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Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The San Antonio River: Increasingly famous for more than just its over-commercialized watercourse

San Antonio River before the River Walk
The River Walk in San Antonia, Texas, has been called an over-commercialized watercourse by some London thinkers such as the popular newspaper columnist Larry Cornies.

His description of the San Antonio River looping through the city core is quite accurate. The loop, once known as the Great Bend, is no longer so great. It is simply a watercourse, a highly managed canal, cutoff from the main river by flood control gates. It is a water route made redundant by a bypass channel in service for almost a hundred years.

As the postcard from 1916 shows, even before the great flood of 1921, and the subsequent flood control measures, the Great Bend was being tamed. The card shows what is now the busiest section of the River Walk. Restaurants and other businesses line the canal today.

It is interesting to note that the same battle is being waged today in London, Ontario, that was once fought over the Great Bend, the looping watercourse through downtown San Antonio.

Architect Robert Hugman realized the loop, isolated from flooding, could be developed for commercial use. He came up with an imaginative plan he called "Shops of Aragon and Romula" inspired by cities in Spain. Opposing Hugman was the professional city planning firm Harland Bartholomew and Associates of St. Louis. These out-of-state experts, hired by the City Plan Committee, wanted the Great Bend to be natural, pastoral, a linear park with no commercial development at water level. The Great Depression put both plans on hold.

By 1939, it appeared Hugman's River Walk plan had won. Hugman was hired and arched bridges in white limestone, concrete walkways and an outdoor theater all shortly appeared. At the same time, riverside plantings disappeared along with the water in the loop. Hugman had the channel drained temporarily. Hugman's work as called a "desecration of the beauties of San Antonio" and, less than a year into the project, Hugman was fired, leaving much (but not all) of his dream unrealized.

The River Walk languished for almost three decades before gaining solid traction in 1968 with the hosting of the World's Fair in San Antonio. The Walk was linked by a new quarter mile long channel to the fairgrounds.

San Antonio Channel: Mission Reach at Ashley Rd (Planned)
But do not assume that Hugman's dream, his over-commercialized watercourse, is the clear winning vision for the San Antonio river. Outside the protected loop, river development appears to be is taking a turn towards the green. The latest Master Plan aims to restore some of the waterway to a more natural state while maintaining flood control benefits.

The Hugman and the Harland Bartholomew dreams may yet co-exist with the support of the U.S Army Corps of Engineers. The army engineers have taken the initial steps aimed at restoring the ecosystem of the river.The army corps brags:

The Mission Reach project occurs along eight miles of the San Antonio River and . . . includes restoration of pool-riffle-run sequences, river remnants, off-channel pools, sinuosity, and aquatic and riparian vegetation. Recreation is included as an ancillary, non-disruptive component of the restoration . . . The re-establishment of native herbaceous plants, grasses and wildflowers is planned along with the planting of approximately 20,000 (native) trees (and shrubs) along the riparian corridor.

Read more about the San Antonio River Improvements Project on the SARIP webpage.

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