In The San Antonio Report’s Trailist column, Brendan Gibbons highlights the newly opened Madla Greenway and speaks with Gretchen Howell, Senior Vice President of Community Development at SouthStar Communities.
Read the full article by Brendan Gibbons, The San Antonio Report, The Trailist, November 6, 2022
My favorite memento from my time at Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, a local nonprofit focused on protecting our drinking water, is an early-2000s postcard showing an aerial view of a vast patch of land on San Antonio’s North Side scraped bare of any vegetation.
“Greetings from San Antonio: Jewel of the Texas Hill Country,” the postcard reads, satirically labeling the development “Obsceno Ridge” on the back.
I love the way this card satirizes northern San Antonio’s pattern of scorched-earth development over and upstream of the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone, where seemingly endless acres of new concrete and asphalt funnel stormwater runoff into our drinking water supply. This kind of development also frequently destroys wildlife habitat, while offering people parks that are little more than postage stamps of grass with utility lines below.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. On San Antonio’s South Side, I recently saw an example of how a developer can create new housing while leaving space for nature and creating benefits for the broader community.
Last month, New Braunfels-based SouthStar Communities announced it had completed the first section of its planned Madla Greenway as part of its VIDA development just north of Texas A&M-San Antonio. In this hub of Southside growth centered on the university, VIDA plans to build approximately 1,500 housing units — apartments, townhomes and single-family homes.
The first phase of this development involved setting aside a 35-acre patch of woods with a seasonal creek. Weaving through the trees is a 1-mile trail loop that connects to the VIDA neighborhood and University Way, the access road that leads directly into campus.
Gretchen Howell, SouthStar’s senior vice president of community development, said the trails are meant to let people experience “the natural beauty of the area” while also creating “regional connectivity.” SouthStar is the main developer active around Texas A&M-San Antonio, having in 2015 acquired the nearby Mission del Lago community, a subdivision of more than 2,300 homes and 1,000 apartments only about two miles from VIDA. Mission del Lago includes a trail connection to the City of San Antonio’s Medina River Greenway and the Mission Reach, a trail network that now spans 17 miles.
“The Howard Peak Greenway south of the city is largely a secret to so many. … It’s beautiful, and it’s in an undeveloped area,” Howell said. The VIDA project’s plans call for additional trail construction over the next 12 years, with plans to link that neighborhood to the greenway as well.
My partner, Jess, and I visited the initial VIDA trail on a late October Saturday, parking alongside the trucks belonging to construction crews that were busy framing houses. We followed the trail, made of recycled asphalt, through a patch of woods with surprisingly large oak and hackberry trees. The space felt just big enough to generate a feeling of being in nature and even though it was October, shady enough to walk in the summer. I especially appreciated how much the seasonal creek, which was flowing during our visit, had been left alone and not transformed into a series of drainage channels and storm basins.
“It’s really about … feeling like you’re stepping away for a minute,” Howell said of the preserved area “As that community develops and as the university grows, that’ll be a pretty special little spot.”
Largely because of the university, this area on the South Side is becoming its own regional hub. University Health is planning a 68-acre campus nearby on South Zarzamora. Aside from the Medina River Greenway, the area is also home to Mitchell Lake Audubon Center, a 600-acre bird sanctuary. SouthStar is working on building a trail connection from Mission del Lago to the eastern entrance of Mitchell Lake, according to Howell.
Many developers build trail networks that are only accessible to people who live in the neighborhood, so I asked Howell why SouthStar is opening its trails to the public.
“We see that sort of regional connectivity as a responsibility we have,” Howell said. “While we are a private developer, we think if you build a trail, people should be able to enjoy it.”
Mitchell Lake symbolizes another reason VIDA’s location is better than many on the North Side. Before the San Antonio Water System began cleaning up Mitchell Lake in the 1990s, it served as San Antonio’s sewage dump for decades. As the city grew, the South Side remains the area where the city’s sewage flows, with all three of SAWS’ plants located in that part of the city.
Whenever they’re asked why this is so, SAWS officials say the sewage treatment plants’ location is a result of gravity. San Antonio lies on a massive slope, with the elevation dropping from around 1,300 feet (north of Loop 1604) to around 700 feet (near the Texas A&M-San Antonio campus). Except for areas where it’s forced uphill via a lift station or force main — which requires energy and can be a hotspot for sewage leaks and spills — sewage generally flows downhill.
When developers sprawl endlessly northward, pursuing the highest-value real estate they can get, that requires SAWS to extend its sewage network farther over and upstream of the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone. Better to build closer to the existing treatment plants and avoid having the public bear the cost of building ever-larger sewage systems up north. Also, I don’t know about you, but I would prefer that we keep our sewage as far away from our drinking water as possible.
Like most of America, San Antonio needs more housing. But a development like VIDA proves that it doesn’t always have to come at the expense of the aquifer, creeks and green space.