The Second Battle for San Antonio

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

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

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