Learning from La Cantera

The Shops at La Cantera is a good example of how lush a water-saver landscape can look when it’s smartly designed and managed.

By Brad Wier and Rebecca Jost

Whether in Texas, California or Saudi Arabia, retail landscaping has historically depended upon heavy watering to maintain an escapist oasis for shoppers. But in the past few years, the Shops at La Cantera in San Antonio has modernized this formula to create a more sustainable showplace that’s green, but not dripping wet.

Conceived as a joint venture between USAA, the Rouse Company and General Growth Properties, the Shops at La Cantera opened in 2005 as an upscale retail village built around a stream-lined, open-air pedestrian corridor.  The award-winning design was carefully executed (by Alamo Architects with J. Robert Anderson FASLA) to integrate shaded arcades, paseos, and water features with cheerful, colorful visuals, evoking a San Antonio and Hill Country aesthetic while maintaining a style appropriate to the setting.

By 2011, however, extreme drought — and City of San Antonio water restrictions — had shut down La Cantera’s landmark fountains, for an uncomfortably authentic taste of Texas water scarcity. With the mounting cost of irrigating a 155-acre landscape exacerbated by the sight of stark, dry pools throughout the retail village, the management of the Shops began a serious campaign to lower their outdoor water usage.

First, GGP implemented an alternate water source for La Cantera’s water features: recaptured condensate from the tenants’ HVAC units. Switching to this reliable on-site supply saves 1.2 million gallons of potable water per year and provides 120 percent of the water required for the fountains – a surplus. With over 80 HVAC units to draw from, the system is designed to be entirely gravity-driven, reducing the need for costly pumps and maintenance.

GALLERY: Recaptured condensate from the HVAC systems provides a supply of over a million gallons per year for La Cantera’s water features — 120% of the required amount.

After years of drought, in 2013 GGP also began converting 300,000 square feet of parking medians (28 percent of the total landscape) to water-saver plants and drip irrigation. Like many retail centers, La Cantera had initially been designed with irrigated turf-grass throughout the parking lot, including the far fringes and ingress roads where many customers would never set foot. Irrigation had also been installed in native areas which hadn’t ever needed it before. Removing this irrigation and re-designing the outer landscape saved 3.9 million gallons of water annually.

Commercial retrofits were partially funded through SAWS’ Commercial Custom conservation rebate program. This year, the Shops became one of the first commercial sites to work with SAWS to install a Smart Water Management System; this gives the property managers instant control over the entire sprinkler system (which had previously consisted of up to 16 different irrigation controllers.) The Shops have seen a 5 percent decrease in consumption since the system was installed.

Altogether, the changes implemented since 2011 are saving over 6 million gallons of potable water from what was used before. In the process, the Shops provide local residents a vision of how lush a watersaver landscape looks when it’s attentively designed and smartly managed.

Picture of Brad Wier
Brad Wier
Brad Wier is a SAWS conservation planner. Years in South Texas landscaping and public horticulture gave him a lasting enthusiasm for native plants that don’t die when sprinklers -- and gardeners -- break down. He’d rather save time and water for kayaking and tubing. He is a former kilt model, and hears hummingbirds.
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