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River Walk Barge Designs Reflect River, Light And Culture

One of San Antonio's most recognizable symbols is getting a makeover. Three finalists are vying to redesign the river barges that transport tourists and residents along the River Walk.

Monday night the Center for Architecture Gallery of the American Institute of Architects was packed with the curious. They wanted to examine the miniature replicas of what might be motoring along the San Antonio River.  All three designs are electric powered and handicap accessible. The winning barge will replace the current 1995 fleet propelled by compressed natural gas.

Other than that, the designs are pretty different. Joe Meppelink is the principal at Houston’s METALAB and one of the finalists. What’s first noticeable about his team’s entry is the intricate railing.

"Our railing is based on papel picado patterns, which is paper, literally perforated paper. It’s something you often see here at Fiesta as décor around the city," he says. "So, ours is stylized or based upon that tradition. They’re just these beautiful colorful patterns."

Meppelink’s design also allows for removable seats and benches so the barge can be used for morning yoga classes or filled with sand for a beach cruise.

San Antonio’s Luna Architecture and Design is also a competitor. An important feature of its barge is the solar-powered canopy that shields passengers from the sun. Robert Luna is the principle for the company.

"The boat that we have currently is a white boat which also then reflects the light that comes off the LED, so you could have a multi-colored boat at different times, or you could have one that’s themed for Christmas or one that’s themed for any type of activity so we can control the color and we can make it unique for San Antonio," Luna says.

Jonathan Davies and SadiBrewton from Austin designed the third competitive entry.  Davies says the frame of their boat is not that different than what’s on the water now.

"Our barge -- the idea was to have a quite simple hull body," Davies says. "The main difference is it would be a single-level barge. So that means somebody in a wheelchair can get on and not be restricted to the back like they are now, but be able to travel the full length of the barge."

Davies says that they took inspiration from the River Walk’s architecture in creating the patterns and colors of their boat.

Councilman Roberto Trevino, who’s also a professional architect, says the new barge design will help define the city’s image.

"When we’re trying to think of growing our downtown and creating the downtown that’s for everyone, we need to look at all the systems going on downtown. The River Walk barges are really an important aspect of we see our downtown, how we see our city, and how the world sees us," Trevino says.

The winner of the San Antonio river barge competition will be announced Friday and receive a $20,000 prize. The new fleet is anticipated to be on the water for the city’s tricentennial celebrations in 2018. 

Louisa Jonas is an independent public radio producer, environmental writer, and radio production teacher based in Baltimore. She is thrilled to have been a PRX STEM Story Project recipient for which she produced a piece about periodical cicadas. Her work includes documentaries about spawning horseshoe crabs and migratory shorebirds aired on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered. Louisa previously worked as the podcast producer at WYPR 88.1FM in Baltimore. There she created and produced two documentary podcast series: Natural Maryland and Ascending: Baltimore School for the Arts. The Nature Conservancy selected her documentaries for their podcast Nature Stories. She has also produced for the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s Distillations Podcast. Louisa is editor of the book Backyard Carolina: Two Decades of Public Radio Commentary. She holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from University of North Carolina Wilmington. Her training also includes journalism fellowships from the Science Literacy Project and the Knight Digital Media Center, both in Berkeley, CA. Most recently she received a journalism fellowship through Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution where she traveled to Toolik Field Station in Arctic Alaska to study climate change. In addition to her work as an independent producer, she teaches radio production classes at Howard Community College to a great group of budding journalists. She has worked as an environmental educator and canoe instructor but has yet to convince a great blue heron to squawk for her microphone…she remains undeterred.