In a recent column in the San Antonio Report, Robert Rivard encouraged our community to offer suggestions for transformative ideas for the City of San Antonio’s 2022 bond package. In that spirit, I suggest that San Antonio develop its first full-scale arboretum on part of the land TJX is contributing to the San Antonio River Authority and to Texas A&M University-San Antonio on the San Antonio River near Mission Espada. 

It is a beautiful parcel of acreage which will be given to our community as open space at a bend in the San Antonio River with the most dramatic cliffs anywhere on the river’s course through our region. A city whose beautiful trees are so much a part of its national identity of green and shady watercourses should create a place to reflect on our rich variety of majestic and historic living assets, our trees.

When TJX, the company that owns TJ Maxx, Marshalls, and HomeGoods, decided to build its major distribution center on the South Side, it prudently bought more land than would be needed for its logistics center. Now that the facility is completed and TJX knows the full extent of land it needs, the company has donated to the San Antonio River Authority and to Texas A&M University-San Antonio several hundred acres adjacent to the San Antonio River and its neighboring flood plain. 

The undeveloped site borders dramatic cliffs along the river, is composed of soil enriched by river silt, and has numerous legacy trees hundreds of years old. As that tract of land is transferred to the River Authority and TAMU-SA, it is the perfect time to set aside sufficient acreage to develop a quality arboretum for our metropolitan area. 

An arboretum is a special category of park featuring the trees that grow in a region.  Trees are spaced along paths or encircle open meadows in ways that invite admiration, study, and repose. Often plaques describing the scientific names and attributes of the species are affixed. Interspersed among the trees are benches, trails, and sitting areas, sometimes bounded by native shrubs and well-placed flower beds. The effect of a properly designed and well-maintained arboretum is to create a special space amid nature, touched by sun rays and breezes, comforted by shade and living colors. In moments when we seek solace from the hectic pace of urban life and respite from the anxieties of COVID-19 concerns, we could all use the calming beauty of the natural world within our reach.

Hundreds of cities of all sizes in the United States have built arboretums to preserve their trees, encourage the scientific study of species, and create quiet places for reflection in the shadows of these majestic forms of natural life. The National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. is one such example. Among the most famous arboretums are the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University in Boston and the San Francisco Botanical Garden (formerly the Strybing Arboretum) in Golden Gate Park. Many arboretums are managed in conjunction with universities, such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum and the Arizona State University Arboretum, to encourage serious horticultural studies. Both Dallas and Houston have well-regarded arboretums. 

Located just south of Mission Espada, the TJX site can be a place where the history of our area is made tangible by the presence of many giant living trees that have been there for a good part of that history. It can be a place where schoolchildren can learn science lessons, where academic researchers can interpret our natural history better, where gardening groups can volunteer their expertise, and where family groups can express their respect for our local heritage.

The Southside location of the arboretum can balance the investment the city and county have made in open spaces over recent decades at McAllister Park, Hardberger Park, Government Canyon, and other public spaces. It can be a place to plant the range of trees that thrive in our area: live oaks, cedar elms, mesquites, sycamores, mountain laurels, crape myrtles, willows, hollies, cypresses, pecans, box elders, and more. 

This is a splendid opportunity to add an open-space asset at a lesser cost to taxpayers because the land is being contributed by TJX. Modest levels of county and city capital funds and federal resources can be used to provide pedestrian and vehicular access and in due course to build the physical structures a fully developed arboretum would entail. Parking can make it user-friendly and accessible from South Loop 410 and U.S. Highway 281.

I expect that there will be strong public support for the modest public funding needed to add such an asset to our community’s treasury of open spaces.  The upcoming city bond proposal would be the proper funding vehicle to complete a precious display of our natural and historic treasures: our mission, our river, and our arboretum.

Henry Cisneros

The former San Antonio mayor and U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Henry Cisneros is the chairman and co-founder of American Triple I, a developer, investor, and manager of infrastructure...