Friday, October 30, 2015
Powerful players spar over San Pedro Creek design
Last week’s Bexar County Commissioners Court featured a rare conflagration.
Commissioner Paul Elizondo, the most powerful and most publicity shy member of the court, blew up at one of San Antonio’s quietest and most influential real estate developers.
Randy Smith heads Weston Urban, the real estate arm of Rackspace billionaire Graham Weston.
These folks play in the big leagues.
They recently announced the hiring of world-renowned architecture firm Pelli Clarke Pelli to design the new downtown tower for Frost Bank.
After Smith completed a presentation on a tax incentive regarding the Frost Tower, Elizondo stunned the court by taking the microphone and berating Smith for articles that have appeared in the Rivard Report, a popular online site covering downtown issues.
The site has published articles highly critical of architectural designs for the renovation of San Pedro Creek through the West Side of downtown.
The county is putting up $125 million of the $175-million project, and chose the engineering and architect team.
Elizondo supporter Henry Muñoz’s firm is the lead architect on the project.
Muñoz is not an architect, but is a political powerhouse.
He is the Democratic National Committee’s finance chairman.
He has won many public projects since becoming the vice president for marketing at the once-prominent firm of Jones & Kell.
The firm later became Kell Muñoz and is now Muñoz and Company.
Elizondo didn’t mince words in coming to Muñoz’s defense.
“Instead of coming to us and saying we don’t agree with this (design), the next thing we know we are reading in the Rivard Report what appeared to be criticism,” he told Smith.
In fact, Smith wasn’t quoted in the Rivard Report, although he has quietly criticized the Muñoz design in conversations and small groups.
The Rivard Report articles quote James Lifshutz, an inner-city developer best known as owner of Southtown’s burgeoning Blue Star development.
Elizondo slammed Smith for not quietly coming to the authorities with any criticism, but Lifshutz months ago wrote a critical letter to the San Antonio River Authority, which is overseeing the project.
He told the Rivard Report the design has a “grandiosity that does nothing to honor the history of San Pedro Creek, nor the generations of San Antonians who have lived and worked on or near its banks.”
But ironically, the first negative publicity came because of Muñoz himself.
He began talking about the creek becoming San Antonio’s version of New York’s celebrated High Line, a linear park created out of an abandoned elevated railway.
Muñoz imported one of the two men who led the effort to build the High Line, San Antonio native Robert Hammond, to give a presentation last May at the San Antonio Museum of Art.
Before his lecture, Hammond toured the creek and was shown Muñoz’s designs.
He told me he found them very objectionable, but withheld criticism out of politeness toward his host.
But when Muñoz implied to the audience that Hammond was endorsing the plan, Hammond felt the need to respond.
His criticisms led to an interview by Rivard and the first significant airing of problems with the design.
Hammond’s objections are conveyed in contrasting the High Line to the designs for San Pedro Creek.
“Our goal was to save the High Line from architecture,” he said, noting that a landscape architecture firm led the design team.
He would like to see the same for San Pedro Creek.
Hammond told the Rivard Report the creek “needs a much lighter touch ... more landscape and less architecture.”
Elizondo interpreted this and other criticism as being racist.
“You get all these snide remarks like it is too Mexican, it’s too Latin.”
Maybe some such comments have been made.
I haven’t heard them.
I do know that San Antonio has some great Hispanic architecture, ranging from the missions to the Central Library by the late Ricardo Legorreta, considered Mexico’s greatest architect.
But there is good and bad architecture of every tradition.
The point here is to do what works best for San Pedro Creek through downtown.
I agree with Hammond.
The creek should be sensitively and lightly dressed: More landscape and less architecture.