More than a year after public outcry delayed design approval of the Brackenridge Park bond project and sent the city scrambling back to the drawing board, a painstakingly updated design that would remove fewer than half the original number of trees is set to go before the Historic and Design Review Commission on Wednesday.

The project, approved by voters as part of the 2017 municipal bond, seeks to restore several historic structures in the park around Lambert Beach, including an 1870s pump house and 1920s-era retaining walls.

But after the city’s planning commission approved a project design in January 2022 that would have removed more than 100 trees, including nine “heritage trees” — defined as a tree with a trunk of 24 inches in diameter or more — a group of residents mobilized to protest at the HDRC, resulting in that body tabling a decision and setting off the more than year-long saga.

Residents’ efforts resulted in a series of public meetings, a public apology from the city and a redesigned project that city officials say will result in the loss of less than half the number of trees originally slated for removal.

Earlier this month, after first delaying its decision due to a contingent of residents who traveled to Austin to protest the tree removal, the Texas Historical Commission approved the permits necessary to allow the project to move forward.

The commission’s executive director, Mark Wolfe, told Chairman John Nau at the start of the meeting that the commission may only focus on “the built environment.”

“We do not have and are not botanists, or nephrologists or arborists,” Wolfe said. “We acknowledge and respect those who do have that expertise, and perhaps there is or should be a parallel review conducted by such individuals when dealing with projects of this kind, but that is beyond our authority.”

The most recent version of the project design, which was submitted to the commission and will go before the HDRC, shows 48 trees, including six heritage trees. will be removed for the restoration work, less than half of the 105 the project had originally planned to chop.

That’s down from the 77 trees identified for removal when the city’s public input process concluded last fall.

A historic retaining wall is collapsed due to the growth of trees along the banks of the San Antonio River at Brackenridge Park.
A historic retaining wall is collapsed due to the growth of trees along the banks of the San Antonio River at Brackenridge Park. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Since the conclusion of its public meetings, the city’s parks and recreation department has worked with the SWA Group to whittle the number of trees to be removed down to as few as possible, said Jamaal Moreno, the manager on the bond project.

“Originally, relocating trees wasn’t necessarily in the mindset of the design team,” he acknowledged. “It was very simple: either a tree is preserved or a tree is removed. But after talking with [a few different groups], we decided, ‘OK, if it’s important enough to save some of these trees, then let’s go ahead and do that.'”

Eight of the trees slated for removal are either invasive, dead or dying, experts say. An additional 19 trees will be relocated within the park.

The new plan will restore the historic structures in the park, and plant 26 new trees in the area. In total, the project will add 271 trees in the park that will be planted to fill in the tree canopy and create a healthy understory, which does not exist currently.

The project design estimates that by the fifth year of their growth, the trees will remove an estimated 53,716 pounds of carbon per tree; by year 10, the city estimates that will grow to 61,219 pounds per tree per year.

Homer Garcia, who oversees the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, told the San Antonio Report he and his staff are satisfied with the outcome of the project’s design and were glad to see the Texas Historical Commission approve the necessary permits.

“I think through this process what we have is a much-improved plan,” Garcia said. “That is really because of the call to action by the community and the engagement that we went through last spring and summer.”

A core group of tree advocates, however, remain unsatisfied with the new plan, and were disappointed in last week’s decision.

While much of their opposition has been focused on heritage trees, they have also linked the tree removal to the city’s efforts to reduce the size of a rookery within the park.

While first denying that the tree removal had anything to do with those efforts, early project documents showed the parks department saw the reduced nesting area as a positive side effect.

City officials later apologized for denying the connection, but the city has shown no willingness to back down from its efforts to disrupt the rookery, citing water quality concerns and health hazards from the bird droppings that make parts of the public park, including a playground, unusable.

Now the project design returns to the HDRC.

If the commission grants its approval, the city’s parks and recreation department to work with development services to get all the proper permits in place and then to select a developer, Moreno said.

Aspects of the plan also need approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The design plan must then go before city council for approval before any work can begin, Moreno said.

“For now, we’re just focused just on getting through the next step, which is HDRC,” Garcia said.

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.