When I was in graduate school and working at the City of Akron, officials there made a trip to San Antonio to see how that city had developed its River Walk. Many cities in the United States had canals, but that mode of transportation was replaced in the mid 19th century by railroads. More than a decade later I had my first opportunity to see the canals of San Antonio, the San Antonio Riverwalk.
My notion of what the canals would be like wasn’t based on the canals in Akron, but it may have been some combination of those canals and photos of Venice, Italy. What I wasn’t prepared for was the fact that the canals in San Antonio are significantly below grade. They also don’t stem from 19th-century transportation.
After a disastrous flood in 1921, plans emerged to build a dam and pave over a bend in the San Antonio River and create a storm sewer. Luckily for us, protests emerged, and in 1929 architect Robert Hugman submitted his plans for what would become the River Walk.
Instead of paving over the bend, Hugman suggested surrounding it by commercial development. What’s most amazing to me is that this all happened at a time when the automobile was gaining traction and railroad transportation had a strong hold. Of course, there was still significant pedestrian development then, but it was largely around roadways and streetcar lines. I was not aware that much of anyone was thinking about development that was exclusively pedestrian-oriented.
Funding for the development took a decade to materialize, but the WPA provided for construction of a network of some 17,000 feet of walkways, about 20 bridges, and extensive plantings, including some with branches stretching up to 10 stories visible from street level.
Casa Rio, a landmark River Walk Mexican restaurant run by Germans, would become the first restaurant in the area in 1946, opening next door to Hugman’s office.
Many of the buildings along the River Walk have both a ground level street face and a canal-level face opening onto the walkway. Newer buildings including a shopping mall also open to the canal.
There’s nothing like this elsewhere in the United States. My friend and I talked about how it might have been possible to reach a consensus to build such an unconventional system. Getting over that initial and natural mind block of doing something completely differently would have been tough, but once built, come they did.
It also has to be one of the few transportation networks in the U.S. that’s been continually utilized and expanded without any of the older parts falling into disuse. That can’t be said of streetcar lines, with a few possible exceptions such as New Orleans. It can’t be said of roadways or highways which are always undergoing rebuilding and relocating, and I don’t even know of any specific commercial pedestrian corridors where it’s true. I imagine the River Walk that exists now will look much the same 100 years from now, the only difference being it may be extended.
The place is so wonderful I hate to critique it, and my critique would be there are few places to live around the River Walk. I did notice some commercial buildings downtown being converted to residential uses, and perhaps further extensions of the system can include residential sections. It just seems such a perfect environment; I would think it would be appealing to spend every day there, not just a few days on vacation.
The other critique stems from that. The water taxis aren’t taxis; they’re sight-seeing barges which let you off where you got on. Should you want to go from the hotel to the mall without walking, you’d be better off above ground.
Above ground, the city is attractive in some places and could use improvement in others. Upon arriving at the San Antonio Art Museum, I noticed I could have gotten there simply by following the River Walk. Arriving by a city bus. However, I did note a lack of charm in the area. Around the hotel near Market Square was also largely underutilized industrial land that would seem the perfect place for future housing development.
Again I want to stress, however, that any city with something as unique and enduring as the River Walk can be forgiven other faults. One never need leave its miles of serene river trails to experience what may be a unique system for pedestrian traffic in the United States.