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