The San Antonio River Improvements Project: Urban Segment of the Museum Reach

San Antonians like to hang out together, and we’re good at it. It’s testament to our mutual tolerance and genuine civic affection that riots don’t break out at, say, post-Spurs-championship pachangas. As we toast (repeatedly; see a selection of events, page 37) the grand opening of the San Antonio River’s Museum Reach Urban Segment this weekend, we’re reminded that we need and deserve more public space for everybody — for dancing, stroller-pushing, boy-cruising, long walks, long conversations, small talk, and big talk with our neighbors. We need more opportunities to simply see one anothers’ faces — brown, black, white, old, young, male, female, gay, straight, local, and tourist.

We’ve done all right by our visitors; there’s no shortage of folks trolling Ripley’s Believe It Or Not across from the Alamo, or conventioneers packing Dick’s Last Resort on a Friday night, and this is all good: good for the city’s coffers and for our national reputation as a mecca of fun times. But public space for San Antonians is good for our collective soul, as well. The Great Cities of the World proclaim their identities by their public spaces: New York’s Central Park, the Place de la Concorde and the Orangerie in Paris, the National Mall in D.C. and Tokyo’s Harajuku district all speak to a city as a social unit, living and working together.

San Antonio’s made a grande leap forward with this $76.5-million investment in the Urban Segment’s 1.2 miles, raised from City, County, and private funds (thanks San Antonio River Foundation!), applied to the vision of venerable SA architects Ford, Powell and Carson, and expended, too, on 12 public-art installations. In addition to the museum promised by its name, the Museum Reach’s Urban Segment winds hard along rock clubs, old industrial sites that have yet to be reclaimed, and tony redevelopments that are filling with restaurants and (eventually) housing. But everywhere there’s a green buffer between the curving paths and the city, so we’ll never smell the grease-trap aroma that characterizes a certain corner of downtown’s River Bend, or lose our jogging pace in a pack of tourists meandering en masse in that particular aimless sightseeing gait from theme bar to theme bar. What’s more, it’s beautiful.

“This is our city,” a woman called out in proud disbelief to our media tour group last week, as she and a companion stole a sneak peek at Donald Lipski’s giant fish under the I-35 underpass while construction crews were busy below with last-minute welding and wiring. “It brings tears to my eyes,” said the friend.

The vegetation is freshly plugged and mulched, and we fully expect that once all that greenery fills in, we won’t notice so much that the “banks” of the Urban Segment are a smooth, clearly manmade channel — unlike the Hugman-designed downtown reaches, which are edged poetically in limestone and rocks; also not authentic, but gestures count.

Of course, the Museum Reach is specifically designed to handle the inevitable flooding, from the sidewalks to the aforementioned vegetation to the art, and this weekend, as the ribbon-cutting, speechifying, and gladhanding gets underway, the latter item is what we’re most interested in: Eight artists, 1,875 feet of LED rope lighting, 25 7-foot long-eared sunfish, one WPA-era throwback, and a handful of new patents. And most of it corralled and functioning in 13 months flat. A couple of striking themes: an emphasis on bringing light and play to dark and oft-neglected undersides of bridges, especially at night, when they might otherwise be forbidding and even dangerous (although we’ve noted a steady stream of Park Police bike mountees patrolling the new trails), and the use of unusual and new materials.

“All of this stuff is a grand experiment,” is how Art & Architecture Project Manager Mike Addkison put it. “It’s outside of the box, at the edge of the envelope.”

Here’s the Current’s quickie guide to the Urban Segment’s “grand experiment.” Join us online at for interviews with Addkison and the River Foundation’s Kim Abernethy, plus facts and figures for the San Antonio River Improvements Project, and links to Current stories covering SARIP since 2005.

River Origins and Movements #1

River Origins and Movements #2

George Schroeder

Camden and Newell Street Bridges

Once the City and the artist, et al., iron out the final structural/safety issues, George Schroeder’s lithe, entwining metalworks will adorn the bridges at Camden and Newell streets, with undulating forms mimicking the river waves and the plant life within (or that will be within). The elaborated railings will sit at either side of Carlos Cortes’s Grotto, acting as a street-level visual framing of the wonders below.

Grotto and Shade Tree

Carlos Cortes

Camden and Newell Streets


1. From a distance, the portion that juts above street level looks like a big pile of poo topped with a vajayjay.

2. Compared to the po-mo sleekness of the rest of the redevelopment, the grotto is very, uh, not. There will be uppity art folks who find it unsophisticated, an image problem SATX already has.

3. It lacks the natural verisimilitude of other Cortes faux bois. What is it, faux sand?

4. It does not dispense beer.

5. Thus far, it lacks color, which means in July and August it will match our as-yet-unxeriscaped lawns. Not uplifting, but maybe motivating.


1. Word that it is in an homage to the Virgen de Guadalupe plus its aforementioned anatomical suggestiveness makes it unintentional kin to Anne Wallace’s glory-hole glorieta up the river at Brackenridge.

2. It has that Tim Burton/Dr. Seuss audacious, imaginative appeal. Children will love it.

4. It’s steeped in SATX history, the Corteses and faux-bois tradition being legendary here.

5. It will spill H2O in a faux waterfall, which is almost as good as beer come August.

6. It’s nice to have a little wonky, eccentric, homespun, uncerebral work, a refreshing counterpoint to say, Fontana, or the Torch of Friendship.

7. That shade palapa at street level is actually very elegant.

8. Carlos Cortes cast the faces of those who did the physical work on the project — plasterers, painters, rebar wizards, etc., and used their likenesses in the design, which is a poetic, openhearted, and very San Anto gesture.


Donald Lipski

I-35, Camden Street Overpass

When the Current attended a River Foundation party back in December, during which we were treated to mini-presentations (usually by the artists themselves) about the Museum Reach public art, we … we, we admit it! We thought Donald Lipski’s goldfish suspended from the I-35 overpass were a little bit literal. A tad on-the-nose. We’re sorry, Mr. Lipski. We were looking at schematic drawings, and you weren’t even there.

Oh, boy, we thought, in our devious little alt-weekly minds. Fish. Goldfish, at that. Yawners.

We are delighted to report our shock, amusement, and pleasure at actually viewing the 25 7-foot fish in situ. It helps that they’re long-eared sunfish now instead of the more prosaic goldfish; long-eared sunfish are not only right purty, but are native to our beleaguered waters and, we hope, will come back soon to see themselves. Colorful, cheerful, and not at all the rote-fish way to go, their scale is exuberant, and they hover as emblems of hope that one day our river might actually serve as a living waterway again. They appealed to hardened arts writers on a forced march; imagine their effect on the fertile imaginations of, say, your average 7-year-old. Lipski’s fish are the kind of art a kid never forgets.

Plus: They light up at night. If that isn’t fantastic, we don’t know what is.

The Roy Smith Street Pedestrian Bridge

At Roy Smith Street, behind the San Antonio Museum of Art

The old Lone Star brewery design that makes SAMA so distinctive inspired the footings for this restored bridge, which was used for keg-rolling (as in transport) back when the breweries that bracketed this length of the river were operational.

Quonset Hut

Across from SAMA

Word is, the resident of this well-worn abode hangs his chones out to dry, raising a bit of real-world nap on the otherwise thoroughly polished fabric of the urban segment. We kind of like the way it reminds us of SA’s military debt and the river’s near history as shelter for the less fortunate.

Sonic Passage

Bill Fontana

Jones Avenue Underpass and Bridge

During the Current’s tour of the Urban Segment River Improvements, the hum of a generator serenaded the press through Fontana’s sound installation, just north of the scenic jut of the old Alamo Mills dam (which will be dramatically lit at night, for the enjoyment of patrons at the VFW and Ten Eleven). Sans actual experience as of press time, we’re stumped. On the one hand, we go to the river to escape ambient soundtracks programmed by others (think: your cubicle mate’s nine-month freak-folk affair; the incessant purr and beep of the fax machine `why aren’t they obsolete yet?`). And the noise that Fontana has captured for remix and replay comes from the other reaches of San Antonio’s rio, so maybe that’s also unnecessarily repetitive. Then again, maybe it’ll encourage a notoriously unpedestrian population to wander further south to hear the splash of a fishing heron firsthand. The tech parts do wow us in theory: hydrophones that signal the almost-sentient program to adjust the mix when barges draw near and that also record sound from below for rebroadcast. We withhold judgment.

The Ten Eleven

1011 Avenue B

Look no further than this new yet reliable purveyor of loud, quality indie rock for evidence that the river improvements will spur economic investment. Riverbank establishments that want to keep their liquor licenses need a patio, and the Ten Eleven’s was near completion as of press time.

VFW Post 76

10 10th St.

Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 76 is the oldest in Texas. It looks like an antebellum manse, but was built in 1904 for lumber baron Van A. Petty by architect Atlee B. Ayers of Tower Life Building fame. It became a VFW Post in 1917, orchestrated by veterans of the Spanish American War, and continues to serve both vets and civvies as a tranquil spot to enjoy cheap, ice-cold beer. During construction for the Museum Reach project, crews unearthed a chunk of the Alamo `flour` Mills dam and its touched-up limestone footing is visible from the VFW’s welcoming patio. Cheap, patriotic, and historic!

And now, its been included in the Museum Reach, with river access from its patio. Most institutions with riverfront acreage along the Urban Segment were charged for the construction of river-access points; but Zachry Construction has, in a laudable public gesture, absorbed the costs for the VFW — a fitting tribute to the memories of San Antonians who’ve sacrificed much. Get down there, partake of the lovely patio, and for goodness sakes, buy a vet a beer.

Under the Over Bridge

Mark Schlesinger

9th Street Underpass

By day, Schlesinger’s blue and green stripes look very much like an upside-down painting from the artist’s geometric/sculptural era — thick, impasto-like strips made of a new polymer stucco in a kids-frosting palette applied in a tactile grid on a cement backdrop. Two 3-D yellow strips, faced in stainless-steel panels “impregnated” with softly glittering color, protrude and bend gently from the underpass, the better to reflect light onto the fiber optics embedded in four seat-high pillars on the eastern bank, causing them to flicker like trains in a tunnel, or Morse-code signals in outer space. It’s a “chapel for water” we were told on our guided tour. The daytime effect is very understated and for us didn’t come together as a whole. But we haven’t seen the nightime glow in action yet, and the photos we’ve seen are a little “disco,” so we’re guardedly optimistic.

Bridge Railings

Rolando Briseño

McCullough, Brooklyn, and 9th Street Bridges

Following the resolution of the same structural- and safety-standard hurdles Schroeder’s project must navigate, Briseño will make the bridges at McCullough, Brooklyn, and Ninth Streets oases of street-level cool. A poetical pragmatist, Briseño aims to compel pedestrians to linger under shade structures and have a meditative moment, rather than, say,  heatstroke.

29° 25’ 57” N / 98° 29’ 13” W

29° 26’ 00” N / 98° 29’ 07” W

Stuart Allen

McCullough and Brooklyn Avenue Underpass

Allen applies his insightful meditative approach to nature’s ambient colors here in an industrial frame that contrasts sharply with his gallery work, which often feels lighter than the air it captures. For his Urban Reach installations, Allen transferred the hues of flora, fauna, water, and sky at the bridges’ coordinates to layered rectangular metal screens, stacked asymmetrically — and bracketed between pillars like monkeys hanging in trees, says Art and Architecture Project Manager Mike Addkison. Light sifts through the panels as you glide or stroll by, causing the layered pigments to shift like a lenticular print. In daylight they’re dusky and muted; under the night lights they solidify like watercolor paint chips in a child’s art set. They’re also designed and built to withstand total immersion when that 100-year flood rolls around.

Maverick WPA Mural

Just north of the Lexington Street Underpass

A ghost of quaint gringo romanticism past, a WPA-era mural originally commissioned as a gift for a family member by Mayor Maury Maverick has been restored and installed not far from the workshop where it was created. Sombrero-topped Mexicans toil under a hot sun, snow-capped mountains in the distance, in a scene conceived and executed at Ethel Wilson Harris’s Mexican Arts and Crafts studio. Harris, who supervised the WPA’s Arts and Crafts division from 1939-’41 (look for the sports murals above the entrances to Alamo Stadium), was recognized by the Texas Lege in ’43 for her work preserving the Mexican crafts tradition in El Norte. The mural was rescued and donated by Susan Toomey Frost, who has a book, Colors on Clay: the San Jose Tile Workshops of San Antonio, due out from Trinity University Press in September.

Shimmer Field

Martin Richman

Lexington Street Underpass

By day, Richman’s double lines of translucent colored rectangle baubles are wallflowers. With their spirals and party colors, they’re reminiscent of cascarone confetti: pretty, but they don’t wow, per se. But at night, iridescent gold film reflects the bridge’s lights in a spangle of lime and amber on the cement footings and dark water. Basic, but captivating, magic. We wish black netting wasn’t needed on the Western bank to prevent vandalism to the low-hanging panes.

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