San Antonio Riverwalk

Roger Bardsley, AICP

I’m sure most of you in the planning profession have been to San Antonio and visited its famous Riverwalk. The success of this downtown amenity, which dates to 1939, has inspired a number of imitations, and comments by visiting city leaders who say they wished they had a river in their communities.

I had not been to San Antonio and decided to see what I had been missing.  As is often the case, the “story” is much more complex and interesting than it appears on the surface.  The Riverwalk that most tourists visit is a very short stretch of the river through downtown, plus the horseshoe bend section, and a manmade canal off the bend dug for the 1968 Hemisfair, plus a 1980s canal addition that ends at the Riverwalk mall.  These waterways are served by electric-powered “barges” that take tourists on narrated tours.

In 2009 the city completed the “Museum Reach” of the Riverwalk north to the Pearl district, and in 2011 completed “Mission Reach” to the south.  The Museum Reach is like the original Riverwalk, heavily hardscaped and landscaped and reminded me of a Disney World jungle ride. Barges go as far as the Pearl district, and pass through a small lock and dam.  The river goes another mile or so north to Brackenridge Park and its headwaters. The river path is not continuous beyond the Pearl district, but probably will be completed some time in the near future.

The Mission Reach is actually a modern greenway through a natural bottomland environment and leads users to four of the five missions on the San Antonio River (the fifth is the Alamo which is located downtown).  

Several really cool facts include:

  • San Antonio is located at the headwaters of the San Antonio River.  There would be very little water in the river except that it is fed by artesian aquifers on the north side of town.
  • Riverwalk is located one story below street grade, putting the river in a sunken channel.  Historically, flooding was a common problem, caused by urban runoff from the surrounding city.  Several small dams and weirs controlled enough of the flooding to allow the bar/restaurant/shop scene to be developed, even though floods still happened.
  • In 1997 the city opened a 3-mile long stormwater pipe 150’ below downtown. The pipe is 24’ in diameter and was designed to carry 80% of a 100-year storm event.  It picks up stormwater on the north side and discharges it south of town in the natural Mission Reach area. I pedaled the Mission Reach after two days of heavy thunderstorms and can attest to the amount of floodwater in the river.  In downtown, however, there was no change in the water level.
  • The Pearl district is perhaps the most successful mid-town node I have ever seen.  It is centered on a 19th/early 20th century brewery that feature several large repurposed industrial buildings.  The main brewery houses a hotel, restaurant, a Culinary Institute of America school and micro-brewery.  The canning house is now housing. Between the Pearl district and downtown, along the river, are many apartment buildings and condos.  All since 2009. Amazing.

One small rant – When we bicycled the Mission Reach after the heavy thunderstorms, all the litter in San Antonio had been washed into the river and had collected in disgusting piles on the river banks.  The two largest components were Styrofoam cups and containers and single-use beverage containers. We are drowning in the stuff and will never clean up the environment without some sort of deposit system.  Oregon has a beverage deposit system and there are almost no discarded bottles to be seen. Texas does not have a deposit system and the result, downstream of downtown, was horrible.