RV Park and new development in the area has boosted property values. The Mission Trails situation has become a widely cited example of a negative side effect of local greenway projects.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, the elected official most responsible for matching federal funds with local dollars to upgrade San Antonio watersheds, believes the wider benefits of such improvements outweigh any downside.
“’Don’t fix anything in my neighborhood, for Christ’s sake,’ — it’s crazy that people say that,” Wolff said in a phone interview last week.
Graham, who works closely with city and county officials, said a potential solution would be for the Texas Legislature to allow appraisal districts to freeze property taxes for people living in poor areas experiencing gentrification.
“There’s not much the city or the county can do,” Graham said. “We all recognize gentrification as a problem. We’re just a little bit helpless to affect it. It’s like, do you want the investment or not? Of course, everybody does, so the consequences happen.”
Westside flooding spurred movement for justice
Over the 19th century and most of the 20th, public investment passed over the Westside creeks, focusing instead on the San Antonio River and the creekbeds lining the fast-developing ranchland on the city’s North Side. Such lopsided investment led to repeated flooding disasters on the West Side, the deadliest being the deluge that hit San Antonio on Sept. 9-10, 1921.
This month, environmental historian and former Trinity University professor Char Miller published West Side Rising: How San Antonio’s 1921 Flood Devastated a City and Sparked a Latino Environmental Justice Movement, a book that forms the most complete account yet of the flooding that killed more than 80 people.
Following the 1921 flood, which also ripped through downtown, local leaders responded by building the Olmos Dam, protecting the city’s downtown core but neglecting the predominantly Mexican and Mexican American neighborhoods where many of its workers lived.
That outraged Westside residents, who began organizing aggressively after repeated flooding in the 1940s through 1960s, eventually forming in the 1970s the COPS/Metro Alliance that’s still a major player in San Antonio politics. Miller considers the city an under-recognized birthplace of the environmental justice movement, which emphasizes that people of all backgrounds deserve a healthy place to live.
“Wielding what we now refer to as the language of environmental justice, these protesters challenged the social inequities, political discrimination, and disproportionate burdens they endured, and did so through an intense process of self-education that laid bare the political context of their physical world,” writes Miller, now a professor of environmental analysis and history at Pomona College.
Not all changes were local. In the late 1950s through the 1980s, federal flood control programs converted the San Antonio River and its creeks into concrete-lined drainage channels. The effort was even-handed in that it treated the San Antonio River and the Westside Creeks the same, but heavy-handed in how it treated the environment.
“We went from a beautiful, idyllic creek environment that had flooding issues to an engineered trapezoidal channel that was very efficient in carrying floodwaters,” Graham said. “But it really devastated all the ecological value, the recreational value, and the community connection to that water resource.
On a local level, grassroots organizing from Westside residents also spurred officials to divert more local funds to their neighborhoods. A key shift occurred in 1977, when the City Council, facing pressure from the U.S. Justice Department, changed the council’s structure to ensure that all parts of the city had equal voting power.
It still took another 20 years for San Antonio to adopt its first drainage regulations, which have since been updated multiple times. Nefi Garza, the assistant director in the city’s Public Works Department who’s responsible for stormwater issues, said the code requires developers to bear more of the costs of the flooding their projects often cause downstream.
In many other cities, “if you can prove that your development isn’t flooding anybody, you can walk away,” Garza said. “They’re allowed to build whatever.”
But in San Antonio, a developer first has to prove that a project won’t cause flooding downstream. If it does, they have to build a drainage basin, channel, or another form of flood control.
Even if the project doesn’t make flooding worse, the developer still has to pay into a city fund used to address historically neglected areas. Garza said that’s because hardening the land upstream will inevitably cause more flooding downstream.
“I take that money, and I reinvest it in a community that hasn’t had development in many years,” Garza said. “I use that money to do projects in the Westside Creeks, in the South Side, in the East Side, in areas that haven’t had development in a long time. So it’s a way of trying to repair, if you will, some of the poor decisions that were done in the past.”
There’s still a long way to go. The city still has a nearly $3 billion backlog in flood control projects, Garza said. Much of that backlog is in older, lower-income neighborhoods built before modern drainage codes.
Still, as Graham puts it, the “easy flood protection has been done.” Now, the focus is on “ecosystem restoration, recreation, and creating value to the community,” he said.
That leaves the question of how Westside neighborhoods will change as a flood of trail funding heads downstream.
Trail investments lead to fears of gentrification
Amelia Valdez’s family has lived on the West Side since the 1920s. Her ancestors migrated from Mexico and settled on Navidad Street. They lived in corrales, densely packed communal housing, and worked agricultural jobs and in nearby rail depots unloading fruit and vegetables.
Valdez, who lives near Cassiano Park, often rides her bike on the Westside trails, where she sees her neighbors walking, running, or riding bikes to work downtown via trails that connect to the San Antonio River.
“It’s a beautiful view — families doing some primetime riding with their lights,” Valdez said. “It’s great, but hopefully with the money that’s coming, they’ll use it for the essential necessities that need to go along these trailways.”
Valdez notices differences on the West Side compared to trails in other parts of the city, such as a relative lack of clean bathrooms, water fountains, and shade areas. San Antonio’s bike-sharing program, which private bicycle company Trek acquired in May, also has no bike rental stations near the Westside Creeks, she pointed out..
“I tell every council person, every dignitary, every president of anywhere, go take a tour of this place, and you’ll see the difference how things get in the inner city,” Valdez said.
With a few significant exceptions, San Antonio’s greenway trail system mostly benefits the North Side and downtown. The approximately 80-mile Howard W. Peak Greenway Trail System has produced sprawling trail networks along Leon and Salado creeks; city crews are on the verge of connecting the greenways at Eisenhower Park north of Loop 1604. On the rural South Side, the City has also built the 14-mile Medina River greenway.
Most of the Westside Creeks are still the same trapezoidal drainage canals they have been for decades. But that’s beginning to change. A 5-mile concrete trail now connects Elmendorf Lake, next to Our Lady of the Lake University, to San Pedro Creek and eventually the San Antonio River at Confluence Park. Other short trails segments have also gone in at Alazán Creek near Woodlawn Lake and along Martinez Creek between Cincinnati Avenue and Fredericksburg Road.
Cosima Colvin, who represents the downtown District 1 on the city’s linear parks advisory board, described the reaction to these new Westside trails as “mostly good.” However, for these to succeed long-term, local officials will have to listen closely to people who live nearby.
“As long as local people are using it and advocating for it, that’s how you’ll get the community to jump on board,” Colvin said. “Not by us coming in and saying, ‘We’ve brought you this wonderful thing, please come and enjoy it.’”
Castillo, the District 5 councilwoman, said investments in “stabilizing the neighborhood” must accompany the creek projects as a measure to counteract gentrification. San Antonio’s 2022 bond proposal is likely to include $250 million for affordable housing.
“We can invest in the creekways, and we can invest in our neighborhoods,” Castillo said.
This story has been updated to correct the owner of the bike share system operating in San Antonio.