River improvements provide city with limitless benefits

Enhancements add to environmental, economic, recreational and cultural attributes of the city

A multi-phase project that developed the full potential of the San Antonio River has improved two sections of the river that posed different challenges. These enhancements have far-reaching benefits for all of San Antonio, from increased economic development to cultural resources and recreational opportunities connecting neighborhoods.

The $384.1 million San Antonio River Improvements Project (SARIP) is an investment that targeted the four-mile Museum Reach north of downtown and the one-mile Eagleland and eight-mile Mission Reach south of downtown. The project provides stable, maintainable flood control while increasing recreational and economic development opportunities for the community. Specific objectives for the Museum Reach included extending the amenities of the world-famous San Antonio River Walk into areas that were inaccessible because of sheer banks, vegetative growth and lack of pathways. The Eagleland and Mission Reach segments, however, had little vegetation and few original topographical features remaining. The project in these areas restored native habitat and the natural meander of the river, along with developing new recreational opportunities.

ENVIRONMENTAL RESTORATION

Efforts to address flooding in San Antonio between the 1920s and 1960s focused both on the downtown area and beyond. During this time, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) extensively widened the river channel south of downtown and also straightened its path. These flood control measures removed physical features and vegetation, straightened the river's naturally winding course and lined the channel with concrete rubble, leaving a flat pathway for the river's flow.

SARIP provides stable, maintainable flood control while reclaiming the river's natural meanders and appearance along the Eagleland and Mission Reach segments which run from South Alamo Street to Mission Espada. This was accomplished through the use of fluvial geomorphology, which is the science of how rivers and streams function. Project designers planned to re-create the contoured path of the river wherever possible, restore the gradually descending slopes of the riverbanks and remove the concrete rubble lining the river channel. At several points along the Mission Reach, stacked pieces of limestone are used to create small dams, or weirs, in order to prevent erosion of the river bottom.

Along the Eagleland and Mission Reach segments, the project reintroduced native trees, grasses and plant life along the river's edge including pecan, redbud, cedar elm, sideoats grama, maximiliam sunflower, Texas bluebonnets and scarlet sage among others. The preservation and planting of native plants including seed and fruit producing species – such as oak, pecan and walnut – encourages wildlife to forage within these areas along the river. The planting of native understory species also provides stratification along the river, which is essential to attracting species that would not use the area if only overstory canopy plant species were present.

From Lexington Avenue to Josephine Street, in the Museum Reach – Urban Segment, the river flowed through a narrow channel with sloping banks covered by thick vegetation. The channel averages 80 feet in width and is bordered largely by private properties that contain commercial and light industrial businesses which did not utilize the riverbank space. From Josephine Street North to Hildebrand Avenue, the Museum Reach – Park Segment has a more natural setting as it flows through Brackenridge Park.

In these areas north of downtown, SARIP created designated wildlife habitat areas, and the river bottom is lined with natural cobblestones to create a healthier environment for fish and other aquatic organisms. The project helps restore native fish communities including bluegill, channel catfish, sunfish and shad.

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

The Museum and Mission Reaches of the river have very different market potentials associated with them, but in both cases SARIP has enhanced economic development potential and real estate values. The project has started to stimulate new development and rejuvenate existing properties along the river and has helped reinforce a sense of community in both areas. As a resutl, this development has encouraged job growth and an increased tax base for the city, the county and area schools.

The primary goal of the Museum Reach is to link cultural institutions and commercial centers through a linear park that encourages additional economic development at street level. The Museum Reach has a landscaped river channel, with water and walkways visible from apartment and condominium balconies and terraces. The project has provided public access to the river and introduced passenger barge traffic between Lexington and Grayson Avenues. The creation of pedestrian and barge traffic along the Museum Reach – Urban Segment laid the groundwork for possible commercial, residential and retail construction in the area.

The Museum Reach – Urban Segment has become an ideal location for multi-family residential developments along with small businesses and restaurants, shops, and coffee houses. The area can support both rental apartments and for-sale condominium units with the most attractive development opportunities falling directly along the river, but in time expanding to the blocks beyond the river corridor. Limited hotel and entertainment development has also been possible. The highest land values in San Antonio are along the river in the downtown area and there is potential for significant positive impact on surrounding land as the river is improved.

The Mission Reach sees enhanced quality of life through improved recreational opportunities. Over time this will raise property values of land closer to the river and will increase demand for new and revitalized real estate development, thus creating a more desirable living and working environment for area residents.

To maximize economic development potential in the Mission Reach, visible water was established in this section of the river, where the riverbed was nearly dry at times. SARIP called for bodies of water to be developed that vary from two to three times the width of the base flow channel.

Office development currently exists on the river north of downtown. It is possible that companies moving to San Antonio may consider the improved 13 miles of river for a new corporate headquarters, especially in the Mission Reach area of the project given the large parcels of land. Retail development is also likely, with heavy concentration at major intersections along the river reaches.

RECREATION

The SARIP includes improvements to 13 miles of the San Antonio River, and when combined with the existing River Walk, there are over 15 miles of continuous pedestrian paths along the river running through the center of the city. Bicycles and walking are both a practical means of transportation as well as a recreational option for San Antonians. The pathways are located near or at the top of flood banks in most locations but also dips down toward the channel banks for short distances. Overlooks, pavilions and picnic areas are placed appropriately for interesting views and connections to the environment.

Enhancements to the Mission Reach portion of the project also support recreational activities, such as walking, birding, jogging, bicycling and paddling. Limestone dams have openings in the center to allow paddle canoes or kayaks to pass through, without lessening the effectiveness of the erosion control.

CULTURAL CONNECTIONS

Design solutions on the river enhance appreciation and enjoyment of the river's historic significance in the life and development of San Antonio. Pathways are continuous along the river, on both sides where possible. The pathways interface with other systems as much as possible, including the Mission Trails, and include linkages to the Spanish missions.

In the Museum Reach, a lock and dam at Brooklyn Avenue was constructed, which creates sufficient water levels to allow passenger barges to navigate farther north, allowing for linkages to cultural landmarks, such as the San Antonio Museum of Art, and commercial developments, such as the Pearl. Pathways also encourage connections farther north to Brackenridge Park, the Witte Museum and the San Antonio Zoo.