Sneak Preview: San Antonio River Walk May 22, 2009Posted by tracybarnett in : San Antonio, Texas , trackback
The long-awaited new River Walk extension is set to open on Saturday, May 30, and Steve Schauer of the San Antonio River Authority gave me a hard hat tour this week. Here’s a sneak preview:
Steve Schauer has given this hard hat tour to dozens of visitors from around the world, seeking to learn about San Antonio’s experience as it has developed a long-neglected, weed-choked ditch into a world-class tourism destination. Still, with just a week to go before its official opening, he seems to get a kick out of showing it off to yet another journalist.
“It’s just been an awesome process to see how it’s changed,” says Schauer, communications director for the San Antonio River Authority. Indeed, the $72 million project has been in the planning stages for close to eight years, with the official groundbreaking just over two years ago.
The project has merged antique structures dating from the 1800s with the latest in lock-and-dam technology to produce a mile and a half of linear parkway laced with waterfalls and water lily pools, sculptures and art installations, sound recordings and other surprises guaranteed to delight fans of the famous attraction. This stretch of river, however, takes into account modern knowledge of conservation to create a friendly habitat for aquatic species as well as the landlubbing types.
“We didn’t design this with just us in mind,” Schauer says. “We want it to be a sanctuary for other species as well.”
He points out the fish lunkers built in under the walkway, a place for fish to get out of the sun on a hot day or to take shelter from the occasional storm. The more than 100 species of plants that comprise the landscape are drought-friendly, and a recycled water system has been installed for the irrigation.
The new stretch of River Walk begins downtown at Lexington Street near the Hugman Dam, named for Robert Hugman, the original architect of the River Walk in the 1930s and ‘40s. One of the first challenges was figuring out a way to preserve this historic stone structure while still allowing barges to pass through for riverboat tours.
This problem was resolved with an artful passageway to one side, preserving the best features of the old stone dam on the other side. A pair of crested night herons posed and preened for the cameras as we passed by, oblivious to the workmen administering the finishing touches.
“One of our challenges was to make sure the vision of the river reflects change over time,” explained Boone Powell of Ford, Powell & Carson, chief architect for the project. “We do our best to make sure there’s a timeless quality about it. It’s not like we just picked a few ideas out of a hat and tried to implement them.”
And to be sure, change over time is something Powell knows a good deal about. His firm’s historic preservation work reads like a who’s who of Texas’ most important historic attractions. Included among the accomplishments of his firm are in San Antonio are the design and restoration of the Alamo, Hemisfair Park, the Tower of the Americas and La Villita; in Austin, the Texas State Capitol; in Galveston, the historic Hotel Galvez, Tremont House and the Strand Street Theater; and in West Texas, El Fortin de Cibolo at Cibolo Ranch.
The first stretch of the new River Walk, beginning with the Hugman Dam, is designed to keep with the historic feel of the original River Walk, with the Works Progress Administration-era stonework, narrow canyonlike walls and tall buildings along the riverbank. At the upper reach of this section, Schauer stops to explain another historic structure that has emerged from the long-buried riverbed. As the construction workers dug their way up the river, he says, they suddenly hit a wall they hadn’t expected. It took some intensive research to figure out what it was: the dam for the old Alamo Mills, dating back to 1872.
It’s at about this point, looking out over the river and a restoration of this dam at the historic Lone Star Brewery – now the San Antonio Museum of Art – that the river begins to change character and open out into a broader, more spacious feel. Here the walkway begins to incorporate the yellow brick of the museum, hence the designation as the SAMA stretch. Around the corner, SAMA comes into full view in all its towering glory.
The towers and yellow brick are echoed one more time in a restored pedestrian bridge, once the bridge connecting the two towers of the Lone Star Brewery, converted to a glassed-in passageway by SAMA. The old steel bridge had sat neglected for nearly half a century until resurrected by Powell for the pedestrian walkway. The graceful span is bookended by the two brick towers.
At this point the river winds under the freeway, where a special treat awaits: a whole school of giant sunfish, suspended from the freeway over the river. It’s the creation of Philadelphia artist David Lipski.
But the piece de resistance from an artistic standpoint is surely the Grotto, the fantasmagorical creation of San Antonio artist Carlos Cortes. Seen from the river, the structure rises from the river like a bit of prehistoric Middle Earth, winding and twisting like the tree roots that seem to be the source of its inspiration. Moss-textured ancient faces peer from within and above, evoking other worlds. Stairways, waterfalls, hidden lights and passageways work a strange spell.
Dionisio Rodriguez, the legendary faux bois artist whose work has adorned San Antonio’s River Walk and Brackenridge Park for generations, must be proud of his nephew, who has carried on the family tradition in grand style. Besides the grotto, San Antonians will recognize a palapa-style bus stand Cortes created at the Cameron and Newell street River Walk entrance, similar to the ones in Brackenridge Park and along Broadway.
Here the character of the river shifts to a third style, based on that of the Pearl Brewery. The yellow brick is gone, and in its place, walls of pebbled cement. The look is more modern and industrial, but softened with the green of hanging plants – and of course, the river, which winds past an amphitheater that will seat up to 1,000 and reaches a series of waterfalls and small stone islands. One island is the home base of the Hardberger Tree, a young cypress named for Linda Hardberger, who presented her husband the mayor with the tree on the occasion of their 39th wedding anniversary.
The Pearl is rapidly becoming a focal point for an emerging scene, combining history with cutting edge design and a postmodern return to tradition. The new Farmers Market brings local growers and chefs together with musicians in a standing-room-only crowd on Saturday mornings that is carried through the week at Texas Farm to Table restaurant, and the New Urbanism of the project’s architects promises a thriving community with housing to compliment the culinary and beauty school and the shops that are springing up here.
This is the end of the road for the barges that will carry tourists from the downtown area, and for our tour today. But the project will carry on. To the north, another mile and a half of hiking and biking trails will wind their way up to Brackenridge park and the Witte Museum, hopefully within a year to a year and a half. And to the south, the city will restore the channelized river to its natural state in the Mission Reach. Some 24,000 trees will be planted and hundreds of acres of riparian habitat will be restored along the stretch of river that connects the four missions that are a more authentic, if less famous, representation of the colonial Spanish era than the Alamo.
“The ecosystem was essentially destroyed in the ‘50s and ‘60s for purposes of flood control,” says Schauer. “We’re turning it back into a natural river. Now we understand that you can have a healthy river and flood control at the same time. Back then, the answer was just to turn it into a ditch.”