My wife, Luz Elena Solis Day, and I bought our “ruin” on E. Guenther St. in August, 1977, partially restored it, and moved into the house in June, 1978. We had unknowingly located across the street from Ilse Griffith, age 78, former president of the San Antonio Conservation Society and former president of the King William Association (1974-1976). Within a short period of time we were introduced into activist circles that were resolving issues confronted by a historical neighborhood adjacent to the city center.
Sometime in 1979, I was chatting with Ilse when Dorthea Phillips, a neighbor and Ilse’s friend, pulled up and started discussing the battle Justin Arecchi, then KWA president (1978-1979), was leading. It concerned the surplus federal government property on S. Main and E. Guenther. KWA had just arranged a grant with the Bexar County Historical Commission, led by Gen. Bill Harris, to fund an archeological study on this property. The neighbors and KWA were trying to stop the conversion of the four-block property into the central food distribution warehouse of the San Antonio ISD, and leverage was needed. The San Antonio Housing Authority had been identified as the best government agency that could use the property, but SAISD had won the rights to develop. Lo and behold, the funded backhoe discovered a Spanish acequia on the northeast corner. This became the environmental issue that forced the City, SAISD and SAHA to the table to discuss alternative solutions.
A complex deal was worked out whereby SAHA could take available urban renewal land near the Robert B. Green Hospital and swap it with SAISD. The land impacted by the acequia was made into the present park on the northeast corner of Sheridan St. and S. Main Ave. SAHA was able to relocate its headquarters to the northwest corner, and, eventually, elderly housing was built on the southeast corner. SAISD built its food distribution warehouse with easy access to IH-10 and IH-35 on the land swapped with SAHA.
In the 1960s, using U.S. Corps of Engineer funds and direction, the City, Bexar County and the San Antonio River Authority transformed the San Antonio River from Johnson St. to below Mission Espada into a big drainage ditch. Margaret Gething, who lived at 409 E. Guenther, led the fight in the 1960s to preserve the few trees that remained below S. Alamo, including those beautiful bald cypress at S. Alamo and at Constance.
In the 1980s when the COE came up with additional funds to do flood control work from the Johnson St. bridge into downtown, a better ethos about the benefits of the river had developed. Walter Mathis, the KWA and cooperating neighbors worked with the City to obtain additional funds and better plans. The COE and SARA agreed to limit the flood control work to the Nueva Street Dam and the concrete pilot channel. The City then funded the linear park and the neighbors funded the enhanced uniform fence that we all enjoy when we walk from E. Guenther into the downtown area. It is my opinion that if this small section had not been enhanced into a linear park in the 1980s, the recently-completed San Antonio River Improvements Project from Brackenridge Park to Mission Espada would not have been built. This project showed the potential and benefits of the river outside of the downtown area.
In 1990, the flood control agencies (COE, County, COSA and SARA) decided that instead of rebuilding 14 bridges through downtown to widen the flood control channel, the better solution was to drill a 25-foot diameter tunnel underneath the downtown area with the intake at Josephine St. (its current location) and the outfall across the river from the intersection of Constance and Crofton. Since the tunnel would be bored beneath or near our property and the construction activity would be on a 24-hour basis, I became concerned and wrote a lengthy questionnaire raising environmental and nuisance issues. Unrelated to this project, KWA had dedicated $15,000 and hired Maria Watson (now Maria Watson Pfeiffer) to obtain National Register Historical District designation for the neighborhood south of S. Alamo.
One fine September afternoon, SARA conducted a public hearing officiated by the COE. The COE representative presented the plans as a done deal. Questions and objections were raised, and also suggestions for an alternative site at Lone Star Blvd. Near the end of the hearing, the COE representative was advised that the S. Alamo-S. St. Mary’s Historical District was placed on the federal register about 15 days prior. Once he became aware that the COE would have to spend years determining whether the proposed tunnel outlet at Blue Star would or would not have a substantial environmental impact upon a National Register Historical District, the meeting was adjourned. A year later, COE and SARA announced the new location for the tunnel outlet at Lone Star (its present site). There were no objections. The tunnel was built much to the benefit of our neighborhood. Without the tunnel, the recently completed San Antonio River Improvements would not have been possible and the flood of 1998 would have been disastrous.
The way these projects were managed provides several valuable lessons:
- Informed citizen involvement and activism is necessary to counterbalance large projects where the impact upon the surrounding neighborhood has been only partially considered or not considered at all.
- There has to be some issue that needs resolving before the proposed developer is forced or will listen to outside input. Leverage and/or benefit are important. Rage usually does not work.
- The opposer must recognize that the proposer has a legitimate project and propose viable alternatives that partially meet the needs of both parties. The ability to listen and compromise is essential.
- Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. After dozens of such conflict resolutions, we still have a great neighborhood.
- Ed Day
KWA President 1992-93