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Business leader vows to study Victoria riverwalk

By Gabe Semenza
May 7, 2011 at 12:07 a.m.
Updated May 8, 2011 at 12:08 a.m.


Harold Nichols' home is the end result of a wide-eyed dream he envisioned 35 years ago.

His Victoria compound, a few blocks south of DeLeon Plaza, feels like a Spanish mission, a country retreat and an artist's haven - all blended into a multi-structure property that consumes almost an entire city block.

Nichols, an 86-year-old artist, stared from his back porch to his nearby guest cabins. The Guadalupe River, which flows unseen a few hundred yards south, prompted stories about another inspiration.

Twenty-six years ago, Nichols managed a group of private investors whose project was more massive than even his personal compound - a San Antonio-styled riverwalk near downtown Victoria.

That project could have transformed the city into a buzzing tourist destination, a beacon for locals who insist Victoria lacks family-friendly excitement. Those plans, however, fizzled.

Now, Victoria business leaders say they are again willing to at least study such a plan. Visionaries like Nichols, after all, don't let steep odds slow the pursuit of atypical dreams.

BUILDING THE 'lITTLE STAR'

Nichols purchased his massive city property - a portion on which the Victoria Art League now operates - in 1974. In 1980, the Victoria College business instructor left academia for art: painting, sculpting wood and metal, as well as renovating buildings.

Joined by private investors, Nichols began work in September 1985 on a vision he called La Estrellita, Spanish for "Little Star."

La Estrellita was to blend frontier Texas, Mexican and Mediterranean architecture into art studios, a Mexican bakery, restaurant, shops, farmer's market, courtyards and more.

The investors, including Victoria's Sharon Steen, rehabbed the first of seven turn-of-the-century buildings in an area on Water Street between Bridge and Glass streets.

"We wanted to make an art and shopping colony, something that would attract people from across the state," Nichols said, sitting in a rusted iron porch chair.

About this same time, Nichols and the investors expanded their vision. They hired San Antonio's Al Groves and Associates to study the feasibility of a riverwalk.

"I've worked on riverwalks all over the country and never have I worked in an an area where as much is coming together," Groves told the Advocate 26 years ago.

AN IMPOSSIBLE DREAM?

Groves engineered the extension of the iconic San Antonio Riverwalk, which blossomed during the 1960s with his flood controls and allowance for new retail and pedestrian space.

Victoria's now-defunct version, while less expansive than San Antonio's, included:

Massive downtown-area building rehabs.

Shops, art studios, restaurants and outdoor music venues.

A new $14 million hotel that spanned the river near the Moody Street bridge. A hotel restaurant would have offered unblocked views to the boaters and manmade marina.

A $4 million religious shrine, center for the performing arts and hike-and-bike trails linking the development to Riverside Park.

Groves' plan also included a dam on the river near the bridge and a canal to divert water toward the downtown.

By June 1986, however, momentum stalled. A lack of sweeping public support, a nosedive in the economy and constricted municipal funds deflated the project.

"Our plan began to collapse," Nichols said. "I think a lot of people thought it was a dream beyond that which was possible."

'EVERYTHING'S ON THE TABLE'

Robby Burdge is a Victoria businessman with a passion for improving the city's downtown. He is part of a group pushing to make Victoria a Texas Main Street program city.

"Part of the concept of the Main Street program is to take all ideas, old and new, and determine what is possible and what's not," Burdge said. "In 20-25 years, does Victoria have a riverwalk? I would say within two years, we will determine if it's feasible. Everything's on the table until proven otherwise."

Proving a riverwalk is feasible here is no simple task. Supporters would face huge funding hurdles, opposition from property owners, environmental regulations, as well as flooding and land use complications.

Because there is no current-day plan, no one can say just how much such a project would cost.

"We have a lot of obligations, and this is an old city," said Mayor Will Armstrong. "I can't see how the city of Victoria could participate in this in any form or fashion."

Lacking fiscal support from the city, the project would lean heavily on private, state and federal dollars.

To fund the bulk of its riverwalk extension, San Antonio received federal urban renewal funds during the 1960s, but only because the city was set to host a world's fair. Such funds don't flow like they once did, Armstrong said.

"Even if those dollars still flowed ... the government needs to stay out of our economy," said Jeff Williams, a Victoria businessman. "Public dollars don't need to be put at risk for private ventures."

'SPIRIT OF THE CITY'

Groves, the San Antonio Riverwalk engineer, detailed the best ways to begin and finish such a project here. He has now engineered hundreds of riverwalk and waterfront developments worldwide - from San Antonio to San Marcos and Lima, Peru.

While Groves acknowledges problems that arise from hefty funding needs, money is not the biggest challenge, he said.

"The biggest obstacle is getting the public support," Groves said by phone. "It just depends on the public understanding that these projects pay for themselves. Properly planned and executed, they inject billions of dollars into the economy."

To build a Victoria riverwalk, Groves suggests the project:

Does not exceed Victoria's market and economic range, but allows for growth.

Needs a champion - or group of supporters - who survives opposition and stumbling blocks.

Is designed for the enjoyment of Victoria residents and not just tourists.

Centers on a uniquely Victoria theme or feature that attracts the masses.

"Work with what you have," Groves said. "Make it a project that reflects the spirit of the city."

AN UNDERUSED ASSET

If riverwalk supporters secured the needed funding, raised public support and formed a group dedicated to guiding the project from start to finish, work still would not be done.

Where some see an insurmountable task, Nichols, Burdge and others see opportunity.

"The Guadalupe River remains the city's most underutilized asset," said Steen, the La Estrellita investor. "Momentum downtown is at levels I haven't seen in all the years I've been here. I think a project like this is possible."

Of course, many people opposed the San Antonio Riverwalk when plans for it were revealed. Not even the dreamers of that time fully envisioned how it'd boost the city indefinitely, Groves said.

Texas, of course, is known for going big. Should Victoria embrace this ideology?

Dennis Patillo, who moved here from Houston within the past decade, grew up surrounded by Texas-sized accomplishments: the Houston Astrodome, the world's first indoor football stadium; the National Aeronautics and Space Administration; the Kemah Boardwalk, a 42-acre destination overlooking Galveston Bay.

Patillo, and his wife, Louise Hull Patillo, are developing a massive Riverside Park restaurant on the banks of the Guadalupe River.

Armstrong said he hopes the Patillos' project sparks other such private entrepreneurial ideas.

"I'm supportive of doing attractions to improve the quality of life in Victoria," Dennis Patillo said. "The river is an underutilized asset, but we can fix that. You eat an elephant one bite at a time."

Nichols seems to appreciate that investors of today fancy his and others' mid-1980s ideas. He's in no position to carry the torch, even if he helped to light the fire.

"I just hope people approach this with open minds," Nichols said. "Can you just imagine what our city would be like if it happened?"

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