Published by USA Today on October 3, 2013. To read the original article, click here.
Say hello to the new San Antonio River Walk: a 15-mile stretch that connects the southerly Spanish missions to the Pearl Brewery, where change is happening at lightning speed.
The multi-year project doesn’t merely enhance our enjoyment of the river: It fundamentally changes the waterway by returning it to its natural state. On Oct. 5, the city celebrates completion of the Mission Reach: 8 miles of reclaimed waterways connecting downtown to the historic Spanish missions located south of city center.
The San Antonio River has been at the heart of the Alamo City for centuries — long before Texas gained independence from Mexico or joined the United States — but our relationship with it has always been complex due to flooding caused by the overflow of its banks. City officials have been mitigating this risk since 1724, when a severe flood forced them to move the Alamo.
During the 1930s came the first recognition of the river’s aesthetic potential and early plans for development, but safety remained top of mind. To prevent flooding, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reshaped parts of the river, causing it to lose some of its lovely twists and turns. Although those changes compromised the natural ecosystem, they were considered necessary evils. Besides, the waterway’s core — which became the world-renowned River Walk — emerged and thrived.
From its first restaurant in 1946 (Casa Rio, which is still operating and worth a visit) to countless establishments lining its banks, the River Walk became synonymous with San Antonio. It and the nearby Alamo draw an estimated 26 million travelers per year, making downtown feel like a tourist trap, at least to locals.
Then, several years ago, the city undertook a $358 million project to restore the river to its natural state while connecting its furthest reaches through expanded pathways.
Local billionaire Kit Goldsbury simultaneously began funding an urban redevelopment project at the former Pearl Brewery, now home to the Culinary Institute of America’s San Antonio campus, and some of the city’s best restaurants, shops, and bars. These new additions are located on the Museum Reach, a quieter stretch of the river — making them both tourist- and local-friendly. The city opened the first half of the Museum Reach in 2009, allowing walkers and cyclists access to the Pearl, San Antonio Museum of Art, and VFW Post 76 (the oldest in Texas) — and is working to complete its northern counterpart, home to the Witte Museum, San Antonio Zoo, and Brackenridge Park.
Although southern expansion fosters foot and bicycle traffic (and boating, if you bring your own kayak), the Mission Reach has more to do with environmental sustainability than urban development. The colorful barges passing under downtown bridges can’t access this part of the river, and you won’t encounter hotels or bars along its shores. But you’ll spot native plants and a proliferation of wildlife, because San Antonio painstakingly restored this tract of the river to its natural state, providing a safe haven for migrating birds and Monarch butterflies.
From downtown, access the Museum Reach: on foot; via the city’s bike scheme; or from your perch aboard a river taxi heading north. Peruse ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman art (the largest collection in the southern USA) at the San Antonio Museum of Art before venturing to the Pearl, a destination unto itself. Wander its historic grounds before dining at any of its acclaimed eateries (my favorites are Sandbar and Il Sogno, both run by Andrew Weissman, who recently opened a mobile eatery, The Luxury, downstream); La Gloria (authentic Mexican fare); and Arcade Midtown Kitchen, a stellar newcomer. Notably, all of these restaurants are run by San Antonio natives. In addition to housing permanent tenants, the Pearl hosts a weekly farmer’s market and annual festivities, including December’s beloved tamale festival.
From downtown, head to the Mission Reach: on foot or bicycle, which you can collect outside of Blue Star Brewing Company (in case you haven’t noticed, San Antonio likes beer), which brews on-site and offers organic food in its eponymous restaurant. Down the street, you’ll find the Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum. After exploring bohemian South Town, strike off for the rugged pathways of the Mission Reach, where you’ll encounter turtles, birds, and the quiet hum of nature.
For more information: thesanantonioriverwalk.com