Activists climbed the Hays Street Bridge to hang a banner opposing development after plans for a brewery on public land emerged in 2012.
As I write in this week’s cover feature
, this city is changing — fast. Some of those changes are overt, the result of so-called “transformational” projects. Like the remaking of San Antonio’s urban core through the redevelopment of Hemisfair Park, the restoration of San Pedro Creek, downtown housing incentives for apartment and condo builders or the new rush of private development into a long-dead downtown corridor, creating what some are even starting to call an emerging “tech district.”
Some of those changes are more subtle, but nonetheless a sign of how San Antonio — some parts of it, at least — is becoming a different place.
Take, for example, the Hays Street Bridge. Built in 1910, the bridge was an important connector between downtown and the east side, but after years of neglect, the city called it dangerous and barricaded it in the 1980s. It sat deteriorating for decades. But neighborhood activists and historic preservationists saw its potential as a near-downtown landmark and vibrant public gathering space before anyone else did, and spearheaded efforts to save it.
After several years, the Hays Street Bridge Restoration Group managed to turn the bridge into one of the truly remarkable public spaces in this city. Longtime residents and newcomers to the east side alike walk across it for exercise or to catch one of the best sunset views the city has to offer. Cyclists are always on the bridge because it serves as a perfect, scenic connector between downtown and the east side. Tourists frequently walk the deck, as do visitors to the Alamo Brewery below, who sometimes walk up with their beer to enjoy the picture-perfect view of city facing south. Homeless people charge their phones at the outlets lining the walkway up to the bridge. People do yoga on it.
Last week, I saw something that makes me think the bridge is changing, at least a little bit. After a long stretch of rain, the evening had cleared up and the sun was out, so I biked up to the east side, grabbed a tallboy at a nearby gas station, and sat on the bridge with a book and a beer. It looked like a few other people scattered along the bridge had the same idea. A family walked by, smiling and occasionally chatting with people hanging out on the deck as they passed. There was a small group of guys I always see who I assume are homeless; they were laughing, smoking cigarettes and generally keeping to themselves. A group of cyclists rolled up, leaned their bikes against the rail and cracked open some cans. One of them chatted with and congratulated a couple who had been using the bridge as a backdrop for engagement photos.
That’s pretty much what the Hays Street Bridge usually looks like — at least during the day. It’s a place where San Antonio congregates. All of it.
But it was the first time I’d seen a police officer walk up and patrol the deck. I clearly wasn’t the only one who was surprised. The group of guys on bikes couldn’t stop staring during the officer’s first pass. Once he was out of sight, before he made his second walk-through, they all scattered to the nearest trash can and dumped out whatever they had. Pretty much everybody on the bridge did.
At one time, the City of San Antonio actually wanted
people to drink on the Hays Street Bridge. Not long after it opened, the city came forward with a plan in which it would basically give public land north of the bridge to Eugene Simor for his new Alamo Brewery. Simor already owned the lot across from it, on the south side of the bridge closer to downtown, which he planned to turn into a parking lot. The restoration group was furious, saying the city had promised them they’d turn that land into a bridge-side park; in fact, that’s exactly what the people who donated the land to the city wanted in the first place.
The city said there just wasn't any money to turn the land from a caliche parking lot into a park. The area needed public and
private investment. Not only did council vote give the land to Alamo Beer, it also agreed to let the brewery carve out its own private space on a public place, letting it set up tables and chairs on a 1,190-square-foot slab of the bridge deck — all at no leasing cost for a decade. The city wanted booze up there when it was called economic development.
Naturally a lawsuit followed, as did a brain-twisting verdict that’s still being ironed out in appeals. The chairs never went up on the deck and Simor built his brewery on the south side of the bridge, making it a permanent fixture of downtown’s skyline looking south from Hays.
After I saw the officer make a couple of passes on the bridge last week, I called him over to talk. He seemed really young and said that yes, the department would probably be sending more police to the bridge “just to make sure everything’s okay up here.” I asked whether, hypothetically, someone like me would have to ditch their bike, beer and book routine. Technically, he told me, that’s against city code so you could be cited. I told him I saw a bunch of people who didn’t seem to be bothering anybody pour their stuff out just because they saw him. He said he pretty much figured that would happen.
I called and emailed the San Antonio Police Department to ask if and why officers are patrolling the bridge in the afternoon and haven’t yet received a response. There do seem to be many fewer homeless people on and around the bridge than in recent years. I regularly see officers shooing folks out from underneath the nearby highway overpass, where a lot of homeless people used to gather.
I asked one of the cyclists whether he’d ever seen an officer on the Hays Street Bridge at that time of day before. It was new to him and his buddies, too. They were kinda freaked out, he said, which is why they all tossed their drinks so quickly. One of the guys made sure to tell me he wasn’t homeless. “I’ve got a job. We come up here after we all get out of work.”
Before the brewery was built, many opposed to it said they were nervous private development would turn Hays into a space more regulated, more controlled, and sanitized. They worried that by throwing commercial development into the mix, the environment would change. Whether that's ultimately good or bad, it seems they were right.