For decades, the channel of the San Antonio River north of the popular restaurants and retail shops downtown was overgrown and blighted — the kind of place tourists went only if they made a wrong turn. But not anymore.
A $72 million overhaul — essentially doubling the size of the River Walk — has transformed the dry, weed-choked eyesore north of the River Walk into a 1 1/2-mile manicured waterway with whimsical art, benches and fountains that can be passed on foot or by water taxi en route to attractions upriver.
The so-called museum reach of the River Walk, which opened May 30, connects visitors from the busy convention center and Alamo area to the San Antonio Museum of Art and the Pearl Brewery, a retail redevelopment project. Beyond that, this fall a path will allow pedestrians and cyclists to keep going north along the river to Brackenridge Park, home of the Witte Museum and the zoo.
"The entire river is an artwork," said Phil Hardberger, the mayor who pushed the project and saw it open on his last weekend in office. "The river, as it changes character, will assume different shapes and different personalities."
The River Walk, a bustling development built in the 1940s with help from President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, is already the most popular tourist attraction in Texas, just ahead of the nearby Alamo. But beyond the River Walk, much of the other 11 miles of riverbed had been neglected over the years.
Now, visitors will able to ride water taxis from downtown, hailing them from any of the landings, or walk the paved path past the lock system that raises and lowers the boats so they can move upstream and downstream, navigating the 9-foot elevation change.
Along the way, trees and flowers line the sidewalks with covered overlooks and water features. A small steel bridge that once allowed beer kegs to move between the two towers of the old Lone Star Brewery, now home to the art museum, was salvaged from the scrap heap and turned into a small footbridge over the river, said Boone Powell, the lead designer on the project.
The nonprofit San Antonio River Foundation raised money to place 12 pieces of art along the 3 miles of walkway. The art includes a 150-foot cement cave-like sculpture with a waterfall and a school of brightly colored sunfish suspended from wires beneath the Interstate 35 overpass.
The pathways are lighted at night, as are many of the art works. Two other pieces that are under bridges are designed to be at their showiest after dark.
"The project itself provides a surprise around every corner. To get the full experience you have to go during the day, then in the evening and then at night," said Suzanne Scott, general manager for the San Antonio River Authority, the agency that manages the river.
Retail and residential development along the museum reach is expected to grow in coming years, but the river renovation has already allowed the art museum to open a grand new entrance off the river and has given visitors a new way to access the stores and weekly farmers market at the Pearl Brewery.
It also provides easy access to a historic spot that was largely hidden before the River Walk made it more accessible. VFW Post 76, the oldest in Texas, occupies a grand two-story columned mansion along the river, and its first-floor bar — which opens every afternoon and serves ice-cold beer "until everyone has gone home or 2 a.m., whichever comes first" — will serve you even if you're not a veteran of a foreign war.
The San Antonio River, a waterway so narrow that Hardberger says "some people in the East would probably call it a 'crick,' " begins just north of downtown before it joins the San Pedro Creek about 13 miles downstream. The waterway drew Indians and later, European settlers, including the missionaries who built the Alamo, to the area.
In the 1800s, the river served mills and breweries like Pearl and Lone Star, which used the water for power and to make ice. As the industrial buildings aged, however, the riverbed was largely ignored until the recent restoration push.
The museum reach is the first and most urban of the redevelopment plans, but officials hope by 2014 to have completely restored the San Antonio River. Sections reaching to the northern edge of Brackenridge Park and downriver to the southernmost of the five historic missions are in various stages of development.
"The river is why there is a San Antonio," said Hardberger. "It connects our city together in a way that nothing else does."