South Side VIDA development includes a public footpath

My favorite memory from my time at the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, a local non-profit organization focused on protecting our drinking water, is a postcard from the early 2000s showing an aerial view of a large parcel of land in the north side of San Antonio, devoid of any vegetation.

“Greetings from San Antonio: Gem of the Texas Hill Country,” reads the postcard, satirically labeling the development “Obsceno Ridge” on the back.

I love how this map satirizes North San Antonio’s scorched earth development pattern above and upstream of the Edwards Aquifer recharge area, where seemingly endless acres of new concrete and asphalt channels runoff into our drinking water supply. This type of development also frequently destroys wildlife habitat, while providing people with parks that are little more than postage stamps of grass with power lines underneath.

Madla Greenway

Offers: walk, run
Location: Trailheads on Mitra Way (29.314949, -98.528821) and University Way (29.313575, -98.524867)
Route miles: 1 mile of recycled asphalt track
TOILET: No toilets or drinking water

But it doesn’t have to be that way. On the south side of San Antonio, I recently saw an example of how a developer can create new housing while allowing space for nature and creating benefits for the wider community.

Last month, New Braunfels-based SouthStar Communities announced that it had completed the first section of its Madla Greenway project as part of its VIDA development just north of Texas A&M-San Antonio. In this university-centric Southside growth hub, VIDA plans to build approximately 1,500 housing units – apartments, townhouses, duplexes and single-family homes.

The first phase of this development was to set aside a 35-acre woodlot with a seasonal stream. Weaving through the trees, a 1-mile trail loop connects the VIDA neighborhood and University Way, the access road that leads directly to campus.

Gretchen Howell, senior vice president of community development for SouthStar, said the trails are meant to allow people to experience “the natural beauty of the area” while creating “regional connectivity”. SouthStar is the leading active developer around Texas A&M-San Antonio, having in 2015 acquired the nearby community of Mission del Lago, a development of more than 2,300 homes and 1,000 apartments just about two miles from VIDA. Mission del Lago includes a trail connection to the City of San Antonio’s Medina River Greenway and Mission Reach, a trail system that now spans 17 miles.

“The Howard Peak Greenway south of town is largely a secret to many. … It’s beautiful, and it’s in an undeveloped area,” Howell said. Project VIDA plans call for trail construction over the next 12 years, with plans to also link this area to the greenway.

My partner, Jess, and I visited the first VIDA trail on a Saturday in late October, parking next to trucks belonging to construction crews who were busy framing houses. We followed the trail, made of recycled asphalt, through a patch of woods with surprisingly tall oak and hackberry trees. The space seemed just big enough to generate a feeling of being in nature and even though it was October, shaded enough to walk around in the summer. I particularly liked how the seasonal creek, which was flowing when we visited, was left alone and not transformed into a series of drainage channels and storm pools.

“It’s really about…feeling like you’re walking away for a minute,” Howell said of the preserved area. “As this community grows and the university grows, it’s going to be a pretty special little place.”

Trails at the VIDA San Antonio development allow residents and visitors to enjoy nature close to home. Credit: Courtesy/VIDA San Antonio

Largely because of the university, this area on the south side is becoming its own regional center. University Health is planning a 68-acre campus near south Zarzamora. Along with the Medina River Greenway, the area is also home to the Mitchell Lake Audubon Center, a 600-acre bird sanctuary. SouthStar is working on building a trail connection from Mission del Lago to the east entrance of Lake Mitchell, according to Howell.

Many developers build trail systems 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 view this kind of regional connectivity as a responsibility that we have,” Howell said. “Although we are a private developer, we believe that if you build a trail, people should be able to enjoy it.”

Mitchell Lake symbolizes another reason why VIDA’s location is better than many others on the north side. Before the San Antonio Water System began cleaning Lake Mitchell in the 1990s, it served as San Antonio’s sewage dumping ground for decades. As the city grew, the south side remains the area where the city’s sewage flows, with all three SAWS plants located in this part of the city.

Whenever asked why this is so, SAWS officials say the location of sewage treatment plants is a result of gravity. San Antonio sits on a massive incline, with elevation dropping from about 1,300 feet (north of the 1604 loop) to about 700 feet (near the Texas A&M-San Antonio campus). With the exception of areas where it is forced upwards via a lift station or force main – which requires energy and can be a hot spot for sewage leaks and spills – sewage generally flow downward.

When developers relentlessly expand north, seeking the highest value real estate they can obtain, it forces SAWS to extend its sewer system farther and upstream from the water recharge area. Edwards Aquifer. Better to build closer to existing treatment plants and avoid having the public bear the cost of building ever-larger sewer systems in the north. Also, I don’t know about you, but I would rather we kept our sewage as far away from our drinking water as possible.

Like most of the United States, San Antonio needs more housing. But development like VIDA proves that it doesn’t always have to come at the expense of the aquifer, streams and green spaces.

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