Walkers, hikers, runners, cyclists, birders, fishermen, picnickers, historians, tourists and paddlers are discovering the joys of the southernmost reaches of the San Antonio River Walk along Mission Reach.
Four landmark Spanish missions are now connected by pathways and trails along the historic $245 million Mission Reach project, which extends south of downtown for eight miles from Lone Star Boulevard past missions Concepción, San José, San Juan and Espada.
While much of the water’s beauty was sacrificed for utilitarian flood control in the 1960s, the San Antonio River Authority said the Mission Reach Ecosystem Restoration and Recreation Project established a quality riparian woodland ecosystem, including creating 113 acres of aquatic habitat and building 31 structures mimicking natural ripples and pools.
Trail counters tracking pedestrian and bike usage showed more than a half-million tallies in 2019.
“The San Antonio River Authority and Bexar County focused intently on restoring significant ecological functions and values to a section of the river while maintaining the vital flood-conveyance function of the river and the protection from flooding for the adjacent neighborhoods,” said Suzanne Scott, San Antonio River Authority general manager.
She added, “The ecosystem restoration has produced outcomes beyond what was projected when we originally envisioned the project. We are very pleased with the project’s ecological benefits, but are most satisfied by the thousands of visitors who enjoy the Mission Reach every month.”
A burgeoning fowl population attests to natural-habitat upgrades, which include landscaping the river’s banks with native plants and removing invasive organisms. A multiyear avian study counted more than 64,000 birds and 201 different species utilizing the grounds.
For humans, public art, picnic tables, boardwalks, dams, docks, pavilions, benches, fountains, restrooms, lighting, historical markers and other public amenities make the area much more accessible.
The project played a vital role in the UNESCO World Heritage designation of the San Antonio missions. Also, more than $660 million in private and public developments have been announced along the length of the undertaking. Several new housing and office structures were built, with more planned or under construction.
The redevelopment of Hot Wells and a trail connection to Brooks — formerly Brooks City Base — are two fresh, ongoing endeavors.
Earlier this year, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, said SARA would obtain sizable Mission Reach repayments, in which U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-San Antonio, also worked to secure funding.
Bexar County advanced $61.3 million to cover part of the federal cost share of the Mission Reach, which made it possible to complete the project sooner. Over the past seven years, since the Mission Reach opened in 2013, the project has received $35.2 million in paybacks from the federal government. The $26 million is the remainder of the $61.3 million in Bexar County funds that were eligible for federal reimbursement.
“We’re very excited to have received the final reimbursement from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the Mission Reach,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said. “This final $26 million will be reinvested in water-resource projects like the San Pedro Creek Culture Park, which continues to provide flood mitigation, economic development and recreational opportunities, as it continues to move (toward) completing its second phase.”
San Antonio Chamber of Commerce officials said Mission Reach has enhanced South Side economic development, encouraged businesses to locate nearby, and increased the city’s tax base.
“When the county decided to advance funding for the project, we never thought a reimbursement could be possible,” San Antonio Chamber President and CEO Richard Perez said. “Vision, hard work, and a strong Washington delegation proved that the idea was real.”
“The revitalization of the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River not only preserves its beauty, but helps to attract major manufacturers to the South Side,” added Precinct 1 Commissioner Sergio “Chico” Rodriguez. “Not only has Toyota Manufacturing expanded their capabilities since their arrival, but numerous others such as Navistar have decided to join us on the South Side as well. If we expect to bring jobs to the South Side, then we absolutely need to provide a world-class destination with world-class attractions.”
Last June, Bexar County commissioners OK’d more than $72.3 million for the most recent stages of a $175 million restoration of San Pedro Creek. Segment 1 of the creek’s park opened in May 2018; a second phase is currently being built from Houston to Nueva streets.
In total, park construction consists of more than 60,000 linear feet of new walls; replaces eight street bridges and all associated utilities while adding four miles of walking trails and 11 acres of landscaping.
“The reimbursement will allow for reinvestment in other transformational water-resources projects like the San Pedro Creek Culture Park as part of the Westside Creeks Restoration Project,” Scott said. “These opportunities will also provide our community increased access to more natural creekways.”
Once fully complete, the county estimates the Culture Park would spur a $1.5 billion economic impact by creating 2,100 modern housing units, 1,428 more downtown employees, 7,300 new downtown residents, a 150 percent increase in new property value and $227 million in ad valorem tax revenues.
When finished, the four phases will span 2.2 miles through downtown, beginning at Interstate 35 South at the flood tunnel inlet at Santa Rosa Street and ending at the confluence of the Alazán and Apache creeks at I-35 to the south.