Families enjoy time in Brackenridge Park near the San Antonio Zoo. Photo by Scott Ball.
Families enjoy a sunny Saturday in Brackenridge Park near the San Antonio Zoo. Photo by Scott Ball.

A major test of open government, the public interest, and the future of Brackenridge Park is on the near horizon in San Antonio, but don’t blame yourself if the story is unfolding beyond your view. This drama is playing out in meetings closed to the public and the media, the kind of meetings where deals are cut, money is discussed, and commitments are made. Too often in such cases, a public hearing is held, a preordained vote is taken, and a decision is made that benefits a private entity at the public’s expense.

Some stakeholders fear that’s about to happen again. This story is based on interviews with parties on all sides of the matter, although most spoke only on background.

There are a number of powerful players and institutions with a stake in the outcome, but above all, this be a test for Mayor Ivy Taylor and City Council and the San Antonio Independent School District leadership and board. How the City and the school district proceed in the coming weeks could affect public confidence for better or worse.

At the heart of the matter is a battle to win control of two acres of district-owned land near Brackenridge Park that a City-funded master plan for the park, still in the works, identifies as the best location for a 600-space public parking garage. Now the University of Incarnate Word is seeking to buy the same land for its own parking garage and student dormitory before the master plan and public garage can be approved by City Council.

As is often the case in a deal involving undeveloped public land and competing interests in the urban core, much more is at stake than a single parking garage. Brackenridge Park’s green space is surrounded by entities seeking more parking, and many of them would be happy to acquire a piece of the park for their own use. That would leave less park for the public in a fast-growing city that already lacks park space.

A Cash-Poor School District’s Need for a New Central Office

One dimension of the debate not widely known is the cash-poor school district’s ambitions to raise $30 million to construct a badly-needed central office headquarters on former Fox Tech High School property near the Outlet Tunnel and the northern reach of the San Pedro Creek Improvement Project. Such a facility would save the district at least $1.5 million a year by eliminating inefficiencies in having hundreds of administrators scattered in different district facilities. It also would help the district project a more professional image as it seeks to elevate education outcomes, attract more inner city families with school-age children, and compete with the growing network of inner city public charter schools.

For Mayor Taylor and the Council and for City Manager Sheryl Sculley and staff, it’s a matter of safeguarding the $227,500 allocated for the Brackenridge Park Master Plan in April 2015. The City Council will vote on the master plan when it is finished in June, and it should serve as a guide for future stewardship of the city’s biggest urban park and for much-needed improvements. The public parking garage, for example, could be funded in the 2017 City Bond. The alternative is to see the master plan, and the work of some of the city’s most talented and thoughtful designers, fall victim to politics even before the plan is completed.

The SAISD school board will meet with Superintendent Pedro Martinez in a closed-door executive session Monday evening to consider the competing claims of the San Antonio Zoo and the Brackenridge Park Conservancy, representing the public interest, and the University of Incarnate Word, seeking to expand its vehicle-choked campus by acquiring public land across Hildebrand Avenue. None of the parties will be in that closed meeting.

For the record, Martinez said in a Sunday evening email that he will only discuss the Zoo proposal in closed session and will not be discussing a sale of the property to any entity. If the property is to considered for sale in the future, Martinez wrote, it will happen in a public and transparent process..

The two acres parking lot owned by the school district sits on Tuleta Drive across from the San Antonio Zoo. A second parcel, 2.6 acres of park property adjacent to the 1920s-era former Donkey Barn, was unsuccessfully sought by Incarnate Word in 2010 and is once again an acquisition target.

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University officials originally set out late last year to make a second run at the parkland near the donkey barn. Then they learned of the proposed public parking garage, and a memorandum of understanding that zoo officials had presented to the district for board approval.  The district would essentially donate the land to the zoo, and in return, would have $1 a year access to the 600-space public garage for all events at Alamo Stadium. It would swap unused land it had acquired more than 75 years ago from the City at no cost and get a new garage for its use without investing a penny.

Such a garage would solve a serious game day problem for the district. Right now, high school football rivalries and other events cause traffic to spill chaotically into the park, throughout River Road and other nearby neighborhoods, and bring area traffic to a standstill. Fans have to navigate long, dangerous walks along Hildebrand Avenue to reach the stadium.

Once UIW officials learned of the pending deal in December they stepped in to express an interest in buying the land, which has been appraised at $2 million.The university wants the land for its own private parking garage and a two-story student dormitory it would build atop the garage. Lou Fox, the special assistant to UIW President Lou Agnese Jr. and a former San Antonio city manager, said the university has not made a money offer, but district officials clearly believe the school is ready to do so.

Some SAISD board trustees see that $2 million as a good start on the capital campaign for a new district central office. The district is preparing to offer for sale other properties it owns, including 17 acres on North Alamo Street in Midtown near the Pearl; its administration offices at 141 Lavaca St.; and other holdings. It’s an approach similar to the P3 deal the City has done with Weston Urban and Frost Bank to finance its acquisition of the existing Frost Bank Tower to serve as an eventual central office.

UIW students wouldn’t be the first to enjoy treetop views of Brackenridge Park living above such a facility. Agnese and his family live in a university-owned penthouse atop an on-campus parking garage.

Incarnate Word’s 11th hour entry into the mix has upset Zoo CEO Tim Morrow, Conservancy Executive Director Lynn Osborne Bobbitt and others supporting the master plan work who thought the Zoo had a handshake deal with the school district. Guido Brothers Construction and Pape-Dawson Engineers have done preliminary work for the Zoo on a low-impact parking garage with exterior screening that would make it aesthetically compatible with a park setting.

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The Conservancy, the Zoo and the other cultural and recreational entities associated with the park do not have funds to purchase the property. They hope the public parking garage will be funded in the 2017 City Bond.

The land was owned by the City until 1939 when it was deeded it to the school district so it could build Alamo Stadium, completed in 1940. The two-acre land parcel is left over from that time and has never been developed. A deed restriction requires the property to be used for education purposes and prohibits its use for private profit. One unanswered question is whether city fathers at the time meant public education when they stipulated its use for “educational purposes,” or whether a private Catholic university can buy and develop the land and take it out of public use.

None of this, of course, is information that has been in the public realm, at least until now, and there is little to be gleaned from the school board’s meeting agenda:

“Closed Session A. The Board will convene in Closed Session as authorized by the Texas Government Code Chapter 551, et. Seq. (TGC 551.071, TGC 551.072, and TGC 551.074) 1. Deliberation regarding the purchase, exchange, lease or value of real estate, including legal issues on the acquisition process. (TGC 551.071 and TGC 551.072)… B. The Board will reconvene in Open Session and take appropriate action on items discussed in Closed Session.”

That satisfied the legalities, if not the public’s need for real and timely information. There is, however, intense interest in the outcome, not only by the park and zoo stakeholders, but also the larger Midtown community, which would like to see the underutilized park become a destination for people moving into the city.

Some who support construction of the public parking garage and who do not want to see UIW expand across Hildebrand Avenue are expected to speak at the board meeting’s 6 p.m. “Citizens’ Presentations” session. Anyone with an interest in the outcome can sign up to speak during the 60-minute session. The school board meets at the Burnett Center at 406 Barrera St. in Southtown, a former elementary school property it could reopen if downtown residential development continues apace.

Brackenridge Park’s Parking Problem

No one wants to see any green space lost in the park, yet everyone is clamoring for more parking. Every cultural and recreational entity in and around Brackenridge Park is starving for parking, including the San Antonio Zoo, the Witte Museum, The DoSeum across Broadway, Brackenridge Park Golf Course and the First Tee program, Lions Field, the Japanese Tea Garden and Sunken Garden Theater.

Brackenridge Park is 343 acres in total, but less than 120 acres are open green space. The rest is taken up by the park’s cultural and recreational attractions. Given San Antonio’s lack of public transit options, making space for people and their vehicles is critical to the park’s long-term viability.

The 600-space public garage in the draft master plan would help ease those parking woes. Its proposed location just off Hildebrand won’t solve everyone’s parking problems, but it would be huge step forward without sacrificing any existing parkland. A second garage, it can be argued, is needed somewhere along the park perimeter near Avenue A, which runs alongside the Museum Reach west of Broadway. The Witte, which is undergoing a major expansion, and the DoSeum both attract huge crowds with their regular free admission events, despite parking shortages. Brackenridge Park would attract far more pedestrians and cyclists if there were more parking spaces where people could conveniently park and unload a bike or stroller.

A New Superintendent’s Challenge

SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez – then a candidate for the position – answers reporters' questions during a press conference. Photo by Scott Ball.
SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: San Antonio Report file photo

For Martinez, a $2 million check from UIW might not be worth the money if it poses a risk of undermining growing public confidence in district leadership. Sources say former board president Ed Garza, now serving as the District 7 trustee, has spoken with Fox and is urging Martinez and other trustees to do a deal with UIW.

Garza said that is incorrect and that he has deferred to current Board President Patti Radle to handle any such inquiries.

District 1 Trustee Steve Lecholop, an attorney with the RPSA law firm, normally would be the strongest voice for weighing the ethics and optics of any district deal in the eyes of the public. But two of Lecholop’s law partners serve on the UIW board and he undoubtedly will recuse himself from deliberations, as he did in 2013 when the district and UIW were discussing construction of the university’s medical school on the Fox Tech property which instead was located at Brooks City Base.

SAISD Board Trustee Steve Lecholop (D1) watches superintendent candidates answer reporters' questions during a press conference. Photo by Scott Ball.
SAISD Board Trustee Steve Lecholop (D1) watches superintendent candidates answer reporters’ questions during a press conference on April 16, 2015. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

It would be easy for trustees to cite the tax revenue-poor district’s many needs in cutting a last-minute deal with UIW, but it would undermine the growing community confidence in the district board and Martinez, and perhaps, violate the spirit of the land gift by the City in 1939 if the land is sold to UIW without competing bids. Such a deal would be seen by many as putting the expansion ambitions of Agnese and the university ahead of the public good for a onetime payday.

Interestingly, Mark Watson Jr., the now-retired founder of Titan Holdings insurance company and a major supporter of UIW, the Briscoe Western Art Museum and others, gave the university a generous donation some years ago that allowed it to purchase a choice corner parcel at Broadway and Burr roads. Just over one year ago, UIW sold the parcel to CVS Pharmacy, realizing what some say was an $8 million windfall. Park advocates and others who support the master plan process wonder why UIW did not use that land for university expansion.

Fox said there are height restrictions there along Broadway, although the nearby Broadway condominium tower rises 21 stories. He also said the parcel itself was not big enough to support a multi-story parking garage. The university, Fox said, still hopes zoo and park officials will agree to make available the 2.6 acre parcel next to the former donkey barn for purchase by UIW.

The Donkey Barn. Photo by Scott Ball.
The historic former donkey barn in Brackenridge Park at 950 Hildebrand Ave. Photo by Scott Ball.

It’s been six years now since Agnese was shut down in an effort to purchase that land and the former donkey barn in the park. UIW was going to use the land to build a university fine arts complex, and the historic building with its Alamo facade to open a museum.  The building had long been promised to the Zoo, which managed to fend off UIW amid a public outcry, and win approval to convert it into a $500,000 zoo education center. The building now houses the Zoo’s human resources offices and remains underutilized. Some working on the master plan believe its best future use would be as a park visitor center.

The San Antonio Zoo has followed through on its plan to establish an education center. The Zoo recently purchased the 27,000 square foot Kipp Esperanza Dual Language Academy on Tuleta Drive to house its accredited pre-school. The school, which offers a nature education curriculum, currently serves about 70 students. The new property will allow it to triple the size of its student body, according to a report on News 4 San Antonio.

The Master Plan Team

The first draft of the master plan is due to be completed in February for presentation to the City’s Parks and Recreation Department. Staff members will review the document and then send it back for revision to Rialto Studio Landscape Architecture and studio principal and master plan author James Grey Jr.

He heads a formidable team: Irby Hightower, a principal at Alamo Architects and someone who has had a seat at every planning table involving the San Antonio River and Broadway, among other major projects, for more than 20 years; John Mize, architect and president and COO at Ford, Powell, & Carson; and Jay Louden,  a principal at work5hop, a new firm recently noted on the Rivard Report for sharing the $15,000 prize for its winning design with Brantley Hightower and HiWorks of a new control tower for Stinson Airport. Louden also is a former president of the nonprofit Conservancy, a major volunteer undertaking and community service.

The timeline calls for a public hearing and a final version of the master plan to come before City Council in June for final approval. A quarter of a million dollars sounds like a lot of money, but it breaks down into small pieces when you consider the number of individuals working on the project and the number of stakeholders they have worked with to fashion the plan. All of the park’s tenants and neighbors have been interviewed to determine their future growth. Even park neighbors who are private landowners have been interviewed.

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A strong master plan could help the City activate Brackenridge Park. Many locals don’t give it a second thought, but outsiders and newcomers often note that they’ve never seen such a beautiful urban park go so unused. The park is unusual in that it is surrounded by underutilized private property, some of it left vacant or untended for decades. Most such urban parks are ringed by residential and commercial towers, with the park serving as a major amenity attracting people who want to live and work on its perimeter. Such development serves to activate park space with nearby residents and visitors enjoying a safe venue to walk, cycle, or simply relax. Brackenridge Park overflows with families during Easter and other holidays, but in between, it fails to attract the kind of park traffic found in other cities.

That might be why the Conservancy has been woefully underfunded since its founding in 2008. Leilah Powell, who served as its first executive director, now is chief of policy for Mayor Taylor. She has not taken a visible position on the parking garage issue, but she could prove to be an important defender of the master plan inside City Hall. District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño, a practicing architect and the strongest voice on the Council for urban core investment and good design, also could make it his cause.

One simple solution for the Zoo, the Conservancy, the City and the school district would be to include the land purchase price in the 2017 municipal bond. That would give the district its much-needed cash infusion, keep the property public, and stop UIW from spilling across Hildebrand Avenue into the park. Whether City officials agree to that formula remains to be seen.

The Zoo and conservancy also could reach out to benefactors to contribute to a land fund to match any City contribution. One way to test that possibility is for the district to offer the property for sale rather than negotiate behind closed doors with UIW alone.

Much depends on what is said and agreed upon in the school board’s executive session Monday evening. Unfortunately, that meeting will be closed to the public and media.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified, via Google Maps, the properties in question. The images have been updated to reflect their locations relative to nearby landmarks. That version of the story also said SAISD Trustee Ed Garza was not expected to seek another term on the Board. Garza said Sunday he intends to seek re-election in 2017.

This story was originally published on Sunday, Jan. 10, 2015.

*Top Image: Families enjoy a sunny Saturday in Brackenridge Park near the San Antonio Zoo. Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Brackenridge Park: San Antonio’s Neglected Crown Jewel

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Post-Easter Trash: Cleanup at Brackenridge Park

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.