San Pedro Creek Culture Park: Hideous drainage ditch now inviting urban space

In this place of herons where the grasses sway in starlight I have flowed since the dawn of evermore.

John Phillip Santos, historical text carved in limestone

The stretch of San Pedro Creek between the tunnel inlet at I-35 and Houston Street beside a new office tower climbing toward the sky might only be a little more than four blocks long, but the transformation from drainage ditch to park seems miraculous to me.

Yes, I watched the earlier magic worked on the Museum and Mission Reaches of the San Antonio River Improvements Project, but there was absolutely nothing natural-creek-like remaining following decades of flood-control projects in this neighborhood.

All that remained was a ditch. And then there was a dream. San Pedro Creek Culture Park.

Some dismiss projects like these as “legacy projects” fluffing up politicians’ egos with taxpayers’ dollars. Politically charged, the design process for a project this complex is rarely perfect. There are budget cuts, and still the enormous projects tend to run over-budget.

But, as with the original Paseo del Rio project, they can prove visionary. Development along the Museum Reach demonstrates how quickly highly blemished urban corridors become desirable.

While flood-control is an underlying purpose of the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project, the incorporation of site-specific art reflective of the city’s history and culture gives the new pedestrian passageway a distinctive San Antonio feel.

Bexar County is the primary funder of San Pedro Creek Culture Park, and the San Antonio River Authority is project manager.

looking south from Houston Street

Work is underway on the next phase heading southward from Houston Street. As you can see from the photo, this narrow stretch probably is even more challenging.

In my mind, the photos above illustrate that the complications and difficulties encountered along the way are so worth it. Those involved are leaving a legacy that will enrich the quality of urban life for generations to come. Looking forward to walking the next phase and those to come.

Something old, something new along the Mission Reach

In the early 1700s, Native Americans dug an elaborate system of irrigation ditches, or acequias, to water the farmlands surrounding the string of missions founded by Spanish friars. According to an article written by Jose A. Rivera in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly in 2003, the farmlands near Mission San Juan Capistrano were served by this system:

… until the spring of 1958, when a channel improvement project relocated the bed of the San Antonio River two hundred feet away from the headgate of the San Juan Acequia. In the process of straightening, widening, and deepening the river, the site of the original saca de agua (the historic San Juan Dam) was buried with excavated dirt and rubble. The new channel was too far away and deep to supply water to the San Juan headgate by way of gravity-flow irrigation as had been the practice for more than two hundred years.

Secularization of Mission San Juan Capistrano in 1824 included close to 500 acres served by San Juan Acequia. This land was granted to:

… military officers from the Bexar garrison, a former military chaplain, and four women, each coveting the quality of agricultural lands available at this mission site.

It took subsequent landowners decades of litigation and negotiations to regain their water access following the 1950s’ flood-control work undertaken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the San Antonio River Authority. The oldest water rights in Texas, Rivera writes, finally were restored in 2001, ahead of the San Antonio River Improvements Project.

Now, a short jog off the west bank trail of the San Antonio River Improvements Project leads through a field of wildflowers back to the ancient stone arched acequia, topped once again by water flowing into the restored ditches nourishing neighboring fields. The 13 miles of the recent river project, including the Mission Reach, represent a monumental effort by the Corps, the River Authority, the City of San Antonio and Bexar County to restore the river ecosystem to a more natural, healthy state. The wildlife, fisher-folks, hikers, runners, bicyclists and paddlers using it attest to their success.

Only a stroll away is a contemporary addition to the river’s banks, “Whispers.” In 2015, the San Antonio River Foundation contributed this site-specific sculpture by Belgian artist Arne Quinze to the Mission Reach project. (Read more about Quinze’s sculpture here.)

Lush greenery and wildflowers carpet the banks all along the Mission Reach. Hope you get a chance to walk and explore it before spring is overtaken by the summer heat.

The danger of playing hardball with our Library: Bookworms tend to vote

$200-cardI value my purple card. In fact, my card number is written on the top card of the flipper on top of my desk because of the frequency I log into databases online, have books sent to the “S” section of holds at the Central Library and refresh the reading materials downloaded to my Kindle.

City budget season always worries me. As the San Antonio Public Library system is pressured to open more branches to better serve residents of the entire county, if its pool of funds is not increased, services have to be cut somewhere.

Texana, tucked away on the fifth floor of the Central Library, is easy prey because, unlike the circulation numbers for romance novels, the number of people who reference the historical records of Texana is relatively small. Count me among them. Perusing the online budget, I thought Texana was safe this year, but Paula Allen broke the news to me yesterday in her column in the Express-News: “Texana Room Back on the Chopping Block.” Beginning October 1, except by special appointment, Texana only will be open a total of 20 hours a week.

But this post is not really about Texana because I know that does not affect huge numbers of people. This is about another source of funds for the Library. A source endangered by hardball politics.

Currently, if you are a resident of Bexar County, the purple card you can acquire at any branch library at no charge provides you access to a collection of books and multimedia materials numbering more than 2 million and access to almost 50,000 eBooks. Pity the poor person who lives just outside the county line, though. If she wants to access this wealth, she has to pay $200 a year for the privilege.

But those of you who live outside the city limits yet still inside Bexar County really are not paying your fair share to keep our Library operating full-time. You have been hitchhiking on taxpayers who live within the city limits. According to Library Director Ramiro Salazar, as covered by The Rivard Report, Bexar County only pays $9 for each of its users, while the city contributes $21 in its annual allocation.

A year ago, the City of San Antonio requested Bexar County up its share to a more equitable number. But, again according to The Rivard Report, County Judge Nelson Wolff says “to bark at us is pretty ungrateful.” Ungrateful? What about San Antonio taxpayers disproportionately burdened to provide services to those who live outside the city limits? We are your constituents as well. And this one is growling.

So, what did Bexar County Commissioners do a year ago? They decided to start their own library system, BiblioTech, a 4,800-square-foot library with no books. Everything is digital. Certainly, this is the wave of the future. Judge Wolff explained what they wanted to accomplish during an interview on National Public Radio:

Well, a couple of things gave rise to this. One was trying to bring library services to the citizen at a competitive price. Second idea was to break down the barriers to reading, with the eBooks that we have and without having to physically come to the library. And then it was to bring technology to an area of the city that is economic disadvantaged, highly minority, and do not have access to the Internet and the various modes that we have to access it. So we provide eBook readers that they can check out.

Those reasons are sound, and Bexar County has established an innovative, inexpensive prototype that fulfills a portion of community needs. But numerous offerings duplicate digital resources already available to those holding the purple card. So this already ungrateful San Antonio/Bexar County taxpayer is paying for duplicate services. And now Bexar County wants to cut back its annual contributions to the full-service Library system in San Antonio because it has its own system? What about the other unmet needs?

If politicians can’t cooperate enough to keep services consolidated, then Bexar County can plunge ahead without agreeing to an equitable cost-sharing arrangement.

But then, Bexar County Commissioners, you will have to face your constituents who live outside the city limits. You break the news to them. Hey, if County Commissioners continue heading in this direction, those of you who live in neighboring townships – including Alamo Heights, Balcones Heights, Castle Hills, China Grove, Converse, Elmendorf, Hill Country Village, Hollywood Park, Leon Valley, Olmos Park, Somerset, Windcrest and Terrell Hills – might have to turn in your purple cards or pay the fee – $200 a year.

Of course, County Commissioners do not have to warn their outside-the-city-limits constituents about the possible loss of their San Antonio Public Library privileges before the November election because the Library Board was nice enough to play softball instead of throwing a curveball. The motion made at last week’s meeting only requests Bexar County participate in establishing a joint task force (not the first one) to examine the city/county service model by October 31. Agreement would not have to be reached until March 31, when the Library Board will determine whether the services to Bexar County residents living outside of the city limits should be terminated because of inadequate funding from Bexar County.

If that purple card is of value to you who live outside the city limits of San Antonio, you might need to come down from your heights and hills to let County Commissioners know. Or, you can stay silent and risk having to pay $200 for it. Or you can all try to squeeze into one or two little 4,800-square-foot Bexar County Bibliotechs in search of the degree of service you are accustomed to receiving from the professionals in your neighborhood branches.

The Judge appears to think he hit a home run on this issue. But he really is stuck on third base waiting for the City of San Antonio to bring him home because this is not-an-us-against-them thing.

As one of the Bexar County constituents who checked out a few of the 7.4 million items circulated by the San Antonio Public Library this past year, I feel County Commissioners are out in left field in the wrong ballpark. Their point has been made, but it’s time to come back and play on the same team. Taxpayers just don’t have the will or wherewithal to support two teams.

You make the call.

Please note: This blogger periodically, through the years, has been engaged to provide contract services for the San Antonio Public Library Foundation. As a professional courtesy, this blogger met with a representative of my former client to issue a warning of impending blogging. In no way should this post be considered as representational of any opinion other than my own.

Also, this bookworm would never make a voting decision based solely on one issue…. but I do value my purple card and the services it brings highly.