After moderating a series of community discussions on the future of Plaza Guadalupe last year, AIA San Antonio Latinos in Architecture (LiA) Committee has decided to activate the West Side space itself as a way of continuing the dialogue.
Family Design Day takes place Saturday at the plaza, and includes a series of activities centered around architecture, design justice, art preservation, sustainability and urban planning.
Musical acts include DJ Despeinada, Los Nahuatlatos, and Los Callejeros de San Anto. There will be food, too.
A few dozen organizations are participating, including Artpace, the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center, Hemisfair, MOVE Texas, San Anto Cultural Arts, the San Antonio Conservation Society, SAY Sí, and the UTSA College of Architecture, Construction and Planning.
"We want to have a series of activities that are related to design that speak to some of the discrepancies and gaps explained to us in the community engagement meetings," Latinos in Architecture Co-Chair Siboney Díaz-Sánchez said.
The public meetings were sparked last year by community members who protested a fence that had been erected around the plaza. The Avenida Guadalupe Association, the West Side nonprofit that leases the space from the city of San Antonio, argued the fence was necessary to deter drug use and prostitution in the space. Opponents of the fence strategy said the barrier was a way of criminalizing the entire neighborhood, and argued for an open plaza, the way it was originally designed.
The city then hosted a series of public meetings, which LiA moderated.
Earlier this year, the LiA committee shared a compromise plan with a partial fence, which drew mixed reaction. The decision ultimately belonged to District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales, but it's unclear what version of the plan Gonzales chose and whether she or the Avenida Guadalupe Association modified it.
"Some of the comments we heard was about how architecture and design was inaccessible," Díaz-Sánchez said. The community is "really only presented when there needs to be a decision, but not when people are in the process of making a decision ... I think that's something that continues to happen in San Antonio and throughout the world."
One idea with had consensus was that of a fence around the playground. This was a concept Gonzales unabashedly supported at the meetings, because it meant there was only one entrance in and out, which is a better way of keeping an eye on who enters the space.
Attendees are encouraged to take the bus, carpool, bike or walk to the West Side plaza.
After months of public meetings that date back to April of last year, and recent design work by volunteers with the local chapter of Latinos in Architecture, the fate of the much-debated fence around Plaza Guadalupe will be officially shown to the public next week.
The meeting is scheduled for 6-8 p.m. March 7 (Thursday) at El Progreso Hall, 1306 Guadalupe St.
In 2016, the nonprofit that leases the near-West Side plaza from the city, the Avenida Guadalupe Association, erected a chain-linked fence as a deterrent against criminal activity—mainly drug use, it said. It stayed that way for about two years. Then early last year, community members and activists, lead by the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, began to question the fence, then the meetings began.
According to Gonzales' office, Latinos in Architecture has crafted a plan, based on feedback from the recent meetings, that will show the temporary removal of the fence, and the addition of "landscape features to enhance security." In an email, Gonzales' office also said the plaza's ADA accessibility would be enhanced, and other amenities, such as new pavers, plants and shade, would be installed.
"These plans reflect community input as well as Latinos in Architecture concepts," Gonzales said in a statement.
Community members are invited to view the plan and give feedback.
In the middle of the public meetings last year, the city opened up the plaza from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily—a schedule it maintains.
The plaza was built in 1984 and has been the stage for some of the most historic events in San Antonio's history—including Pope John Paul II's visit in 1987, President Barack Obama's visit in 2008, and, most recently, the launch of former Mayor Julián Castro's White House run.
Tuesday night at El Progreso Hall on the near West Side, volunteers with the local chapter of Latinos in Architecture (LiA) showed 50 or so community members two design concepts for Plaza Guadalupe—one with a fence surrounding it, the other without.
LiA discussed the possibility of having a fence that would "soften the edges" facing El Paso Street, which faces the neighborhood behind the plaza, and having a see-through fence facing the busier, more commercial Guadalupe Street, so passersby could see events or activities happening inside. It's ultimately up to city officials and District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales to decide.
Other recommendations were gleaned from feedback community members gave at four previous meetings. For example, they recommended the Avenida Guadalupe Association, which leases the plaza from the city, involve the community in cleaning the plaza daily. They suggested users advocate for more funding for the plaza.
Programming should run the gamut from flea markets on the weekends to substance abuse education programs to live music, they said.
They also recommended access to the restroom be improved for wheelchair-bound users, and that the restrooms themselves be upgraded. More signage, shade at the center of the plaza, and improved seating should be added, they said.
While presenting all concepts, LIA emphasized wanting to ensure the plaza be a fun space.
The group will submit its plans to the city, and the Center City Development and Operations Department (CCDO) and Councilwoman Gonzales' office will look over the plans, and review feedback gathered at the public meetings this year, in January. But no timetable beyond that has been worked out, CCDO Interim Assistant Director Veronica Garcia said.
Gonzales told attendees she preferred some type fence or landscaping around the plaza—something not too imposing. She was particularly adamant about putting up a fence around the playground, and said other more basic upgrades should also happen as soon as possible.
“There’s no need to delay on bathrooms and lighting,” Gonzales told the room.
The city has about $300,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds allocated for Plaza Guadalupe.
She suggested the city consider redesigning the plaza as a way to avoid having a fence—a $1-$2 million type of project that could potentially be funded in the next bond program.
“I won’t be here for your next bond,” Gonzales said. “If we start it, it will more than likely be moved on by whoever replaces me in the next two years.”
After LiA's presentation, the meeting broke into small discussion groups, which were to be lead by questions handed out on comment cards. Some groups followed the format, others had more open discussion as some attendees peppered LiA members about the plans' specifics, and the overall process involving the city.
“People who don’t know the neighborhood see the fence and think it’s a bad neighborhood,” Brenda Gomez, 44, said.
There were seven discussion groups, each consisting of five to eight people. Almost every single group member agreed that there should be no fence at all, but some were willing to compromise to have a fence around the playground for the children.
Yolanda Sosa, 69, said she was for the fence because it would allow the plaza to stay safe and clean -- especially for the children.
“A fence isn’t going to take (the issues) away, but it will help,” said Sosa.
The Avenida Guadalupe Association erected the fence around Plaza Guadalupe in August 2016 as a way to deter drug and prostitution activity.
The public discussions about Plaza Guadalupe's future began in April after some community members, lead by the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center, criticized the 24/7 fence. The city eventually opened up the plaza 10 a.m.to 6 p.m. daily, and began hosting movie nights, as a way to activate the park immediately.
The next one is "The Polar Express," which will be screened 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 21, at Plaza Guadalupe, 1327 Guadalupe St.
Historically, a plaza is a place of gathering and community, where neighbors and family come together to catch up, play games and enjoy one another’s company.
The Guadalupe Plaza, as many people have said, is the heart of the West Side, and has become a point of disagreement for many in the community since a chain-link fence was erected in 2016 as a crime deterrent by the nonprofit that leases the space from the city.
After a backlash from some residents and community activists in recent months, the city has opened up the plaza again 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, and has hosted movie nights. It also hosted a series of community meetings recently in search of ideas for a longterm solution.
The plan will be unveiled 6-8 p.m. tonight (Dec. 18) at El Progresso Hall, 1306 Guadalupe St. Free food will be provided by the city.
The plaza was built in 1984 and has been the stage for many events—some annual and some historic such as Pope John Paul II's visiting in 1987 and President Barack Obama's stop in 2008.
Over time, activity in the plaza had decreased and had allegedly led to unwanted activity at night: drug users, prostitution, and homeless people using it in ways the plaza was not designed for.
The Avenida Guadalupe Association, the nonprofit that holds the lease from the city through 2029, says the undesirable activity had become so bad, the only way to solve the problem was to surround the plaza with a fence.
It was that way for two years until community activists began speaking out over the summer.
"To allow this space that’s supposed to be public commons, to what it is now, is very sad," said Sarah Gould, director of the fledgling Museo del Westside, an initiative of the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center.
Gould said the fence reinforces negative ideas that people already have of the West Side.
"It bothers me that people have fear over those who could easily be their relatives," Gould said.
Gould continued, saying that having a gate or fence around the plaza transforms it from a public space to a private one.
Rick Uriegas, vice president of Actions United for Entertainers and Diverse Artists (AUEDA), also serves on the Avenida Guadalupe Association (AGA) board, and said there was a lot of activity happening that wasn't good for the neighborhood.
“The plaza is the heart of the neighborhood,” said Uriegas. “This place is a diamond in the rough.”
Uriegas said since the fence has been up, the unfavorable activity has stopped.
The level of criminal or unwanted activity that happened before the fence is something neither side can agree on.
“At the public meetings Center City Development & Operations Department (CCDO) has held thus far, we heard broad agreement that security is needed in the plaza," District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales said in an email.
Many community members and people who live near the plaza have wondered why the fence is still up, and why it has taken so long to do something about it.
Gonzales said the "visioning process for Plaza Guadalupe has been an ongoing process that began in spring 2017."
"The community engagement process has taken time because we want to make sure that everyone's voices are heard during the visioning process," Gonzales wrote.
Gabriel Quintero Velasquez, AGA's executive director, described the plaza as "the birthplace of the Mexican-American community." He said AGA "went through years of consideration," drew up plans for a permanent fence and showcased the plans to anyone who asked to view them.
Avenida Guadalupe didn’t want to put up the fence, Velasquez said, but the drug problem wasn't going to stop without it; having a fence is "the only way it would be safe,” he said
Velasquez said the plaza is a place for the neighborhood have events that they imagine doing.
“It (the plaza) means many things,” Velasquez said. “It would be a symbol of progress.”
The Esperanza Peace and Justice Center has been fighting the fence, and its members say the arrest numbers don’t add up to the AGA's claims about prostitution and drug users.
According to research Esperanza conducted using LexisNexis, between 2010 and 2018 there have been two incidents of drug crimes—one in 2011 and one in 2017—and only one sex trafficking incident in 2015.
But Avenida Guadalupe staff has been consistent with its anecdotal evidence.
Richard Pferrman, an Avenida Guadalupe Association employee, spoke at a Dec. 4 public meeting, and said people have told him the plaza is in much better condition after the fence was put up.
“They’re like … since the fence has been up, the plaza smells good,” Pferrman said. "It doesn’t smell like urine anymore. It doesn’t smell like feces. I don’t have to worry about my kid being poked by a needle."
“A lot of people just don’t see it. Yeah, we have to keep it open to the public. That’s understandable, but for certain hours, which is what we do now.”
Amelia Valdez, who works with Esperanza, said with the fence around the plaza, no one knows if it's open or closed.
Valdez continued to say that while walking around the public space, she's seen elderly people sitting outside the fence.
"Since the fence has been up, there have been fights and arguments for more policing," Valdez said.
Paul De La Torre, 51, who lives in the neighborhood said he wants vagrants and graffiti out of the plaza, and also wants it open for the everyone.
De La Torre said he wouldn’t mind a fence or gate if it was something nicer than the current fence.
Sylvia Martinez, 62, also lives in the neighborhood and said she thinks it’s safer to have a gate and that it will keep the plaza in good condition.
Martinez said she goes to the plaza for events and to be around people.
Both De La Torre and Martinez have lived in the neighborhood their whole lives and want the plaza to be safer.
Bexar County commissioners Tuesday unanimously approved nearly $60 million to complete the segment of the San Pedro Creek Culture Park project currently under construction—about three blocks from Houston Street south to Nueva Street.
The entirety of Phase 1.2 will cost $74.7 million, a 20 percent increase from initial estimates, said Kerry Averyt, San Antonio River Authority (SARA) Senior Engineer and San Pedro Creek project manager.
To date, the total project has a cost about $178 million.
"There’s a lot of construction going on, that has the tendency to cause prices to trend upward with labor and materials," he said. "These three blocks, by far, are the most difficult (construction) along the (creek's) two-mile stretch."
Initial plans for an amphitheater were scrapped in favor of a functional plaza, adjacent to the Alameda Theater, that will allow for public event rentals, receptions and special cultural performances. The updated design also includes a water wall spanning 230 feet, which will help keep visitors cool and improve water quality, and a series of murals that depict the “epic history” of Bexar County and San Antonio.
The segment is just one of the many developments planned for the area.
SARA officials have begun working with the University of Texas at San Antonio, following its recent announcement of a multimillion-dollar expansion that will bring its new School of Data Science and relocate its College of Business to the creek, to incorporate the creek’s design with the design of the campus, while creating an inviting space for students.
From the $59.38 million approved on Tuesday, $48.49 million will be used for construction; $3.06 million for project management services; $4.84 million will go toward construction services and archeological studies, and $3 million will be used to complete pre-construction and designs for the third segment of Phase 1 and Phase 2. Those designs are expected to be completed by October 2019.
SARA officials Tuesday stated that $39.98 million of the total available funding was designated for San Pedro Creek Culture Park, and that utility companies such as SAWS and CPS Energy would reimburse $2.48 million. Commissioners approved $16.4 million in county funds from a federal government reimbursement, specifically for the 2013 Mission Reach project.
The presentation did result in some confusion about project costs, as well as the cost of redesigns.
“The numbers, when I add them up, are really adding up,” said County Commissioner Tommy Calvert, who called for a future off-session meeting with SARA.
"This document from 2014 indicates the original design authorization was for $13.9 million," he said, "but by my calculations, when I added up the amendments from May 2016, July 2016, October 2016, June 2017, February 2018—not including today—I got $22,832,000. And so then from the original budget, on just design ... that’s almost 100 percent over (budget).”
SARA officials said they would send a more detailed breakdown of the costs, but that the funds spent on redesigns help save on construction costs down the road, SARA General Manager Suzanne Scott said.
"It’s a balance," she said.
The first segment of Phase 1—from the flood tunnel inlet behind the Fox Tech campus to Houston Street—was completed under budget and opened in May. However, the park closed in June for redesigns after children swam in an area intended for wading and with potentially harmful bacteria.
The first phase was built to attract visitors, said County Commissioner Paul Elizondo, "so people, especially children, can’t help but want to get in there.”
"It's just a simple thing, to me, with all the brains that you guys have and all the fees we're putting up, that we can’t come up with that," Elizondo told SARA staff members. "It doesn’t have to be treated water and all this magical stuff."
"Whatever water is brought to all the swimming pools downtown and at the hotels—bring that for that particular segment, put the rest into the regular system as planned and keep [the creek water and swimming water separate."
SARA officials said they would consider ways to make Elizondo’s proposed potable water segment a possibility, but it would require finding a way to prevent runoff contamination, safely convey stormwater and receive special permits from both the state of Texas and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
"There are limits as to what can be done in a natural creek," Scott said. "We’re continuing to explore it, but there’s a lot of factors that we have to work on."
The micro park, a public space, would be the first of its kind in downtown San Antonio. In place of four current metered parking spaces, the parklet would provide tables and chairs and benches protected from traffic by a series of planters.
Martinez said the parklet would take 1-2 months to assemble.
Last Wednesday, the Planning Commission approved the pocket park, and the project is headed to the City Council on Dec. 13.
The city will "permit" the four parking spots—on the east side of Jefferson, between Houston Street and Peacock Alley—to AREA Real Estate for 10 years. The permit will cost AREA for $800 per year, according to the Center City Development and Operations department. A portion of the commercial loading zone at the end of the parklet, next to the alley, would remain available.
"The goal is to provide a positive pedestrian and seating experience for up to a 10-year permitted period," the Center City Development and Operations Department said in a statement.
In an interview last week, Martinez said the city can choose to remove the parklet at any time.
"It's subject to removal at anytime by the city," Martinez said.
None of the modular pieces are permanent, and the whole thing can be disassembled in two days, architects from the Austin firm dwg. said at a Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) meeting in September.
During that meeting, the only opposition came from the San Antonio Conservation Society, whose main concern was over the loss of parking spaces.
AREA Real Estate, David Adelman's company, has renovated the Burns building. In early August, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Cogeco Peer 1 moved into offices on the third and fourth floors. The second floor remains available. On the ground level and in the basement, Dallas-based Devils River Whiskey will eventually move its headquarters and open a distillery. Barber Church Holdridge has already opened a shop there. And CommonWealth Coffee & Bakery is scheduled to move in in the coming months.
» Commonwealth to open third downtown coffee shop, join Traveler barbershop in Burns
» Parklet concept next to Burns building gets approval
» Devils River Whiskey, barber, coffee shop, pocket park coming to Burns
San Pedro Creek Culture Park's wading area, the section that had been closed for about a month because people were swimming in water with high E. Coli levels, is back open.
The section, known as the Plaza de Fundacion, was built as a wading-only area, but some residents ignored warning signs against swimming. About a month after the park opened May 5, the San Antonio River Authority closed off the segment for modifications.
Now the depth of the channel in the plaza between the manantial, or spring fountain, to the leveled cascades area has been reduced from 18 inches to two inches. Changes were also made to the piping of the water throughout the plaza, and a channel was completely removed from the cascade area to provide a flat surface.
“These modifications, in addition to the improved signage, are proactive measures to retrofit the plaza so that the initial design intent for wading can continue and that users can safely interact with the park water features,” said Suzanne Scott, the river authority’s general manager.
E. Coli levels in the wading area had increased to twice the safety amount after heavy rainfall in May, prompting the closure. Water quality samples are taken by SARA every Wednesday, Scott said. Findings are posted on SARA’s website at the end of the week.
Out of San Pedro Creek's entire $158.9 million budget for the culture park, $60 million was spent on the first segment that opened in May — from the creek inlet behind CAST Tech High School to Houston Street.
Construction has already begun on the next segment, which extends west from Houston to Nueva streets, and will tentatively be completed in mid-2020, Scott said. However, a final budget for this second segment won’t be determined until the fall.
“We’ll know by fall if the funding will get us through or if we’ll need additional funding,” she said.
Featured photo by Ben Olivo | San Antonio Heron