Wayfinding and New Accessibility Enhance River Walk Experience

Always hated to have to break the news to lost joggers asking for help, the ones who looked really ready to be back in their hotel rooms, that they had veered off about a mile in the wrong direction.  But lately, few are in need of assistance.  The $250,000 wayfinding system funded by the Convention and Visitors Bureau and designed by Marek-Hill of Houston seems to actually work.  For the first time since I have lived in San Antonio, there is an informative, logical and cohesive look to River Walk signage.

Ben Olivo of the San Antonio Express-News writes that Juliana Marek is a product of Alamo Heights High School who:

likens a good system to a bread crumb trail, that it’s impossible, or rather impracticable, to cram mounds of information into a single sign.

“What a good sign system does is break down the information in understandable amounts, because people can’t digest as much as they’re moving around,” Marek said. “You really, really have to try and simplify the information as much as possible.”

The signage also helps those wandering Paseo del Rio locate accessible routes, which, finally, most of the downtown River Walk is.  For years, many preservationists balked at altering Robert H.H. Hugman’s original designs to make accessible pathways, and the city shied away from the expense.  I must confess I, too, was skeptical architects could incorporate the necessary changes without damaging the aesthetic appeal. 

But Judy Babbitt, the city’s Access Compliance Manager, never quit in spite of strong opposition.  Judy always has been reminded on a daily basis where virtually every violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act is located downtown because she wheels it continually.  She literally has devoted decades to the campaign to eradicate unnecessary obstacles. 

According to the Public Works Department website, which includes accessibility maps: 

Since the early 1980’s, the City of San Antonio has been active in eliminating architectural barriers and in creating wheelchair accessibility to and along the River Walk. The City has improved more than 50 locations during these two decades, generating new ramps, pathways and, with the help of private businesses, new elevators.

As a frequent critic of the city’s tendency to “value-engineer” the character out of projects, I am totally bowled over by the sensitivity and quality of materials used in the new system of ramps.  They are handsome additions to the River Walk.  Sensitive areas, such as the stepping-stones by the fountain by Omni La Mansion del Rio, were not ruined.  The craftsmanship of the inserts eliminating the dangerous openings is exquisite. 

Like many pedestrians presented with the choice, I find myself often opting for the ramps over steps.  It feels good to stretch out one’s calves on the slight incline and reminds me what strength would be required to propel oneself up them using only arm-power.  Judy should have just challenged all the nay-sayers years ago to arm-wrestle her for the right to make Paseo del Rio accessible.  The paths would have been completed more than a decade earlier.   

Note Added on September 18, 2010More improvements ahead….

Update on January 27, 2012: The City’s efforts to make the downtown River Walk more accessible are receiving recognition:

The Governor’s Committee on People with Disabilities, in partnership with the Accessibility Professionals Association (APA), has announced the winners of the 2011 Accessibility Awards, which recognize businesses and organizations that go above and beyond the legal requirements to provide both physical and service accessibility to people with disabilities.

City of San Antonio Historic River Walk Downtown (San Antonio)
Owner: City of San Antonio
Design Professional: Beaty Palmer Architects, Inc – Michael Beaty AIA, Principal

5 thoughts on “Wayfinding and New Accessibility Enhance River Walk Experience”

  1. That Judy Babbitt is something else! It has literally been an uphill struggle for so many years — her persistence provides us all with a shining example.


  2. Glad to hear that you appreciate the new wayfinding system for the Museum Reach and the Downtown River Walk. A lot of planning & coordination went into the system with input from many of San Antonio’s organizations. Our goal was to create a visually attractive and informative system that assists residents and visitors around the River Walk, and hopefully we’ve achieved that goal.
    One correction – Marek-Hill Design is located in Houston, not Dallas.


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