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How City Leaders Turned A Grand Vision Into Reality On The Museum Reach

Jack Morgan
Texas Public Radio
F.I.S.H. underneath IH-35.

Five years have passed since the Museum Reach stretch of the River Walk, which starts at the Pearl development and flows down to the Lexington Street bridge, right next to the new Tobin Center, was opened to the public. Beginning today, a series on the art-filled, artfully-executed area.

On May 30, 2009, thousands gathered on and around Brooklyn Avenue bridge in downtown San Antonio for the ceremonial opening of the Museum Reach—the completely re-imagined stretch of the San Antonio River.

The 1.3 miles of the river looked nothing like it did just four years before. 

"It was a tangled little stream with brush and trash everywhere," said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff.

Now that the Museum Reach landscaping has grown in and river barges wind their way up and down it daily, it’s easy to take its beauty for granted. But it’s important to note the bizarre off-and-on process that made this grand public works project a reality.

Ever since the 1940s, the focus on the San Antonio River had been on the horseshoe bend that most of us think of when we think of the River Walk -- the downtown restaurants and night clubs that are famous worldwide. But that’s just a fraction of the River’s length. What about the rest of it?

"The thing that I never could understand is how had we let it sit for 65 years without ever doing that," said former-Mayor Phil Hardberger, wondering why the river hadn’t been developed through the years.

"Normally if you put that in commercial terms and you open a store and it makes you millions of dollars, you might think about enlarging your store or opening a second," Hardberger said.

He noted with a laugh that despite the River Walk's wild popularity, inertia for improving of the rest of the river had left the stretch leading northeast out of downtown, to get pretty nasty. But to best understand the Museum Reach story you’ve got to run the tape back a few more years when a feisty lady moved to San Antonio.

“When my husband was being interviewed for a position here in the fall of 1955, he said, ‘Let’s walk down to the river,’ ” said Mayor emeritus Lila Cockrell.

“I looked at that river, and if it’s possible to fall in love with a river, I fell in love with the San Antonio River and have been in love with it ever since,” she said.

Her husband took the job and Cockrell started life as a public servant a decade later on city council. While serving a decade there and then elected four times as mayor starting in 1975, she pushed for river development. Multiple committees, including the San Antonio River Corridor Committee, proposed big changes.

“There were good planners who were hired to make plans and give ideas," Cockrell said. "However, we really didn’t have any money."

The interest in river improvement and the monetary impasse continued through several mayors all the way to Hardberger.

"It had been planned and there was this committee and that committee and as I said, "We’re going to stop planning and start digging!' " Hardberger said.

When Hardberger was elected mayor he had an ally in river re-development in County Judge Wolff.

"You've got to give Mayor Hardberger most of the credit for the river going north, and I picked up the baton and took it all the way down to Mission Espada," Wolff said.

Proposing it is one thing, but making it happen is the hard part.

"Yes, and there’s the usual hew and cry and people saying this is costing too much money," Harberger said. "My answer to that was, 'Yes, it’s going to cost us millions, but it’s going to bring back billions.' And so we are going to go forward and we are going to get it done.” 

Tomorrow on this series, the unseen engineering marvel that allowed the Museum Reach to happen, and construction begins.

(Thanks to KLRN for Opening Day audio)

Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii