This article has been updated with details from Wednesday’s HDRC meeting.

While the new parking garage in Brackenridge Park has been open since October, the finishing touches – signage and other design features – are the subject of a dispute between the San Antonio Zoo and the Brackenridge Park Conservancy.

On Wednesday, the Historic and Design Review Commission voted 9-1 to delay its consideration of the final design for signs and art installation on the five-level garage.

“This is the first public process forum, at least for us, which any of these elements are being presented,” said HDRC Commissioner Curtis Fish, who represents District 1. “It’s a highly, visible, publicly funded project and I think that additional time is appropriate in this case.”

Commissioner Alvaro Arreola, who represents District 4, cast the lone vote against the delay. Commissioner Gabriel Velasquez, who represents District 3, said Friday that he also wanted to vote against it, too. A recording of the meeting shows he voted in favor. The next vote will take place no earlier than the third week of June.

The conservancy contends the signage gives undue prominence to the zoo over Brackenridge Park as a whole.

While the $12 million garage is maintained and operated by the zoo on its campus within the park, it was built with public money and serves the broader visitor base of the park, including an animal adoption center and nearby convocation center in addition to zoo visitors.

The Brackenridge Park Conservancy, a nonprofit aimed at preserving and enhancing the City-owned park, and some park neighbors take issue with the low visibility of the sign placement relative to the nearby highway, the smaller size of its signs they day would be lost among the plant life that covers the garage’s exterior walls.

“There’s no equitable signage for Brackenridge Park,” conservancy board President Joe Calvert told City Council last week, suggesting that its signage should be added to the parking structure and be the same size as the zoo’s. “This garage was built to serve Brackenridge Park,” he said.

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), whose district includes downtown and some of Brackenridge Park, wrote a letter to the HDRC asking it to delay its vote until more public input can be collected on the design.

“This is not an emergency. … It can wait,” Treviño told the Rivard Report on Tuesday, adding that he was not made aware of the final design proposal until May 8. The coronavirus pandemic has strained public engagement efforts for the past two months, but that doesn’t mean they can’t occur, he said.

“We can’t use the cover of a pandemic to not provide meaningful, transparent engagement with residents,” Treviño said. “It’s pretty obvious that [the garage] was designed to bury the signage that would provide Brackenridge Park visibility.”

After the HDRC vote on Wednesday, Treviño said he would facilitate a public meeting regarding the design in the coming weeks.

The role of the HDRC is to “review what’s submitted and determine whether or not it’s appropriate … not to pick between two opinions,” said Shanon Shea Miller, director of the Office of Historic Preservation.

Click here to see the agenda for the HDRC’s 3 p.m. videoconference meeting.

During City Council’s meeting last week, zoo officials and City staff said work on the signage and art for the garage has been underway for more than a year.

“The zoo has worked diligently with the [City’s] parks department and Brackenridge Park Conservancy to incorporate the first one and then a second additional sign,” San Antonio Zoo President and CEO Tim Morrow told Council last week.

“It is very disappointing to us” that the conservancy now wants more, he said.

“We didn’t rush this,” City Manager Erik Walsh said. The conservancy requested changes to the design one year ago, he noted, and “both sides have had to compromise in this process.”

The design application for the garage located at 3903 N. St. Mary’s St. was received by the City’s Office of Historic Preservation on May 1. Several other projects on the agenda have been pending since before the pandemic or during the time meetings were halted.

“Given that our backlog is so substantial,” Fish said Wednesday, “it doesn’t make any sense to me how an application like this, which is a public project, gets rushed to the front of the line.”

Funding for the parking garage included $11.7 million from the 2017 municipal bond and $600,000 from the City’s 2020 budget. Last week, Council approved an additional $800,000 to fabricate and install the signage and artwork: two San Antonio Zoo logos (one mounted high on the elevator tower facing U.S. Highway 281), two Brackenridge Park signs, a depiction of a 52-foot tall giraffe on the garage’s elevator tower, two 80-foot long images of tigers, and butterflies.

Councilwoman Jada Andrews Sullivan (D2), whose district includes most of the park, and a majority of Council members voted against Treviño’s suggestion to delay funding for the signage contract.

The garage received HDRC approval in October 2018 but did not include final approval for signage. The final design has been updated to include the words “Brackenridge Park” on one side of the garage and at a pedestrian entrance.

In a letter sent to the mayor and City Council members earlier this month, Morrow noted that the zoo will spend about $220,000 annually to manage the garage and $473,000 for recurring maintenance every three to five years.

The garage is free to park in during zoo business hours, and Morrow said he does not expect to turn a profit. “There is no revenue stream for the garage that could come close to covering this expense,” he wrote.

The signage, however, could help attract more visitors passing by on the highway.

Large signs on the highway mark the exit for Brackenridge Park, so having two, prominently displayed signs on the garage may confuse visitors, he wrote.

A plaza located at the base of the elevator tower will become a secondary entrance and exit point for the zoo, Morrow stated.

“Having dual branding at that location simply causes confusion,” Morrow continued.

Morrow could not be reached for comment on Tuesday, a spokesperson said, as most zoo staff was busy preparing for re-opening after Gov. Greg Abbott announced zoos can open May 29 at 25 percent capacity if their local jurisdictions allow it. The zoo is “awaiting final approval from the City of San Antonio to announce our re-opening date,” they said.

Mimi Quintanilla, a member of the nearby River Road Neighborhood Association, is concerned that park visitors will think the garage is only for zoo visitors because the garage and its elevator tower are being used as a “de facto billboard.”

“That doesn’t speak to the entire park,” she said.

The proposed signage on the San Antonio Zoo parking garage. Credit: Courtesy / Alamo Architects

While the lettering for Brackenridge Park on the side of the garage is 3 feet tall, brown, and buried amid plant life, the zoo’s logo is 14 feet tall, bright green, situated at the tallest point of the structure, she noted.

When a parking garage was built near the Witte Museum in the park, there was similar concern that park users would assume it was for museum patrons only, said Quintanilla, who was a programming director there at the time. That garage has no signage other than a “parking” indicator with an arrow.

“It was bond money and it was for the park, not for the museum,” she said. “Same thing with the zoo.”

The River Road neighborhood was not engaged to provide input for the sign or art design, she said, and typically public art projects are applied for and formally vetted by the City through a public process.

“While it is art, it is not public art in the technical sense of the term,” Miller clarified during the meeting on Wednesday. “It is not funded [through a public art fund or] required to go through the public art board.”

“The garage enhancement is not public art,” a Zoo spokesperson said in an email Tuesday. “It is a part of an overall signage package that features some of the animals we work to conserve from San Antonio Zoo, both locally and around the world.”

Regardless of which board reviews it, Quintanilla said, the public should be allowed more time to comment.

“The pandemic has taken people’s energy and focus away from things that they might normally pay attention to because they’re thinking about themselves and their families,” she said.

Better parking options, including several parking garages, was identified as a key element of the park’s master plan to sustain and reinvigorate the park. The 2017 bond language states that the garage will “service Brackenridge Park and San Antonio Zoo patrons.”

Treviño said the community should have more time to have input on how their dollars will be spent on the project. “We’re literally in the middle of a pandemic emergency response, what is the rush?”

For Quintanilla, it’s a decision she’ll be living with for a long time.

“For the rest of my life, [I could be] be staring at a 50-foot tall giraffe,” she said.

CORRECTIONS: The recurring cost to the San Antonio Zoo for maintaining the signage has been updated to reflect the Zoo’s more recent estimate. It has also been updated to reflect that Commissioner Alvaro Arreola cast his vote against the delay and Commissioner Gabriel Velasquez later said that he wanted to as well.

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@sareport.org