Case Study

Paseo del Rio, San Antonio, Texas, USA: a riverside walkway (1939-41, 1962 to the present and continuing)

The San Antonio River has its source 3 miles north of the city. In the downtown area it has paved walks along its banks. The design and implementation of these walkways, known as Paseo del Rio, or Riverwalk, is a pioneering example of a consciously designed riverfront park integrated with the buildings around it. In 1984 it received a Distinguished Achievement Award in the American Institute of Architects Honors Program. It is also an example of the effect that an individual with an idea can have on a city.

In the city centre the river runs at a level below the streets. In the 1920s work was done on stabilizing its banks. In 1929 it was proposed to pave it over as a flood prevention measure and to make it a sewer but this idea was not taken seriously. Robert Hugman, a local architect, aged 29, instead proposed the building of walkways along its banks. He was joined by groups such as the San Antonio

Real Estate Board, the San Antonio Advertising Club, and the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in lobbying business and civic leaders to develop the project. A number of people with property along the river agreed to pay $2.50 per foot of riverfrontage into a fund to finance riverfront improvements but the City Commissioners refused to move ahead with them. It was not until 1938, with support from the Works Projects Administration (WPA), that funds became available to implement the scheme. Upstream engineering projects had already been constructed to control the flow of water in the river. Once these projects were completed, the proposed improvements along the river could be implemented.

Hugman was appointed project architect and Robert Turk, the superintendent of construction. A pedestrian esplanade running for almost 2 miles (3 kilometres)

along the river and stretching for 21 city blocks was constructed with the funding available. It was budgeted to cost about 1940$US300,000. It, however, cost about $430,000 funded partially by a city bond issue of $75,000, a 1.5 cents per $1000 assessed value property tax on local owners and a WPA grant of $335,000. The development ultimately comprised 17,000 feet (about 5 kilometres) of walkways, 31 stairways leading down to the walkways from 21 bridges and 11,000 trees. Today, tall cypresses and dense foliage make for a tropical garden like atmosphere. To unify the project visually, Hugman used a local sand-coloured stone throughout. Figure 10.23 shows the state of the project in 1993.

Due to major cost overruns Hugman was dismissed as project architect and replaced by J. Fred Buenz in 1940, and the WPA project was completed. The result was very attractive. The onset of World War II further inhibited development. Lack of maintenance meant that by the 1960s, the river in downtown San Antonio had deteriorated and had an exaggerated reputation of being a hanging-out area for 'unsavoury types, vandals and derelicts'. Perceptions of its state sparked a series of redevelopment ideas. A San Antonio businessman, David Straus, started a campaign to boost the economic state of the downtown area and to restore the river and redevelop its surroundings. San Antonio's Tourist Attraction Committee proposed a redevelopment plan drawn up by MARCO Engineering but the plan was rejected as having too trite a character. In 1962 the San Antonio Riverwalk Commission was established and charged with developing a new master plan.

This plan, which received a design award from Progressive Architecture, was developed by a group led by Cyrus Wagner and sponsored by the American Institute of Architects. The improvements and redesign of the walkway acted as a catalyst for the building of hotels (eight in all), local shops and restaurants (Casa Rio was the first) along the river. It was also a selling point in San Antonio developing the 1968 HemisFair under the auspices of the Bureau of International Exhibitions and it was, in turn, a catalyst for the redevelopment of Riverwalk to which the fair was linked. The whole plan recognized the need for continuous upgrading and maintenance of the Riverwalk, something often neglected in urban designing.

The reclaiming of the river, as intended, reinvigorated San Antonio's central area. Riverwalk is now home to numerous caf├ęs and restaurants. Some of the buildings that backed on to the river have been turned around to face it but the backs of others have simply been tidied up and act as a reminder of the former status of the river. Other buildings changed their uses (e.g. a college into a hotel). The plugged-in elements include the Hyatt Hotel, whose base and atrium acts as a link to the Alamo, the Convention Center, and River Center (a shopping complex). The Paseo del Alamo to Riverwalk, a link between Riverwalk and Alamo Plaza, is an extension designed by Boon Powell ofFord, Powell and Carson. The 17-foot (5-metre) height difference between the two is handled with a multilevel walkway and a series of descending plazas. A positive response to a user satisfaction study led to plans for the expansion of Riverwalk and a study by Skidmore Owings and Merrill was commissioned.

A third generation of development is now occurring. A team led by Ted Flato, David Lake, John Blood and Elizabeth Danze won a competition to design the International

Center on the walk and another scheme, by architects Rick Archer, Tim Blonkvist and Madison Smith set out to link the historic Aztec Theater to Riverwalk. A plan by SWA for developing a 14-mile corridor along the river received a 2001 American Society of Landscape Architects Honor Award for Analysis and Planning. One design task is to make Riverwalk accessible to people in wheelchairs. Hugman did not foresee this necessity. In 2002 Ford, Powell and Carson, were once again, engaged to create further improvements (due for completion in 2010) along the river.

Today there are sightseeing cruises on the river and it is the site of the San Antonio Fiesta Parade of floats. Riverwalk is almost always filled with partygoers, children, tourists and locals. It is particularly 'crazy' during Fiesta. Riverwalk has proven to be a major asset to the city. Nine million people a year use it and it is estimated to contribute $800 million to San Antonio's $3 billion tourist industry each year. It was the location for the celebration of the San Antonio Spurs' victory when it won the United States basketball championships.

Keeping Riverwalk in good condition is expensive. It requires constant maintenance. The City's Department of Parks and Recreation has an annual budget of $4.25 million to maintain the walk. The department puts an extraordinary number of new plants into the ground each year. The effort yields results. The design has become a precedent for other cities to follow. Closed in rivers, abandoned rail tracks and a host of alleys can be turned into attractive assets for a city. Hugman deserves recognition for his foresight and persistence. Urban designers need both.

Major references

Black, Sinclair (1979). San Antonio's Linear Paradise.

American Institute of Architects Journal 68 (9): 30-9. Hammatt, Heather (2002). Going with the flow.

Landscape Architecture 92 (1): 72-7. Tyler, Ronnie C. (1996). San Antonio River. The New Handbook of Texas. Austin, TX: Texas State Historical Society. Zunker, Vernon G. (1983). A Dream Come True: Robert Hugman and San Antonio's River Walk. Seguin, TX: The author.

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