North End History and Walking Area. Courtesy of Brackenridge Park Conservancy.
Rendering of the North End History and Walking Area, proposed by the Brackenridge Park Master Plan. Courtesy of Brackenridge Park Conservancy.

More green space and more people. Fewer parking lots and less cars. A 10-acre Grand Lawn would become the urban core’s new outdoor gathering place. The park’s many disconnected cultural and recreational destinations would be connected by new walking and bike paths with native landscaping replacing invasive species. An unsightly concrete drainage ditch would become a meandering creek and linear park running from the Witte Museum all the way to U.S. 281.

The Brackenridge Park Master Plan draft now awaiting City Council review, revision, and its authors hope, approval and 2017 bond funding, is a far-reaching, ambitious blueprint for breathing new life into San Antonio’s historic urban park. Early reviews of the draft master plan by the 20 stakeholders located in or along the park and on Broadway are overwhelmingly positive. A few interviewed for this story expressed optimism that all the pieces are falling into place for the City of San Antonio to oversee a dramatic transformation of Brackenridge Park and Broadway from Hildebrand Avenue to Houston Street.

Click here to download the master plan.

A decision to implement the master plan and a privately-funded parallel plan to redesign Broadway into a destination boulevard would represent an unprecedented investment in place making by the City, and would be the strongest effort yet to spark the kind of urban evolution here that many civic and business leaders believe is needed to put San Antonio on a more competitive footing with other leading U.S. cities.

James Gray.
James W. Gray Jr.

“More people, fewer cars, that has been our mantra,” said Rialto Studio Principal and Landscape Architect James W. Gray, Jr., the prime consultant who directed the team that produced the master plan, a project that began more than one year ago when the City issued an RFQ. “We don’t want to change the way people have historically used the park, except for all the vehicles and traffic. Only about 30% of the entire area of Brackenridge Park is available for public use, and a good piece of that space is taken up by streets and parking.

“The notion is that the more we can reduce traffic and parking, the more green space we will have available for public use,” Gray said.

In addition to Rialto Studio, the project team included two other local firms with a strong record of historical preservation and work in the city’s urban core: Ford, Powell & Carson, led by Principal and Architect John Mize, and Alamo Architects, led by principal and Architect Irby Hightower. Architect Jay Loudon, who left Ford, Powell & Carson to open his own firm, work5hop, also is on the team. To review a complete list of all the team consultants, click here.

The first draft of the master plan still lacks an executive summary, a chronology for implementation,  and cost estimates for individual projects.

“Our plan is broken into short-term and long-term components, but we haven’t really sorted out which components are on which list,” Gray said. “Our next step is to engage the public at a public meeting scheduled for April 26. We’ve met with city staff and Council to get their high level approval, and we held a primary stakeholder meeting with the 20 groups most affected and the Brackenridge Park Conservancy in late March. We’ve gained the support of these groups, and are very optimistic at this juncture.”

AGCM, a Corpus Christi-based construction management and estimating firm with an office here, is working on cost estimates.

“We’ve tossed around a lot of numbers, nothing firm, but we are using $150 million for the likely cost of doing everything,” Gray said.

Lynn Bobbitt, executive director of the Brackenridge Park Conservancy, praised the plan and the growing commitment to undertake the park’s restoration. Any major restoration effort funded by city bond money presumably would have to include significant private funds and philanthropic contributions raised by the conservancy.

Brackenridge Park Conservancy Executive Director Lynn Bobbitt. Photo by Scott Ball.
Brackenridge Park Conservancy Executive Director Lynn Bobbitt. Photo by Scott Ball.

“The park is one of those treasures along the river, much-loved, its potential is yet to be realized,” Bobbitt said. “We have the opportunity to create a vision for transforming the park into a world-class urban amenity on par with parks being built in Houston, Dallas, across the country, and around the world. We have an exciting window of opportunity to move the park to the top of the list for government funding — making it a citywide 2017 bond project.

“This is a plan to protect the regional, historic park from future encroachment for private development once and for all, and to embrace recommendations that will improve the visitor experience, and connect all of us to nature and the outdoors. The community should embrace the space as an oasis from the hustle and bustle of everyday activities. That was Col. Brackenridge’s intent with his bequest in 1899. The issues and opportunities are now laid out for discussion and continued vetting. The transformation will take strong public and private partnerships to become reality.”

The master plan contains a significant number of proposed changes that would, indeed, transform Brackenridge Park.

Heart of the Park and Grand Lawn

“For the first time, Brackenridge Park will have a grand public space at its heart,” the plan states.

The plan calls for the creation of a 10-acre Grand Lawn with an adjacent new playground that would require removal of the San Antonio zoo’s large surface parking lot on Tuleta Drive. The Train Station Cafe would be relocated closer to the Cypress Pavilion. The Martinez Softball Field would be moved to share space with the golf driving range. The First Tee facility would not be affected initially by creation of the Great Lawn.

An open field in Brackenridge Park. Photo by Scott Ball

“Every great park has a great lawn, a great gathering space,” Gray said. “If we have our way, it will be a full 10 acres, which is the same size as the Sheep Meadow in Central Park.”

The Grand Lawn would be seeded with a hybrid turf resistant to vehicle traffic so it can be used for overflow parking on major event days. The same turf was used around Mission San Juan where Mission Drive and Mission Parkway meet to accommodate overflow parking on big event occasions there.

The expanse of green space created for the Grand Lawn along Tuleta Drive would be complimented by permanent closure to vehicle traffic of the Hildebrand Avenue entrance to the park and the creation of the North End History & Walking Area. This would require removal of all the blacktop along the entrance roadway, around the Donkey Barn, and near the San Antonio River, all of which would be replaced with native landscaping and walking paths.

“The Hildebrand Avenue entrance is in very close proximity to cultural resources on the river that have been unearthed in the last few months by archeologists,” Gray said. “Vehicle traffic is incompatible with restoration and preservation of this complex site, which demonstrates a historical chronology of development of that system.”

North St. Mary’s Street would be closed from Koehler Park gates north to the proposed new zoo bus drop-off and turnaround near the zoo entrance, reducing cut-through traffic and making the area safer for pedestrians and children.

The area would become a pedestrian’s respite from surface street traffic, and could include the reopening of the Lambert Beach swimming hole. Several historic structures would be restored and become attractions: Pump House No. 1, representing the city’s first waterworks established by George Brackenridge; the Rodriguez Bridge, the now-buried 200-year-old Spanish colonial Upper Labor and Alamo Dams, the Bridge to Miraflores and Miraflores Park itself. The park is a now unused 15-acre expanse created by Dr. Aureliano Urrutia, who lived on the site from 1925-1950, and installed gardens and sculpture that reminded him of his native Xochimilco Gardens, now part of the UNESCO World Heritage site that includes the historic center of Mexico City.

A separate master plan exists for the restoration of Miraflores, and the San Antonio Zoo is completing its own master plan.

An all-access third bridge would be constructed between the two existing bridges. The master plan cites various opportunities to make the park more accessible to individuals with disabilities.

Parking Garages

The master plan calls for construction of three new public-private parking garages on the park’s perimeter, none on actual parkland. This would greatly reduce traffic in the park itself and bring to a close efforts by the University of Incarnate word to acquire any public lands in the historic park as well as the practice of students using the park’s Hildebrand Avenue entrance to leave their vehicles while they attend classes or events on campus.

Gray said it will take between 2,000 and 2,500 new parking spaces in multistory garages to relieve traffic congestion in Brackenridge and end the practice of UIW students and those attending district football games and other events at nearby Alamo Stadium from using the park as a parking lot.

One of those would be the Tuleta Parking Garage, a 600-space facility jointly operated by the San Antonio Independent School District and the San Antonio Zoo and located on a surface parking lot now owned by the district on the edge of the park east of  U.S. 281 along Tuleta Drive just west of the Zoo. Vehicles would exit 281 at Hildebrand to enter the garage, an easy walk to the stadium, zoo, Sunken Garden Theater and Japanese Tea Garden and the northern perimeter of the park, which the plan targets for significant green space expansion.

The land (parking lot) between the Alamo Stadium (right) and San Antonio Pets Alive (left) owned by SAISD on Tuleta Drive across from the San Antonio Zoo. Image courtesy of the San Antonio Zoo.
The land (parking lot) between the Alamo Stadium (right) and San Antonio Pets Alive (left) owned by SAISD on Tuleta Drive across from the San Antonio Zoo. Image courtesy of the San Antonio Zoo.

(Read More: SAISD Board and San Antonio Zoo Reach Agreement)

The draft plan suggests the City consider funding a second public-private  parking garage that would be located just outside the park’s northern corner near Hildebrand and Broadway, east of Miraflores on private property. The facility would require UIW’s financial participation, would relieve on-campus traffic congestion and provide an off-campus parking solution that would take UIW student vehicles out of the park. Park users also would be able to park in this facility and walk to the nearby archeological sites and historic locks and dams on the San Antonio River that would be restored under the plan.

A third multistory parking garage, Gray said, would require the City to donate the right-of-way on Margaret Street off Broadway next to the DoSeum, which would require financial participation by the children’s museum.

“One of the central notions in the master plan is moving parking to the edges of the park, which makes sense, so if we are going to take that step now, let’s do it right. There might not be an opportunity to include a parking garage in another bond,” Gray said. “We don’t have an exact number, but we probably want parking in the 2,000 to 2,500 range when you include the Zoo, the DoSeum, the Witte. The three new garages would provide space for 1,800 cars to be parked within walking distance of the Sunken Gardens.”

Wilderness Area

This area of the park will be preserved and enhanced by eventual removal of roadways that will be replaced with pedestrian and bicycle pathways, management of invasive species, and a major restoration of the Catalpa-Pershing Channel into what the plan calls a “more natural waterway.” The unsightly concrete channel  serves as a barrier between Avenue B and various tenants, and is built over significant archeological sites where indigenous occupation and activity has been dated to the early Clovis culture, to 11,000 B.C.  The channel does more to disconnect Brackenridge park from Broadway than any other manmade feature.

“With thoughtful restoration, however, it will be a unifying element which creates important new connections from the Broadway corridor to paths in the park,” the report notes. “Its restoration also will be a driving force for development around the park, as what was before an ugly drainage ditch will become a uniquely enjoyable waterway, with path connections both to the park and to Pearl and downtown San Antonio.”

Long term, the master plan proposed closing Read Oak and Brackenridge Drive to vehicle traffic.

The plan also calls for acquisition of private property located between the park and Broadway to create at least two more pedestrian corridors from the street to the park with wide paths, good landscaping and lighting, use of architectural elements and public art to make the connections more desirable. Avenue B traffic northbound from Mulberry Avenue would become one way northbound to Brackenridge Drive and the Witte Museum.

Sunken Garden Theater

Supporters have long lamented the diminished use and shabby conditions of the Sunken Garden Theater, an open-air amphitheater carved out of the limestone quarry that holds 4,800 people and is located off Tuleta Drive adjacent to the Japanese Tea Garden. Renovation of the Sunken Garden into a state-of-the-art concert and events venue was estimated to cost $15-20 million, but was excluded from the 2012 bond. San Antonio has long been seen as a city with a dearth of destination music venues, although Sunken Garden aficionados think the city has a potentially iconic destination that would attract major acts and sold-out houses if it were brought up to standards for both performers and concert-goers.

“The first heyday of the Sunken Garden Theater is past, but its second – and more durable – lies ahead,” the report states. “The close proximity of the Grand Lawn creates opportunities for synergistic, multi-stage events for the first time in the park’s history.”

Sunken Garden Theater, for those who have never been, will play host to a Taste of New Orleans April 15-17 during Fiesta.

Other Highlights

Brackenridge Park Golf Course would remain untouched, but its rundown clubhouse and maintenance facilities would be slated for renovations and upgrades. The Lions Field is an important hub for senior citizens programs and and the children’s playground is one of the most heavily used facilities in the city. The DoSeum is drawing huge crowds of families and creating safer connections between the DoSeum and the park remains a priority.

The relatively undisturbed property between Avenue A and the San Antonio River would be enhanced with river bank stabilization measures to include native plantings replacing invasive species. Multiple unfunded projects along the Park Reach of the San Antonio River would be completed under the plan. Asphalt on Avenue A would be removed and vehicle traffic would be eliminated.

The Brackenridge Park Master Plan Presentation will take place  Tuesday, April 26, 5:30-7:30 p.m. at Brackenridge Park.

Top Image: An ampitheater serves as a centerpiece for the history and walking area in Brackenridge Park’s north end.  Courtesy of Brackenridge Park Conservancy. 

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Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.