March 14, 2011

In San Antonio: Stories of Remembrance and Reclamation, Part II: Reclaiming the River

Anyone who has visited San Antonio, Texas over the past sixty years or so would no doubt be familiar with the city's lovely River Walk (Paseo del Rio), but for those who have not made it back to the Alamo City in the last couple of years may be in for an awakening. The existing River Walk, the popular and lushly landscaped feature that is lined with restaurants, shops, and hotels, and importantly tames the downtown section of the San Antonio River, has undergone a major $384 million expansion project. To the north, a $72 million project called the Museum Reach opened in May of 2009, adding 1.33 miles of art and historical-themed landscaping to connect downtown with the San Antonio Museum of Art and the now repurposed Pearl Brewery complex. To the south, an even more ambitious project is underway, the Mission Reach, a stretch of the river that not only will meander all the way down to the city's historic missions but also reclaim the river itself. It's an urban planner's dream, but the River Walk's expansion will mean much more to the city's residents.


The initial idea for the River Walk was long in the making, born out of the necessity to control the San Antonio River. In the wake of a terrible flood in 1921 that claimed lives, San Antonio native and architect Robert H. H. Hugman proposed the beautification plan of walkways and bridges that would serve as the basis for the walk. The Great Depression delayed the construction for a decade until the federal government's WPA project made the funding possible. Hugman served as the project architect, overseeing its development. Early visitors to the post-war River Walk would still today recognize Casa Rio, the first restaurant to open on the River Walk in 1946. The River Walk underwent extensive improvements in 1968, the year of HemisFair '68. The futuristic world's fair did much more than bring a new 92-acre park and a new landmark, the Tower of the Americas, to San Antonio. It's understood within the city that the international fair, requiring a considerable investment of public and private money, catapulted the city into another league, a destination city with a significant amount of attractions.

The old horseshoe-shape section of the River Walk that curves west, traversing the city landscape at one story below street level, and the extension that reaches to the Marriott Rivercenter and the Convention Center, is a good place to begin orienting oneself to the built environment of San Antonio. It's not easy keeping track of north and south and east and west here, but as in the case of all good cities, a little directional confusion lends mystery and romance to the experience. Two towers, the Tower of the Americas, and the Tower Life Building, can help establish a sense of orientation in other sections of the city as well. (Don't expect the small Alamo to be of any help.)  For a good introduction to the city's built environment, take a Rio San Antonio Cruises River Tour. You'll get an excellent architectural history of San Antonio disguised in humorous boatsman swagger. South of downtown, set out on foot on the River Walk to Guenther Street and wander the nearby streets of the pretty King William District and its stately houses. Be sure to eat breakfast at the Gunther House Restaurant, loading up on biscuits before the walk back.    

The new Museum Reach section, operated by the San Antonio River Authority and funded by several public entities and a private foundation that has raised funds for public art, stretches from Lexington Avenue near the Holiday Inn Hotel El Tropicano to E. Josephine Street at the north end. In many ways, this stretch represents San Antonio's contemporary identity and urban cosmopolitanism, connecting downtown to two repurposed brewery complexes - the old Lone Star Brewery that now serves as the home to the San Antonio Museum of Art, and farther north, the grounds of the old Pearl Brewery, now reconfigured for other purposes, including the Pearl Farmers Market and a new branch of the Culinary Institute of America. Near the Pearl Farmers Market, be sure to dine at La Gloria (110 E. Grayson), a restaurant that specializes in street foods from interior Mexico. Compared to the boisterous section of the River Walk downtown, the Museum Reach is understated and elegant, with great appeal to the museum-going wine-and-cheese visitor. Take the Rio Taxi Red Service from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. daily to enjoy the Museum Reach by water.

In the Museum Reach, dangling under IH-35 - F.I.S.H., a work by Donald Lipski,.

Where the Museum Reach celebrates the city's vibrant artistic and culinary explorations, the Eagleland segment and the Mission Reach to the south, still in progress, will connect San Antonio to its natural and historic past. This eventual 8-mile reclamation project seeks to restore the riverine features that were once decimated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, incorporating some of the river's natural curvature and its runs, weirs, pools, and riffles. Opening in phases over the next couple of years (Phase I at Roosevelt Park is now open), the Mission Reach will be closed to barge traffic but will encourage hiking and biking, and eventually, canoeing and kayaking. Like the Museum Reach, the long stretch to the south incorporates public art, a few installations already in place. At the end, the walk will reach the city's historic missions - Mission Concepci√≥n, Mission San Jos√©, Mission San Juan Capistrano, and Mission Espada. One day soon, it will be possible to walk across the street from the city's most famous mission, the Alamo, and then down to the river and all the way south to the other missions.

The expanded River Walk of nearly fifteen miles not only ties San Antonio's diverse neighborhoods together but also its past, present, and future. In a state that's known for big, this is an enormous development.    




_____
See the website http://www.sanantonioriver.org/ for more details on the San Antonio River Improvements Project.

Read Part I of In San Antonio: Stories of Remembrance and Reclamation: Remembering the Alamo.

The map below shows a few points of interest.


View San Antonio's River Walk in a larger map

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple from March 3-6, 2011.

_______
For more information, please see Visit San Antonio. Read a post to wrap things up - 25 Great Things to Do in San Antonio. And, Walking Off the Big Apple will be giving away a trip to Texas to a lucky reader. What? Yes!

Disclosure and notes: During my stay, I was the guest of San Antonio's Convention and Visitors Bureau, and I thank them for their hospitality and for the chance to share the city with readers of Walking Off the Big Apple. Observations and opinions expressed in this series are my own. I am a fifth-generation Texan, on my mother's side, but my ancestors in East Texas stayed far away from the Alamo. I now live on the island of Manhattan.

No comments: