Project Concho River Revitalization, San Angelo
Client City of San Angelo
Architects Kinney Franke Architects
Design Team Craig Kinney, AIA; Kye Franke, AIA; Brooks Wehner;
James Haynes; Susan Kinney
Photographers A.J. Lopez, Jim Bean, Brian Groves

San Angelo is a city of about 100,000 residents in central West Texas. It stretches across the two forks of the Concho River that combine east of downtown. Though a central geographic feature, for decades the river wasn’t properly maintained as an environmental and recreational asset, and it fell into disrepair. This trend was ameliorated with the 2013 completion of the Concho River Revitalization, led by local office Kinney Franke Architects (KFA). The project repaired the Concho’s aquatic ecosystem and renovated its trails, adding nodes of activity along the way, in a successful first step toward stitching the city back together.

This part of Texas had been inhabited by Native Americans and explored by the Spanish, but was not permanently settled until the American Army established Fort Concho on the southern riverbank in 1867. The town itself, founded at the same time, was set higher up on the northern banks, a position that established an initial economic duality, with soldiers constantly trafficking back and forth for supplies. Early buildings turned away from the river, instead facing one of these nodes, and enabling efficient dumping of waste out the back door into the water. Unlike in other Texas towns, the river became a separator, not a condenser of development.

The town grew into a center for nearby ranches, and other industries arrived over the years: Angelo State University, Goodfellow Air Force Base, and, of course, oil and gas exploration companies. The most impressive structures date from the early-to-mid 20th-century boom years: the Tom Green County Courthouse and 14-story Cactus Hotel by Anton F. Korn of Dallas, and the San Angelo City Hall by Trost & Trost of El Paso, all three completed in 1928.

A bank tower opened in 1966, designed by Ford, Powell & Carson. Like many cities in America, downtown experienced a hollowing out at the end of the 20th century, but San Angelo is slowly coming back. With restaurants and shops lining historic Concho Avenue, a renovated central library by Holzman Moss Bottino (2011), two craft beer breweries, and active construction sites — there’s a general bustle in the air. Still, the city retains its forlorn agrarian roots, and its blight remains a befitting starting point for John Grady Cole’s adventures in Cormac McCarthy’s “All the Pretty Horses.”

Mostly, the area is a hardworking, windswept place where stacks of tarped cotton rest like pontoon boats on the calm fields.

Throughout all this, the Concho River is the main organizing element. In 1947, the north fork of the river was dammed, and additional dams downstream further restricted the flow of water. Over time, this condition, combined with erosion due to increased runoff, silted up the riverbed, lowering oxygen levels and killing fish. Recreational paths were installed but not maintained, leaving the dirt banks to peel off into the river. Further, there was limited walkability between downtown destinations. How was the city going to resolve all of these issues?

A 1992 report from the Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team
(R/UDAT) pointed the way. The program, which has been operated by the AIA for over 50 years, matches design professionals with communities to help envision ways to improve towns. The study for San Angelo included a recommendation for river corridor redevelopment (“The river is not just a gem; it’s a diamond,” wrote one interviewee). The report’s directives influenced the next 25 years of improvements, including the location of the saddle-roofed San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts on the southern shore (an earlier Holzman Moss design), and a curvy pedestrian bridge that provides access between downtown and the fort.

Major work began in 2007, when city voters approved a half-cent sales tax increase to fund civic projects, including the river rehabilitation.
Thirteen million dollars in funding came from this initiative, and six
outside grants provided an additional $2 million. The City of San Angelo first engaged a national architecture and engineering conglomerate but, not impressed with their “cookie-cutter” solutions, instead hired KFA.

This was KFA’s first substantial landscape project, and the office was up for the challenge. Led by Craig Kinney, AIA, and Kye Franke, AIA, the team dove into the research. They read books, learned from Midland-based landscape architects KDC Associates, visited the Lower Colorado River Authority in Austin, and studied the waterfront of San Antonio. They also worked with the local Upper Colorado River Authority to implement the best management practices for the Concho.

To start, a barge suctioned about 1.5 million cubic feet of silt from the river bottom. The river was drained, allowing the installation of miles of riprap and other forms of stabilization, bolstering the eroding banks and creating fish habitat. Large slabs of stone, quarried around San Saba, were used in featured areas. Fountains were repaired and added, along with a new pump to feed them; its flow helps to further aerate the water. Berms and swales were added to slow water, causing it to dump its sediments prior to arriving at the river. These efforts are not readily apparent in the parkscape, but they will help keep the Concho healthy for years to come.

Once the main improvements were accomplished, the architects focused on placemaking. They located destinations under bridges, areas once clogged with trash, which turned out to be an ideal choice due to the shade they provide from the intense summer sun. Paths were rebuilt and extended, with pedestrian lanes added at Irving Street’s low-water crossing. Lit pylons with inset carved limestone panels mark key intersections and help guide walkers. The Bosque, the project’s main social node, provides shade, space for outdoor games, and a seasonal concession stand.

At night, LED lighting makes the area safer and illuminates the underside of the highway bridge. But, most importantly, the destinations of the city — the high school, sculpture garden, visitor’s center (designed by KFA), YMCA (designed by KFA), skate park, Boy Scout and Girl Scout meeting halls, art museum, 9/11 memorial (designed by KFA), agriculture museum, railroad depot, and historic fort — are connected along the paths, like pearls on a necklace.

After all, concho means shell in Spanish. The river was named for its freshwater mussels. The species is still here, and jewelry made from their pearls is for sale in downtown shops. The city is sometimes called the Pearl of the Concho, but lately the riverfront itself is the pearl of San Angelo, an in-progress oasis on the plains.

Kinney remembers the river, pre-intervention, as “pretty bleak.” He goes on: “It’s hard to compare it to what was there before, and that’s the part that pleases me the most.” Assistant City Manager Rick Weise is also happy with the project. Before, the Concho was quite polluted, largely due to runoff, and it was not uncommon to have a couple of fish kills per year. “Since this has been completed,” he reflects, “I can’t think of one fish kill that we’ve had.”

This alone is a major indicator of the project’s ecological success, and there are plans for a second phase to continue the effort downstream. Finally, businesses are starting to turn toward the creek. In agreement with San Angelo, a burger joint has been built above The Bosque. Its columns mimic Kinney’s trussed steel light towers encased in metal mesh, a design that is itself inspired by older traffic light supports around town. If urban development is a temporal conversation, then this generation of chatter is just getting started.

KFA’s office is close by, on Concho Avenue. Its facade is decorated with tile panels that depict the downtown street grid, installed by the same local women artists who did the murals along the river. The building used to be the bus terminal, and sometimes people still poke their heads in, looking to buy a ticket. “You have to be a generalist,” Kinney says, of practicing in a small community. Over the years, he has designed homes, office buildings, libraries, a chapel, a school, a performing arts center, concession stands, and shade structures. Now, his firm — a staff of seven that includes his wife Susan — is at work on a building for Angelo State University, a full floor renovation at the Cactus Hotel, senior housing, a lake house, a campus student center, and a local county jail. In a regional market where budgets can be tight, innovation is possible in measured doses. Years ago, seeking cost and energy efficiency, Kinney constructed a home for his family using structural insulated panels, but the local labor force’s unfamiliarity with the system slowed construction, and the assembly didn’t save any time. Sometimes, the road to progress can be a rocky one.

In taking on the jail project, Kinney was hesitant, but agreed because of the adoption of the progressive “direct supervision” model, a more humane management strategy that fosters community between inmates and guards. Writing about the project on the company blog, Kinney wisely reflects, “My hope is that the architecture we do in our small city does more than merely improve aesthetics, and that our buildings can be instrumental in promoting a better way to live.”

Jack Murphy, Assoc. AIA, is an architectural designer at Baldridge Architects in Austin.

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