The proposed public garden devoted to trees and shrubs that San Antonio officials have envisioned for at least three years has landed a home.
With the recent purchase of 170 acres on the Southeast Side, the Brooks Development Authority has assured that Arboretum San Antonio will put down its roots at the Republic Golf Club, which closed in 2020.
When completed, the arboretum will feature open space where native trees and other trees that thrive in the area grow in a natural setting to be enjoyed by visitors and studied by botanists and others.
There are similar such gardens in Dallas and Houston and across the nation, including the United States National Aboretum in Washington, D.C.
Proponents of a park in San Antonio say a formal arboretum makes sense for this city despite already having the San Antonio Botanical Garden, several major parks including Brackenridge, and an extensive linear parks and trails system.
“An arboretum is different from other forms of parks and botanical gardens in that it concentrates on trees,” said former mayor Henry Cisneros, who has championed the idea. “And if there ever was a city that owed its history to trees, it’s San Antonio.”
The earliest native tribes and settlers relied on trees and the waterways where they grew, he said. “That’s a critical legacy for our city to celebrate and the role that trees have played. And they have an ongoing scientific and environmental role to play.”
An arboretum is something the city of San Antonio deserves to have, said Thomas Corser, CEO of Arboretum San Antonio, the organization founded late last year to lead the project. Its nonprofit status is pending.
“San Antonio is a big city, it’s multicultural, it has a lot of different assets in it and the city of our size deserves more than one type of park,” Corser said, comparing the various gardens to different types of museums in the same city. “They coexist very well and we deserve that as a city.”
A Minnesota native who graduated from Texas A&M University, Corser retired about a year ago from the technology sector in California. Cisneros, who serves on the board of Arboretum San Antonio, asked him to head up the nonprofit after Corser attended a Masters Leadership Program of Greater San Antonio.
Other Aboretum San Antonio board of directors include Suzanne Scott, state director of The Nature Conservancy and former general manager of the San Antonio River Authority; Mary Jane Verette, president and CEO of the San Antonio Parks Foundation, and former city councilman and banker Juan Solis.
An advisory board includes Mark Bird, arborist for the City of San Antonio, and faculty members from Trinity University and Texas A&M-San Antonio.
Until recently, Corser and others expected the arboretum would be developed on land TJX Companies gave to the San Antonio River Authority and Texas A&M University-San Antonio.
That option fell through due to conservation easements that limited its use and access, he said. The group considered several other sites, all on the South Side of San Antonio, before landing on the golf course.
The goal was to provide “a significant substantial asset that is world class on the South Side to provide some equity balance in the city,” Corser said.
The Republic Golf Club property rose to the top of their selection list very quickly, he added. In addition to its established trees and irrigation system, the fairways are mostly clear of brush already and could provide an interesting topography for the arboretum.
The Salado Creek Greenway trail runs alongside the property, which also has a San Antonio Water System contract to provide recycled water. “So we’re not using any of the Edwards Aquifer water, we’re using recycled or treated water,” to help sustain the trees, Corser said.
In November, the Brooks board authorized its leadership to spend $1 million to purchase the property at 4226 Southeast Military Dr. from Foresight Golf. The land will be conveyed through either a purchase or lease agreement to the nonprofit Arboretum San Antonio in early 2023.
The property is less than 2 miles from the Brooks campus. A proposal to fund construction of a trail connector between Brooks and the property was cut from the 2022 bond program.
But Brooks officials see the arboretum project as an opportunity to develop another economic generator within the Brooks Regional Center, said Connie Gonzalez, chief strategy officer at Brooks.
“If I can use the Houston Arboretum as an example, they attract more than 600,000 a year, so if we’re able to meet or even exceed that many visitors … it seems like a really, really awesome win-win,” Gonzalez said.
In exchange for the property, Arboretum San Antonio agreed to a list of “in-kind” compensation, including naming rights, dedicated use of facility space, shared promotional opportunities and the endowment of trees for various projects.
The real estate transaction is expected to close early next year.
Bexar County allocated $7.3 million in its 2021-22 budget for the arboretum. The full cost of the project will be determined when master planning is completed, which Corser said he hopes will be done by the third quarter of 2023.
When asked if Arboretum San Antonio plans to launch a capital campaign to raise funds, Corser said, “Oh, absolutely.” A website will go live in the next few weeks to support that effort, he added.
Though the gates the arboretum likely wouldn’t open until 2024 or later, Corser expects there will be opportunities for the public to start experiencing the arboretum before that.
Volunteers will be needed to help develop a catalog of existing trees, for example, and for clearing land for new trees to be planted.
Corser said the San Antonio River Authority also will be involved in the project, especially when it comes to managing the creekway within the property.
Cisneros believes that when complete the arboretum will be “just one more jewel on this necklace of trails” San Antonio has built, creating yet another attraction for visitors and residents and branding the city as one of the greenest in the U.S.
But the arboretum is more than an arbor for trees, Cisneros added. “It is a place where we can study and encourage our own citizens to add to the tree canopy of the city.”
This article has been updated to correct that Thomas Corser is a native of Minnesota. Brooks President and CEO Leo Gomez is a member of the San Antonio Report’s board of directors.