The Second Battle for San Antonio

Two miles of expressway is having a harder time moving through the Alamo City than Santa Anna did.

April 1973By Comments

LIKE MOST PEOPLE, I enjoy using expressways to drive fast from one point to another without worrying about traffic jams. The idea of an expressway linking the northern end of San Antonio with the southern end, bypassing the downtown area’s labyrinthine street system, has great appeal for me.

Yet, I enjoy the present serenity of Olmos Park and I hate the idea of seeing this serenity ruined forever by a great river of concrete. The question of building the North Expressway is now 13 years old and is still unresolved. The expressway issue stirs strong passions on both sides, and I have as many friends against it as I have friends who are for it—and it makes for a lively, and even violent, evening to get them together.

Despite the length of the struggle, San Antonio still does not have this expressway, and the pity of it is that the one we will probably get is the one most calculated to harm the particular charm of San Antonio’s open spaces. The story behind it all is as dismal as it is frustrating.

Today San Antonio is girdled by Loop 410 and crisscrossed by I.H. 10 and I.H. 35. There is no north-to-south expressway, but not because one wasn’t planned. Back in 1959 city officials, boosters and members of the Chamber of Commerce planned an expressway that would serve the rapidly growing areas in north San Antonio and would tidy up the north-south traffic flow.

On June 30 of that year, a delegation appeared before the Texas Highway Department in Austin requesting that a route for a controlled access highway be designated to serve the north end of town. It is the northeast and northwest quadrants of San Antonio that contain most of the city’s wealth, and it is in these sections where the greatest growth potential was being realized and where the international airport was located. The proponents reasoned that an expressway more directly serving the north end of town would not only enable thousands to reach homes in new housing developments already built, a-building or planned, but could also enable thousands to rush more quickly into the languishing central business district from outlying areas. Thus the two groups, besides commuters, who stood to benefit most from such an expressway were the real estate developers, who wield considerable political clout, and, to a much lesser extent, the downtown merchants. Conservationists were not immediately provided with the details, but anybody with a pencil and an Exxon map could have determined that a super-highway beginning near the airport and plunging southward must inevitably head through open space and parklands.

Reaction came quickly. The San Antonio Conservation Society (largely responsible for saving the downtown part of the river from becoming a covered-over sewer in the 1930’s) fired off letters and telegrams to City Hall, to Austin and to Washington. When the plans were released a month later, the conservationists believed their fears were justified. Drawings indicated that the recommended route would affect Olmos Basin Park and Brackenridge Park, the San Antonio Zoo, the Sunken Gardens, a bird sanctuary, a girl-scout camp, nature trails, two golf courses and the grounds of Trinity University and Incarnate Word College.

Could the State have chosen another route? It could have, and in fact did: a more straight-line approach avoiding much of the threatened areas. But the Mayor of the tiny municipality of the City of Olmos Park, containing all of 2,500 inhabitants, stated categorically, “Our city is not going to have any highway on its grounds—not one inch!” The mayor’s alarm was triggered by more than principle. Although the expressway would have cut through only a small part of the corporate limits, the route required the removal of a number of solid and hugely expensive homes whose owners would not take kindly to bulldozers plowing through their choice real estate. Without the approval of the City of Olmos Park, the route across its territory was doomed.

Newspapers began publishing a series of photographs taken from the air with the route of the expressway carefully airbrushed in. The route was indicated clearly enough, but not available was a complete study of the environmental impact the expressway would have on the surrounding terrain. The voters were nonetheless summoned to the polls on June 28, 1960, to decide a bond election calling for $3.5 million to purchase right-of-way through the intended corridor. The proposal was defeated. A renewed publicity campaign was laid on by the City, and the second election held six months later resulted in a victory by a 2-1 majority.

Events moved slowly from the vote to the fall of 1963, when the Texas Highway Department held a public hearing to discuss the route. The meeting was packed with conservationists and advocates of the expressway alike, and invective was hurled from both sides. The exchanges were reminiscent of earlier meetings when architect Sam Zisman, who called the City’s justifications “a fine snow job,” was shouted down. “Let him ask his question, then throw him out,” cried one. At this point, the conservationists had no real legal legs to stand on in the form of strong environmental protective legislation. Six months after the hearing the appropriate Federal agency approved the plans, and structures began to disappear along the right-of-way.

Then, on April Fool’s Day, 1967, the Department of Transportation National Environmental Protection Act went into effect. Section 4(f) of this act was especially pertinent to the battle for the North Expressway since it states that the Federal government shall not approve any program or project requiring the use of any publicly owned land from a park, recreation area or wildlife or waterfowl refuge unless there is no feasible and prudent alternative, and even then it requires that all plans be carried out to minimize harm to these areas.

The San Antonio Conservation Society presented Transportation secretary Alan Boyd with a petition requesting Federal review of the entire operation. Boyd, using Section 4(f) as a guide, imposed four conditions on the expressway plan before he would give it his approval; three conditions involved esthetics or objections to noise, while the fourth required the contractors to look elsewhere than the park basin for the 129 acres of fill required for the expressway’s soaring embankments. The Texas Highway Department rejected these conditions out of hand, as it did a subsequent proposal that the expressway be routed along Devine Road, which already cut through Olmos Park.

President Nixon’s Transportation Secretary John Volpe was greeted with a new strategy. The Texas highwaymen reasoned that if they could go ahead and build the two end segments of the expressway as planned, then they could only be hooked up by the 2.7-mile center portion where the City wanted, i.e., through the parks. This flanking maneuver was tried out on Volpe, and after lengthy negotiation a deal was reached: work on the end segments could begin, using Federal money, while studies on the disputed center segment were carried out. Two giant contractors, H.B. Zachry and Killian-House, both based in San Antonio, were given the go signal, and the bulldozers began to roll. But the City, contrary to agreement, made no new studies; the center segment was going to march through the parks as originally planned.

The spirit of the environmental law was held in contempt, and the letter was being circumvented. But the decision to begin construction at both ends while the issue of the center portion was unresolved was as foolhardy as it was cynical: waiting in the wings was the Conservation Society. Suit was brought to stay construction, but was denied both in U.S. District Court in Austin and at the Court of Appeals of the 5th Circuit in New Orleans. Then, four days after the men and machines began to build north and south, the Conservation Society threw in its hand.

Individual members of the Society picked up the suit and carried it to the United States Supreme Court where, on December 7, 1970, a stay was granted and work on the expressway was ordered stopped. The stay was vacated three weeks later when a writ of certiorari was denied, freeing the earth movers. The dissenting opinion handed down by Justice Hugo Black is alternately lyrical and angry.

“This case disturbs me greatly,” he said. Concerning Brackenridge Park, Justice Black observed: “It is a lovely place for people to retreat from the frantic pace of bustling urban life to enjoy the simple pleasures of open space, quiet solitude and clean air. It is a refuge for young and old alike—the kind of park where a family man can take his wife and children, or lovers can while away a sunny Sunday afternoon together. After today’s decision [vacating the stay] the people of San Antonio and the birds and animals that make their home in the park will share their quiet retreat with an ugly, smelly stream of traffic pouring down a super six-lane ‘North Expressway.’ Trees, flowers and shrubs will be mown down. The cars will spew forth air and noise pollution contaminating those acres not buried under concrete.

Justice William O. Douglas said he “did not believe we will have a more important case this term. No Federal question would be presented if Texas or San Antonio decided to turn these parklands into a biological desert. But when Congress helps finance a project like this freeway, it becomes a Federal project…and Congress have resolved that it will not allow Federal agencies or Federal funds to be used in a predatory manner.”

By May of 1971, with five uninterrupted months of work behind them, the two contractors had finished 30 percent of the southern end and 45 percent of the north segment. Money was being eaten up at the rate of $14,000 a day, but another year or so would bring the ends to the edges of the two park systems. After that, the 12,000 foot gap would be bridged and the job completed. There were visions of mid-point ceremonies reminiscent of driving the golden spike when the first transcontinental railroad was completed, or of the U.S. Seventh Army and the Russians shaking hands across the Elbe. But these visions were clouded by the threat of renewed action on the part of the conservationists and their allies, the Sierra Club, the Community Design Group, the Save our City organization and spontaneously formed groups from Trinity University, whose campus the expressway would foul with noise and exhaust fumes.

A similar case developing in Memphis, Tennessee, involving Overton Park was decided in favor of conservation by the Supreme Court while San Antonio’s own expressway forged ahead. The Overton decision provided the 5th Circuit Court in New Orleans with the required precedent, and on June 22, 1971, work on the North Expressway was again halted by court order. Judge Homer Thornberry, himself from Texas, handed down a 37 page decision that minced no words. Judge Thornberry said that “Secretary Volpe’s approach to his responsibilities makes a joke of the feasible and prudent alternatives standard, [and] we not only decline to give such approach our imprimatur, we specifically declare it unlawful.” He reminded the highwaymen that “the supremacy of Federal law has been recognized as a fundamental principle of our government since the birth of our Republic,” and warned Texas that “The State may not subvert that principle by a mere change in bookkeeping or shifting funds from one project to another.” Thornberry’s indictment was sweeping and final.

This unexpected reversal caught adherents of the expressway off balance. “There’s a states rights issue involved here,” warned San Antonio Mayor John Gatti after the decision.

The septuagenarian Mayor Emeritus, Walter McAllister, one of the North Expressway’s staunchest and most vociferous admirers, was “thoroughly completely shocked.” Less than a year previously he had returned from a meeting with Volpe roseate and confident. He was willing “to bet anyone a thousand dollars that we’ll get the expressway.” Now the conservationists at home and the copperheads in New Orleans had done them in, politicians, contractors, automobile owners and all. Echoing a political sentiment not heard since shots were fired at Fort Sumter more than a hundred years previously, McAllister announced that he was “about ready for Texas to secede from the Union.” The ex-Mayor found the Court of Appeals of the 5th Circuit “entirely out of order.”

In a move that should have been made years earlier by the City of San Antonio, an independent organization was called in by the Federal government to study the entire North Expressway project. Gruen Associates, Inc., of Los Angeles, a major national engineering firm, published its 120-page study in June, 1971. The report states at the outset that the analysis and evaluation are weighted in favor of preservation of parklands, but in view of the National Environmental Protection Act and sentiment rising in the nation against the loss of open spaces, this attitude is not to be wondered at.

The major findings of the Gruen Report are detailed in page 55, but its significance was to document for the first time, in hard, practical terms, the precise impact of the Expressway on San Antonio’s environment, right down to decibels of noise expected and a precise accounting of just what the Expressway would do to the major park and recreational areas.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the Gruen Report, however, is not its point-by-point dissection of the proposed Expressway, but in its clear analysis of alternate routes which would connect the same two points. Once the Gruen Report was published, the issue was no longer whether there should be a North Expressway or not, but rather, which route a North Expressway should take.

Gruen Associates listed seven possible alignments, all hooking up the two end segments whose construction was stopped more than 18 months ago. The most promising of these is the so-called Plan Green, which would have the expressway connect to the end segments in a nearly straight line, avoiding the deep swoop across the grounds of Incarnate Word and leaving the zoo and the Sunken Gardens untouched. Plan Green further avoids any impact on the Olmos Park picnic-creek area. Plan Green’s outstanding design features lies in the fact that almost all of its length would be depressed below ground level, leaving only three-fifths of a mile visible in the central section. It would require 33.6 fewer acres of right-of-way, and would need only 19 acres of fill as opposed to 129 acres demanded by the adopted plan. The price for this alternative routing is another $5 million and the destruction of ten substantial homes in the City of Olmos Park.

Mayor Tom Powell of Olmos Park has reiterated an earlier stand, flatly rejecting Plan Green. During a large public meeting on August 12, 1972, he rose and said, “We, the citizens, do not consider it prudent to raze our homes and plough up our front lawns because of an unnecessary Expressway route bisecting our city…You are hereby again put on notice that if efforts persist to force an undesired expressway route through our city, we shall resist the same in courts and otherwise by every means at our disposal.”

The State of Texas, in fact, has the right to force the expressway, through this, or any other, municipality if it comes to a showdown, but the State’s attorney for the North Expressway, Sam McDaniel, says that the State does not choose to exercise the right against the clear wishes of the municipality of Olmos Park, regardless of how small it is compared with San Antonio as a whole. So it’s a case of a small tail wagging a very substantial dog.

At about the same time the Gruen Report was released, a new Senate bill was introduced designed to circumvent the Protection Act, nullifying the key Section 4(f). Senate Bill S.3751 was introduced by Senator Lloyd Bentsen with the full backing of Senator John Tower. It calls for an amendment to the Federal Highway Act which would allow Texas to terminate its reliance on Federal aid on any particular highway program and to return any Federal funds remaining, whereupon “the particular project shall immediately cease to be a Federal-Aid project.” The last lines of the bill conclude with this clincher: “Such an approval of termination by the Secretary shall not be subject to judicial review. This section is retroactive.”

The intent of S.3751 is a transparent effort to overturn Judge Thornberry’s injunction against the State of Texas completing the North Expressway with its own funds. The U.S. Department of Transportation calls the proposed amendment “unnecessary legislation,” pointing out that there is nothing to prevent a state from returning Federal funds. “Indeed, the Department has encouraged such action on a number of occasions.”

Senator James Buckley (R.-Conservative, N.Y.) protested at length in the Senate against any tampering with the Act. Passage of Senator Bentsen’s bill, he said, would be “the first step in undermining on a case-to-case basis the environmental statutes which we now recognize as essential to safeguard the nation’s environment…involving the Congress in endless rounds of specific adjudications over whether this highway or that dam or this canal should be exempted from compliance with Federal environmental statutes.” Buckley added that “where the state has failed over a four-year period to consider alternatives clearly required by law I do not believe we should come to their rescue.”

The Bentsen-Tower amendment comes up again during the current session of Congress, this time as Section 147 of the Federal Aid Highway Act. The Texas Highway Department has filed a new statement in Washington strongly supporting Section 147, pointing out such diverse facts as San Antonians are four times safer on existing expressways than they are on lesser roads, and that without the North Expressway the traffic count at the juncture of San Pedro and Hildebrand Avenues will jump from today’s daily average of 27,000 to 51,000 by 1990—but with the North Expressway the 1990 count will be less than 36,000. Should the amendment pass, further litigation may well be unavoidable.

There is on the Texas lawbooks a statute, Article 5421.Q, similar to the Federal environmental law protecting parks and public lands. Conservationists are readying new suits based on this law against state funding of the expressway, should Senator Bentsen’s bill pass. Privately, State attorneys doubt if this law, as it is now written, will help the anti-expressway people as much as they hope it will.

When the amendment goes to the floor of the Congress once again, legislators will have to answer the question posed by the Gruen report.

“In the final analysis, the man-made facilities, both within the park and the areas adjacent, must be considered replaceable. What is not replaceable is the delicate balance between the natural environment and the imposition of man-made facilities…Once changed, these open spaces, whether actively or passively used, cannot be legislated back into existence. At what price can we no longer afford to maintain our natural environment?”

Hopefully, someone out there is listening.

Pros vs. Cons

Expressways Are Relics

“IT HAS BEEN SAID THAT nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come. By the same token there is nothing more ludicrous than an idea whose time has passed.”

“The San Antonio North Expressway is founded on the idea that roads equal transportation. When the North Expressway was being planned, 20-25 years ago, that idea had some merit. But viewed in today’s urban context we see that freeways, rather than providing efficient transportation, make travel more difficult, longer, frustrating, and hazardous. And in the bargain dependence on the private auto serves to make our cities uglier, the air more foul, and is a major drain on natural resources.”

“In the case of the North Expressway all the shortcomings and ills of a dedication to the expressway/auto idea are further coupled with destruction of an irreplaceable natural resource—San Antonio’s major urban park and open space system. It is time to recognize the North Expressway, and the idea from which it springs are relics of the past. In so doing we can get on with the task of providing a viable system of urban transportation which conserves both the environment and our city’s unique atmosphere of living.”

Tony Athens, Sierra Club President

Stop the Highwaymen

“NOW IS THE TIME TO inform the Congress, the Administration and the citizens of the United States that ripping through landscapes with concrete and asphalt will not improve on nature nor will it solve the nationwide transportation dilemma.”

“The proposal to “terminate the Federal aid relationship” of the expressway through park lands “notwithstanding any other provisions of Federal law or any court decisions to the contrary” is clearly a blatant attempt to circumvent laws designed to protect all of our people and their environment. It is a law and order issue. The precedent-setting legislation would open the flood gates for similar efforts all over the country by highwaymen who are trying to wriggle out of the detailed requirements of Federal law.”

“Law and order? I’m for it, but the highwaymen never were and never will be unless we “keep those cards and letters comin’,” to persons, particularly legislators, who will be willing to join us in overcoming the most powerful and dangerous lobby in the country—the diligent destroyers, the highwaymen.”

Wanda Ford, Anti-Expressway Organizer

Our Streets Are Overloaded

“THE BASIC NORTH FREEWAY ISSUE is whether or not local citizens can build—with their own money—a needed public facility they voted for, 2 to I. Most San Antonians believe that the environmental issue has been distorted by opponents, some sincere and some of whom use the park issue as a cover.

One must give weight to all of the factors. Considerations include:

(1) Citizens need and want the expressway to avoid thousands of hours being lost in traffic, to reduce accidents and air pollution. (103,000 people signed a petition in 1971 urging completion.)

(2) Alternatives have been studied and effects on parkland have been minimized.

(3) The city has provided 1,000 acres of additional parkland which the freeway will make accessible.

(4) The Federal Highway Administrator approved the route years before the federal provisions now used to entrap it.

(5) $11,000,000 in right-of-way and construction has been expended. It sits rotting while traffic stalls.

It just doesn’t make sense to do anything but complete it now. “

Robert D. Deegan, Highway Engineer

Complete It Now

“SAN ANTONIO IS EXPANDING AND developing to the north. As the new developments progress and are occupied by more and more people, then there are more vehicle trips to school, recreation, shopping and work.”

“The northeast section of San Antonio is served by I.H. 35 and the northwest section by I.H. 10, leaving the north-central section served only by a corridor street system of six streets. They are already overloaded. The use of Loop I.H. 410 as a distribution link between I.H. 10 and I.H. 35 has caused overloading conditions on this Loop. Another factor contributing to the congestion developing on the street corridor and Loop 410 is the increase in the number of trips to and from International Airport, which is about in the center of the City’s north-central area.”

“The opening of the North Expressway will provide a direct, fast route through the center of the area. It will aid in the reduction of traffic on Loop 410 and will provide needed relief for the over-crowded traffic conditions on San Pedro Avenue, Broadway, and other streets of the central corridor. The North Expressway will also provide a route for express bus mass transit service from the airport and Loop 410 shopping centers to the Central Business District.”

Frank A. Bennack, Jr., Publisher, San Antonio Light

Gruen Report: the Expressway’s Impact

AFTER ITS STUDY OF THE route insisted upon by the city and its impact on the environment, the Gruen Report makes these conclusions:

The scenic upper portion of the Alpine Road will be partially closed due to expressway construction.

The noise level generated by the expressway in the Outdoor Theater area is anticipated to range from 50 to 55 decibels. A noise-attenuating wall is proposed along the perimeter of the expressway, but this will be inadequate for truck-generated noises. Passing trucks and autos seen and felt below may be extremely disruptive to the function of the theater. In addition, air and dust pollution can be anticipated [here] and in the Sunken Garden area.

The expressway will separate the existing zoo area from its future expansion site to the west. The main lanes of the expressway will be visible by zoo visitors primarily from the southwest and northeast corners. Visibility and noise impact will come from the northbound off-ramp to Hildebrand Avenue and the newly relocated and elevated Hildebrand Avenue viaduct over the expressway.

The Incarnate Word school will be bisected, separating the high school from the rest of the facilities. The expressway will displace a substantial number of large, mature pecan trees and live oaks clustered in the area.

Expressway elevation will be approximately 10 to 18 feet above the backyards of several homes in the City of Olmos Park. Noise impact can be expected in this area.

The expressway will fragment and isolate various parts of Olmos Basin Park. The 12 to 35-foot high embankment will visually separate the eastern half of the park from the western half. Nearly 200 acres of this park will be needed for right-of-way and the three borrow sites, which average 9.6 feet in depth.

The scale and size of the six-lane elevated expressway will conflict directly with the serene setting of the relatively small and fragile park. The daily flow of 70,000 to 100,000 cars and trucks will be visible from nearly everywhere in the basin. The visual and sensual character will no longer be the same.

The noise and air-pollution impact, the visibility of the passing vehicles and trucks, the blocking of afternoon sunlight on the creek—all will contribute to the downgrading of one of the most significant and valued assets in Olmos Park, the picnic-creek area.

During the construction phase of the expressway there is a strong possibility that the fragile and sensitive nature of the creek might be entirely destroyed when bulldozers start to operate in the area.

The expressway will be approximately at grade with Contour Drive in the picnic area. A major noise impact to the adjacent residential area can be anticipated. The viaduct, 35 feet high over the creek, will destroy the western slope which is fully covered with large, mature live oak trees.

The massive viaduct proposed to cross over the top of Olmos Dam will creates a major visual and noise impact on the surrounding area. Major embankments will be required on both sides of the dam, with the expressway elevation rising about 15 feet higher than the ground or adjacent homes.

The total wooded acres to be displaced will be approximately 29 acres.

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