• More retaining wall problems discovered in a San Antonio subdivision

    After a towering retaining wall collapsed and threatened scores of homes last year in the San Antonio neighborhood of Rivermist, an obvious question arose: How safe were the untold number of other residential retaining walls in the city?

    Under city code, walls in San Antonio over four feet tall were supposed to go through a permitting process. But until Rivermist, that permitting process rarely happened in new subdivisions — despite the widespread use of large walls to sculpt hillsides in the rapidly growing Texas Hill Country.

    In other words, no one at the city could vouch for the safety of other retaining walls, many of which are 20 feet high or taller.

    After the collapse at Rivermist, the city announced that all tall residential walls built in the last three years had to be verified as safe by an engineer and permitted. So far, most walls have passed muster.

    But one subdivision with 14 retaining walls is still having problems.

    It’s called the Heights of Crownridge, located on the far North Side by the Crownridge Canyon Natural Area. Jen found out about it after a concerned resident emailed her photos of a long vertical crack in a huge wall in the middle of the subdivision.

    Jennifer and I had written a bunch of stories about the problems with retaining walls in San Antonio. After Jen got the tip, we drove to Crownridge over the weekend with baby Sophie sleeping in the car. The subdivision was unfinished — streets were completed but only a handful of homes had been built. There were no lawns. Just sun-baked dirt and rock.

    And there are a lot of tall retaining walls. The one the tipster alerted Jen to is huge:

    Retaining wall at the Heights of Crownridge in San Antonio

    And sure enough, there was a long, very noticeable crack on the northern section. This is part of the crack:

    Cracked retaining wall at the Heights of Crownridge in San Antonio

    Jen sent an open records request to the city for more information about what was going on at the Heights of Crownridge. A couple weeks ago we sat down in an office of the city’s Planning and Development Services Department to read a stack of letters and engineering plans related to all the retaining walls in the unfinished subdivision.

    No engineering plans had yet been received for the big wall we checked out. (I later interviewed Scott Rozier, the owner of Rosch Co., which built the wall with the crack. He stood by his work.)

    But there were problems with other walls. Going through the documents, Jen and I had a case of deja vu. It turned out some of the same people involved with the wall at Rivermist also designed and built a wall that later cracked at the Heights of Crownridge.

    Engineer Russell Leavens designed the Rivermist wall, and it was built by Gravity Walls Ltd. They also designed and built a different wall at Crownridge that suffered from a large crack and was deemed unsafe. This wall was on the southeast corner of the subdivision, which we hadn’t known about. Engineer Tim Theis determined that the wall had not been built according to plans.

    At Rivermist, city officials had also claimed that Gravity Walls Ltd. did not build the wall according to engineering plans.

    Theis mentioned problems with the particular type of retaining wall used in both subdivisions. Gravity walls rely on their sheer mass to remain stable. But once they’re built, it’s difficult for inspectors to make sure the walls were constructed right. That problem was noted at Rivermist and also at Crownridge.

    As we reviewed the documents, a city engineer who was handling the case came by the office. It turned out construction had been on hold at some lots for months as the concerns about the retaining walls were being sorted out.

    The pile of documents included maps showing the location of each retaining wall and who built it. Coupled with the info we learned from other documents and interviews, the maps helped me build this interactive feature that showed readers what was going on in the subdivision:

    View Retaining wall problems at the Heights of Crownridge in a larger map

    We could have cranked this story out faster if Jen hadn’t made the open records request. But the documents gave us details that we might not have otherwise known, such as the connection to Gravity Walls Ltd.

    It simply pays to dig up pertinent records … even if it slows you down.

  • Rivermist homes: ‘Priced to move!’

    Rivermist ArtSan Antonio artist Gary Sweeney has created a sarcastic advertisement for the Hills of Rivermist, a neighborhood built by Centex Homes that has seen better days:

    In case you’ve been out of the country lately, Rivermist is the Northwest Side neighborhood where people saw huge cracks open in their backyards and a retaining wall collapsed Jan. 24.

    Sweeney’s artwork is part of the Urban Landscapes exhibit on view at Palo Alto College Art Gallery through the end of the month.

    Don’t worry, Centex. Sweeney has also made fun of President Bush. And he once created a postcard to Sam Houston from Davy Crockett on a fantasy vacation to Cancun: “Dude — This place is awesome .. met some chicks … Bowie puked in the lobby … Travis says hey.”

  • Centex Homes submits plans for new retaining wall at Rivermist

    Centex design for retaining wall

    Nearly two months after a retaining wall split open at the Hills of Rivermist in San Antonio, Centex Homes submitted plans to the city for a new wall that is reinforced with concrete piers and will cost at least $4 million:

    Centex Homes is hoping the third time’s the charm. This week it produced a preliminary design concept for a new retaining wall to replace one that collapsed in January in a Northwest Side neighborhood — which in 2007 replaced one that was not “performing to expectations.”

    But homeowners say they are weary after two months of stress and uncertainty and are still on the fence about whether to trust that this latest fix will last.

    The builder and developer of Rivermist and The Hills of Rivermist told the city it plans a wall 1,700 feet long. The new wall will be built in front of the existing retaining wall, and will include reinforced concrete piers driven 10 to 30 feet into the ground and reinforced concrete panels between the piers, Centex said in a news release.

    The company will give the city formal engineering plans by April 30. It expects construction to take four to six months and cost $4 million to $5 million.

    The original structure was a gravity wall, which relied on the heavy weight of stone and mortar to remain stable. But after the collapse, city officials inspected the wall and claimed it lacked a solid core of mortar, which makes the wall lighter — and unstable.

  • City owned a faulty retaining wall

    Faulty retaining wall
    Photo courtesy of Ernest Ruiz

    After a tall retaining wall buckled in a San Antonio neighborhood, threatening dozens of homes, rancher Ernest Ruiz called us with a tip about another faulty retaining wall.

    Ruiz’s story had an interesting twist: The collapsed wall near his rural property hadn’t been constructed by Centex Homes or other homebuilders. This wall was owned by the city:

    From a mostly quiet tract of land surrounded by the hubbub of urban life, Ernest Ruiz has waged a nearly three-year fight against the city of San Antonio over the failure of a retaining wall.

    In the summer of the epically wet 2007, a city-owned retaining wall that sits between Pearsall Park and Ruiz’s South Side ranch collapsed during a rainstorm, sending dirt and debris onto his property and into Leon Creek.

    “There were rocks all over the place,” said Ruiz, a 72-year-old rancher who has been buying property in the area since the 1980s and now has about 265 acres that he calls Leon Creek Ranch. “When that rain came, it tore everything right down the middle.”

    While San Antonio rebuilt the damaged portions of the retaining wall and cleaned up its property, Ruiz said the city has done nothing to clean up his property, and he’s still trying to recover.

    Ruiz found it ironic that the city criticized Centex Homes for not pulling a permit for the wall at the Hills of Rivermist, while the city suffered its own wall failure.

    Jen’s story about the legal dispute featured some colorful details about the ranch — how Ruiz’s family likes to play cards on poker nights and fish for perch, and how the rumble of jets at Lackland AFB drowns out the country tunes from the AM radio in Ruiz’s Toyota pickup.

    I like articles that paint a scene for the reader. One way to do that is to write descriptions that engage all the senses — not just how something looks, but how it sounds and smells and feels. Jen’s story makes you feel like you’re sitting in the truck cab with the old rancher, going along for the ride.

  • Centex Homes wrong about wall threat

    The day after a large retaining wall collapsed at The Hills of Rivermist in San Antonio, Centex Homes held a private meeting with residents. Outsiders, including city officials, weren’t invited.

    Retaining Wall Front PageWe received a video of the entire meeting, which shows Centex claimed that the neighborhood was safe because city firefighters were leaving.

    That was news to city officials:

    “That’s a pretty bold statement for them to make,” Assistant City Manager Erik Walsh wrote colleagues at City Hall on Jan. 25 in an e-mail. Walsh pointed out that Centex was actually hiring off-duty technical rescue firefighters to stand by at the scene.

    In addition to the video of the meeting, our story today offers links to city e-mails discussing the retaining wall collapse and Centex’s safety claims.