By Richard Webner | Heron contributor
Many seem to admire the concept of The Link, a proposal to connect the River Walk and San Pedro Creek Culture Park with a walking path and waterway, allowing pedestrians to stroll from, say, Penner’s to the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center on continuous parkland.
Yet the project, championed by Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Calvert, would require that the city-owned Savings Street be eliminated, and three other city streets be converted into bridges—and the city of San Antonio so far hasn’t offered any financial support.
On Tuesday morning, concerns over whether the city would jump on board led to sparring between county commissioners, who voted 3-2 to approve a $2 million study advancing the project into its engineering phase. There were also questions about the lack of transparency with the San Antonio River Authority (SARA), who’s leading the feasibility phase, and which had already selected an engineering firm before the commissioners voted.
The Link “sounds wonderful,” Precinct 3 Commissioner Marialyn Barnard said at the court meeting, but she proposed postponing the vote until the city commits, saying there was a “less risky way of stepping up.” Calvert, representing Precinct 4, failed last year in his effort to get the city to allot money from the 2022-2027 bond program. For its part, the commissioners court last year voted to allocate $41.1 million from its overall $242 million budget allocation for 26 county-wide creek projects and trail extensions.
Barnard’s proposal was met with forceful opposition from Calvert, who questioned whether she could make it after he promptly motioned for approval before County Judge Nelson Wolff had finished making his statement in support of the project. Calvert has said the project’s price tag could be $80 million or higher.
“We have a project,” Calvert said. “Please do not say we don’t have a project. Even if it’s only $41.1 million, we will have an outstanding project that people from around the world will see. Period. … This will bring billions of dollars, thousands of jobs. And our local community financially will benefit.”
Calvert said The Link, which also gained support from Precinct 2 Commissioner Justin Rodriguez, could pay for itself through the increased property tax revenue it would create in surrounding properties. He cited the development spawned by the Mission Reach and Museum Reach extensions of the River Walk.
“I could create a new TIRZ along this route and pay for it,” Calvert said.
Barnard’s motion to delay was rejected by a 3-2 vote. Precinct 1 Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores voted with Barnard, asking whether the county should be funding a new waterway when it had yet to finish the San Pedro Creek Culture Park and there are so many infrastructure needs outside downtown.
“There’s only so much money we have at the county,” Clay-Flores said. “I made a commitment to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars. That’s why I’m voting ‘no’ … I have issues with apparently a contractor (that) has already been chosen to work on something we haven’t approved, yet. The majority of this is city land, yet we don’t have a financial commitment from them. And we are not yet done with San Pedro Creek.”
In her remarks, Clay-Flores was referring to the selection of local engineering firm Vickrey & Associates, which was handpicked by the father of The Link concept, the late Al Groves, an engineer known for having designed the River Walk extension to the Convention Center in 1968.
Wolff agreed and rebuked SARA for choosing Vickrey & Associates to conduct the study before approaching commissioners to vote on it. Rodriguez also said he was concerned with how Vickrey was chosen.
“We don’t like the idea of you picking engineers then coming to us,” Wolff told representatives of SARA. “That was an inappropriate action by the River Authority.”
Kerry Averyt, SARA’s engineering design and construction manager, told the court that Vickrey was chosen from a “prequalified list of consultants” because the firm had already been working on the project with Groves, who came up with the idea.
The engineering study, to be conducted over the next year, will analyze the project’s feasibility, recommend a way of completing it and provide a cost estimate.
Under current plans, The Link would begin at the River Walk level where Augusta meets Convent streets, gradually inclining to street level until it connects with the San Pedro Creek Culture Park trail.
In a recent interview with the Heron, Calvert laid out a vision in which The Link would complement give rise to an entertainment district in a forgotten stretch of west downtown, in tandem with a $450 million mixed-use development anchored by a Dream Hotel that is in the works beside the park’s path. The multi-phased development called Riverplace is being planned by a group that includes area developer Chuck Brehm and would also include residential towers of 21 and 20 stories, a 21-story office building, and a second hotel 12 stories tall.
The private development has already received an incentive agreement from the city for downtown housing worth an estimated $4.4 million, the bulk of which is a 75% rebate on city property taxes over 15 years.
Meanwhile, local development firm Weston Urban is seeking to buy land in the park’s path for a baseball stadium; it’s unclear whether the two projects could coexist.
[ Related: A stadium or a new waterway? Leaders present competing visions for site in west downtown | July 1, 2022 ]
A slideshow presented at Tuesday’s meeting identified potential sources of funding for The Link: the city’s 2027-2032 bond program; state and federal infrastructure funds; the “Hotel Occupancy Tax” (presumably referring to the city’s tax); a public-private partnership; and the city’s Houston Street Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ).
The Link has received tepid support from District 1 City Councilman Mario Bravo, who told the Heron earlier this month that it wasn’t a project he was “focused on.”
Yet, Mayor Ron Nirenberg recently voiced support for the project, telling the Heron it was a “great vision.”
On Tuesday, Calvert was emphatic that the project is going forward, pointing out to his fellow commissioners that they had already approved $41.1 million in funding for it last year.
Brehm said on Tuesday that he is close to lining up financing for the hotel, set to be 21 stories tall. Other components of the project—including a multifamily building, an office building, another hotel and a high-rise condo tower—will be done in later phases, he said.
[ Related: Developers of $400M Riverplace project sign incentive agreement with city | April 20, 2021 ]
Each component will be roughly 20 stories tall, he said, describing that height as a “sweet spot” for construction and financial risk.
“We’re just about completed there,” Brehm said of the hotel’s financing. “We’re hoping to break ground in six months if everything goes as it should with the approval process.”
He said he has partners in place for the hotel and multifamily components of the project, though he declined to say who they were.
Since he revealed his plans in the spring of last year, the construction industry has struggled with soaring costs of construction materials such as steel and concrete. He is confident that the project will prevail despite those challenges.
“It doesn’t have the project at risk, but obviously it’s a challenge, almost weekly, monthly, to keep up with pricing,” he said. “It’s important that we move as soon as we can to stay ahead of that.”
The project is not contingent upon The Link being built, he said.
“If The Link were to not happen, that wouldn’t stop us,” he said. “But it just contributes so much to the area. We’d like to see the area become a very vibrant, entertainment-oriented reason for people to come downtown, for people to live there.”
Richard Webner is a freelance journalist covering Austin and San Antonio, and a former San Antonio Express-News business reporter. Follow him at @RWebner on Twitter
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