On the Chartreuse Couch: Gene Elder Interviews Frates Seeligson, Director of Confluence Park

Confluence Park in San Antonio (Courtesy photos)

San Antonio’s Confluence Park opened on March 3. In this edition of the Chartreuse Couch series, Gene Elder interviews environmentalist Frates Seeligson, the director of Confluence Park.

Frates Seeligson

Gene: Frates, welcome, sit on the Chartreuse and feel the love. You are heading up a terrific San Antonio River improvement called Confluence Park and we want to hear all about it. Just how did this get started and where is it?

Frates: Well first, Gene, let me say how excited and proud I am to be here. Your sharp wit and deft surgical pen are inspirations–from your letters to the editor, Chartreuse Couch stories, and police rap sheet. I’m just glad I’m on the couch and not the rap sheet. Thank you for allowing me the pleasure.

Gene: Thanks. I’m glad my trusty Trinity art degree has come in handy.

Frates: So back to your question: Where is Confluence Park and how did it get started? Let’s start with the easy part, shall we. Like its name suggests, it’s at a confluence—of the San Antonio River and San Pedro Creek. Its actual address is 310 West Mitchell Street, just south of the Lone Star District and King William area. Originally it was a CPS storage yard for their poles, transformers, trucks etc. Pretty much an eyesore for the neighbors.

In 2007, the property became available and the San Antonio River Foundation donated the money for the River Authority to purchase the land, with the understanding that we (the Foundation) would later come and build a park on the site. You have to remember at the time the Museum Reach of the San Antonio River Improvements Project had just started and the majority of our efforts were focused on all the art under the bridges and the grotto. After the completion of the Museum Reach in 2009, everyone’s attention moved south to the Mission Reach and the environmental restoration of our river. I probably should clarify that when I use “everyone,” I am referring to all the partners involved in the River Improvements Project: the city, the county, SARA, Corps of Engineers, River Oversight Committee, National Parks Service, the Church and the River Foundation. During this time, the park remained a storage yard for Zachary and their construction equipment. Finally in 2013 the Mission Reach was completed and it was time for the Foundation to design our park. That’s when all the fun really started.

Gene: Most impressive! Giving this area of town a great park with educational aspects. It isn’t going to be just more swings and slides.

Frates: Right. In the early stages we thought about that. You know, the classic park with a playground, picnic tables, etc. We even thought about a splash park/water feature. The problem was none of it was inspiring. It didn’t align with the Foundation’s four pillars of arts & culture, ecology, education and recreation. So we had to design a park for the site that satisfied all four. The Foundation created “key” tenets the park had to follow in order to meet our mission and then these were incorporated into the RFP sent out to local design teams. For example, the Foundation was adamant that an artist be involved from the ground up. We were not going to just build something, and then have the art come after — we wanted the park to be the art. We needed the park to demonstrate LID design and water catchment, be energy neutral, and demonstrate native ecology. A full classroom onsite for students and educators to use was a requirement as well. Last, shade — there needed to be shaded areas. It’s hot in South Texas. So we crammed all these demands into a request for proposals and sent it out. The winning submission came back from the team of Lake|Flato, Rialto Studios and Matsys Design out of Oakland, headed up by artist Andrew Kudless. Thus, Confluence Park was born, and we moved into design charrettes.

Gene: Well I’m glad someone is adamant around here. And who is Andrew Kudless? We need the rap sheet on him. You know the Chartreuse Couch loves art talk. Especially if he’s scandalous.

Frates: Not certain about any juicy scandals surrounding Andrew, sorry, but he is an amazing architect, sculptor, technologist, teacher based out of the Bay Area. The large concrete petal structures in the park are his design. Since shade and water catchment were two overriding requirements, Andrew took the challenge to try and address both. If you think about rain, we can either shed it away like an umbrella, or, funnel it purposefully, as a Calla Lily’s petals naturally do. Andrew went with the Calla Lily as his inspiration.

Gene: And explain this.

Frates: Well, you have to transmit nature’s design to human construction. But how do you go from delicate floral inspiration, to 40,000-pound, 29-foot-tall forms that look like petals? Two words: Parametric Design. Parametric design is a state-of-the-art process where different parameters are added to a computer program. For example, take an umbrella and a Calla Lily, and the computer then generates designs which you keep tweaking. You add more parameters, you stretch it out, stand it up, twist it here and next thing you know, voila, you have a concrete petal that funnels rainwater into underground. Gene, when I look at these massive concrete forms I’m blown away by the confluence of engineering facets—nature designed the flower, the Romans invented the concrete building material, a modern-day artist visualized it with computer pixels using space-age technology, then a lot of talented humans put machines, minds and physical hands to work constructing it, and we’re about to all get to walk around within it. Andrew has created an inspiring juxtaposition between old and new, art and science. He is definitely one of the best things out of California!

Gene: And this confluence is right across the river from Mission Conception. This must really be a nice addition to the UNESCO situation.

Frates: The UNESCO designation is huge for San Antonio. There are only 23 in the entire US and the Missions are the only one in Texas. Gene, people plan vacations around World Heritage Sites. It is projected that this designation will add 1,000 new jobs and about $105M in new economic activity to San Antonio annually. But what I am most proud about is that our community appreciated the importance of the river and Missions. Remember we all voted for extending the visitor’s tax that dedicated $125M for the Mission Reach. I truly believe this commitment by the citizens of San Antonio, to restore our river, had a major influence on the Missions receiving the World Heritage designation. And what better way to welcome people to our river and Missions than Confluence Park. You will be able to start you journey at Confluence where you are introduced to native ecology, inspired by incredible architecture; then travel along a natural river which links these wondrous historic gems. You really can’t script a better narrative: it’s old and new, the past and the future — and it is right here in San Antonio. Not in New York, LA, or Chicago, but here in San Antonio.

Gene: Well this isn’t the first time that an artist has been inspired by a flower but it is the first time for a local construction company to build such a form. Everyone will be impressed when they see it.

Frates: Not just a local company Gene, but any company at all. We actually had companies that chose not to bid on the project because of these petals. There were so many unknowns. First, we had to find someone to fabricate the forms for each of the three different petals. Fortunately, Andrew was familiar with a firm out of Napa named Kreysler. When they aren’t making the forms for these challenging petals, they make boats. Kreysler was one of only two in the country that could fabricate the fiberglass forms. These forms are so big they could only make one at a time.

Once the forms were made they were brought on site where we then had to construct all the scaffolding and safety mechanisms to support them. We couldn’t pour into these forms while on the ground, they had to be upright. Imagine the engineering and expertise to figure out exactly the right angle for the form to sit, the right slump and p.s.i. of the concrete mix, exact location for the lift points. SpawGlass stepped up to the challenge, and have been excellent partners. Watching the whole team work figuring this out was amazing. There was never any, “we can’t,” just a bunch of, “let’s do it.” I will never forget the very first pour: didn’t matter what your job was on site, everyone came out to watch because it hadn’t been done before. Imagine trying to keep what basically is a liquid from moving downhill. The other memory was when the first petal was lifted off the form. Once again, didn’t matter what your job was, you were out watching. I am fairly certain about 50 percent of those watching were expecting the petal to crack and fall apart as the crane lifted it off. They lost their bet. It is a privilege to work with smart creative artists.

Gene: Did anyone take pictures or film a video documentary of all this for future study?

Frates: The Foundation and River Authority have hired Interlex to document and make a video focusing especially on the LID, low impact development. Then of course there are the myriad of cell phone/Instagram pictures and videos. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime park.

Gene: OK enough art and culture. Have you ever seen a UFO or been contacted? Inquiring minds want to know.

Frates: So now you got me, Gene. Believe it or not, I used to work on a ranch outside of Roswell, New Mexico, during my high school summers. As we all know, that’s the UFO capitol of the world. While I never was fortunate enough to see one, the foreman I worked for swore to his grave he had seen UFOs. And I believe him. I also believe in ghosts, by the way. On a property outside of town, we have a house that is haunted. I mean, I show up at night unannounced and EVERY LIGHT is on, and once an unplugged electric stove turned on and glowed… I sleep downstairs and hear footsteps walking on hard wood floors on second floor above me. It’s a freak show.

Gene: So do you have an idea of who the spirit is and have you tried to make contact?

Frates: I sure do, it’s Eva. She was the caretaker Floyd’s wife. Once Floyd died she stayed on the ranch and took care of this old turn-of-the-century house. I can remember talking to her as a kid while she was sitting on the back porch. I guess when she passed away she wasn’t quite ready to leave.

Gene: And where are your favorite places to eat?

Frates: The best thing about working on this project is I get an excuse to eat at all the small Mexican food spots south of downtown. I have to give a plug to Eva’s (not the ghost though!) right across from the park on Mitchell Street. They make great breakfasts and the construction process has significantly increased business. Maria’s on Nogalitos is another favorite cozy spot. I’ll take you.

Phone rings.

Gene: We have a caller. Who could be calling with a question? It’s Susan Yerkes.

Susan: Hi Gene, thanks for the opportunity to ask Frates a question. The Mission Reach is indeed glorious. I love to walk and bike there. Of course at this point development beyond the river banks is very spotty in many places but to me that is the key to the place’s special charm. The artistic sophistication involved with Confluence Park is another amazing gift to the city! So thank you for your stewardship. With development proposals abounding around the missions, and another million and a half folks expected in San Antonio, how does a powerful environmentalist, such as yourself, see we can protect the beautiful surroundings of the missions and the Mission Reach as more and more developments are drawn there by open space and lower prices in the future?

Frates: Thank you for your question, Susan. It is not easy finding that balance between development, population growth and preserving our culture and natural habitat. People are flocking to San Antonio because they love our easy-going lifestyle, but that in turn creates more congestion, strain on city services. We cherish our missions, and worked so hard to get the World Heritage designation to protect and preserve them, yet this designation brings more visitors to our city, who all need a place to stay. So how do we have our cake and eat it too? First and foremost we need to maintain and foster the pride and sense of propriety we all feel for our river and its natural boundaries.

Conceptual sketch courtesy Lake Flato.

I like to think Confluence Park will be a major element to this. Susan, as you know, there is immeasurable value to public open green space – physically, mentally and economically – and there are more than 2200 acres of it along our river in San Antonio. We have processes in place to protect the historic nature of our missions and river, and these must be fully supported. But a blanket “no” to development is not realistic, and frankly, not respectful of the communities that make the south side their home. This area of the city has lagged behind for far too long in terms of economic development, infrastructure and amenities enjoyed by other areas. I would like to see our city, county and business leaders promote a plan where smart development springs from the inside out. Where entrepreneurs from the neighborhoods can have access to capital and expertise to bring economic development that maintains the local culture and needs of the citizens. There is so much pride and history along the Mission Reach; if we as a city assist and promote locally inspired development we can retain that uniqueness that makes San Antonio so special.

Gene: You’ve previously served on some river group haven’t you?

Frates: I was chairman of the Art & Architecture committee for the Foundation during the Museum Reach.

Gene: And what does that group do exactly?

Frates: We were tasked with commissioning and installing all the public art from downtown up to the Pearl. We started by identifying where we could have the greatest impact on the project – the bridge underpasses – then began to compile lists of local, national and international artists. I think the results are stunning. What is even nicer is that many of those artists became good friends through the process. For example, I took my family to London a few years back, and we spent great time with artist Martin Richmond. We even had high tea and cocktails on his rooftop, my daughter danced a Mary Poppins chimney sweep routine as we watched the sun set over London. Another local artist, Stuart Allen, not only has become a great family friend (along with his wife and kids), but Stuart has helped the Foundation and me immeasurably as the Project Manager for Confluence Park. All of the artists were so professional and such a pleasure to work with. I’m not certain you know this, but all of the art under the bridges had to be installed at night, because Zachry was building the project during the day. So every night at 8:00, a crew of intrepid artists would make their way to the river to work through the night. Definitely a dedicated cohort.

Phone rings.

Gene: And another caller? Taddy McAllister has a question.

Taddy: This petal-making project sounds like the great Sydney Opera House petals that were so hard to figure out until the architect peeled an orange one day and it came to him. But enough about petals. Frates, when I was radicalized back in the ’60s and became a liberal, my family shit a brick. How has yours taken your liberalism? I was once witness to your father telling Ronnie Dugger that he had “always harbored a deep distrust of the Bill of Rights.”

Gene: Well now there’s a question you don’t get asked every day. Thanks, Taddy. We can always count on Taddy to ask those Enquirer questions.

Frates: Taddy, I am 100 percent certain he believed in the Constitution. Really, I don’t see working to protect our natural environment, working to better our community and citizens as a liberal or conservative issue; it’s just the right issue. But to your question; you are correct, my politics are much different than his, and that of many of my family, but I never doubt I have their support. While my father was staunchly conservative, what he passed on to me wasn’t a political party, but rather his passion to serve our community, to try and affect positive change through our actions. I tire from the constant “D” versus “R” fight. Sensible government is becoming extinct. I can remember stories my father told me about Henry B and their working together in the Texas Legislature to get things done for the people of San Antonio, how they were good friends with immense mutual respect. I don’t see that anymore, and I know we are all suffering because of it.

Gene: And I always let my guest have the last question.

Frates: First, thank you for this opportunity — it has been so fun. I know you are a ceramicist, among many things Gene, and wonder if you still are creating pieces, or if your focus and passion has flowed elsewhere? I think everyone needs a little Elder in their lives!

Gene: Hahahaha! Yes, everyone should Elderize their homes. Well, I had MUD gallery on the river back in 1976 and I represented many talented San Antonio ceramists who taught at the Southwest Craft Center and the San Antonio Art Institute. But when MUD closed I started the MUD underground: “Artists hell bent on taking over the world.” But now I just ask nosy questions of interesting people on the Chartreuse Couch.

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