When it comes to the birds at Brackenridge Park, the city is eating crow.

At the start of the city’s second public meeting about the Brackenridge Park 2017 bond project Tuesday, Assistant City Manager David McCary stood before about 50 attendees and apologized on the city’s behalf, saying environmental advocates were right — city documents did originally state that tree removal in the park was partially about the birds.

For the past three months, city staff, including McCary, has denied that the slated removal of 10 heritage trees and roughly 90 smaller trees from the park had anything to do with the migratory birds that nest in them. It’s about protecting historic structures in the park and about public safety, they said.

But at the meeting, McCary acknowledged that some city documents did state that tree removal would also benefit the city’s ongoing efforts to push the birds to nesting sites outside the park.

“I want to validate what you said about the birds. We wrote it ourselves. It was our mistake, but we have to own it,” McCary said.

The conflict began in February, when staff sought changes to the already-voter-approved project, which aims to protect the historic structures present in the park. Because those changes required removing heritage trees, which are protected under the city’s tree ordinance, the city’s Planning Commission and Historic and Design Review Commission had to first approve a variance for the bond project.

Since then, wildlife proponents and activists have protested the proposed tree removal at every possible juncture in the process. Some argued that the trees are equally important as the structures, while others focused on their status as home to migratory birds.

They object to the city’s efforts to prevent the birds from nesting in that part of the 343-acre urban park, which include the clacking of wooden blocks, shooting of small pyrotechnics and the use of lasers. The city’s stance is that the birds’ droppings are a hazard to park visitors. At times, the city has closed the playground area and restricted access to the restrooms because of the birds’ mess.

Cattle egrets nest in trees above Brackenridge Park on Tuesday.
Cattle egrets congregate in trees at Brackenridge Park on Tuesday. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

After an hours-long stand-off at the HDRC meeting, the city paused the process and said it would schedule several public meetings to allow residents to fully air their concerns.

McCary said after doing some research, he found that the original HDRC agenda did say the tree removal was partially about mitigating the bird rookeries. That language, first reported by Deceleration, was ultimately removed from the published agenda, and McCary reiterated that the project is about protecting historic structures in the park.

Following his apology, McCary said he and the rest of the assembled staff were “putting on [their] listening ears” for the rest of the meeting. Councilmen Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2) and Mario Bravo (D1) applauded McCary for his candor and said they will continue to voice the concerns of their constituents.

Their comments were followed by a short presentation from the SWA Group, the partnering landscape architecture firm, which quickly ran through comments collected from the public during the first meeting last month, including concerns about the birds, requests that the historic walls or trees be moved instead of removed and pleas for balance and inclusion in the project’s design.

About 20 speakers then took to the microphone for three minutes or less, many echoing previous concerns for the historic structures, trees and birds. Several asked Parks and Recreation staff to stop the bird mitigation efforts in the park, saying the noise was stressful for park-goers.

Alesia Garlock speaks about the methods used to scare nesting birds from Brackenridge Park trees during a public meeting about the park’s bond project on Tuesday. Garlock said bird deterrents such as fireworks and firearm blanks have been used.
Alesia Garlock speaks about the methods used to scare nesting birds from Brackenridge Park trees during a public meeting about the park’s bond project on Tuesday. She said the pyrotechnics and noise scare children in the park. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

Avid birder, author and self-described “citizen scientist” Alesia Garlock said the clacking of the blocks has registered at 120 decibels and that she has seen children covering their ears as they walk through the park. Garlock told the San Antonio Report she was recently hospitalized for a suspected heart attack induced by the noise.

Representing the Brackenridge Park Conservancy, board members Lukin Gilliland Jr. and Suzanne Scott spoke in favor of the restoration of the 1920s river walls on Lambert Beach, the historic acequia and 1776 Upper Labor Diversion Dam, and the 1870s pump house and waterworks channel. 

The creation of the conservancy, which recently published a “Cultural Landscape Report” on the park, and the money earmarked in the 2017 bond were both efforts to start reversing decades of neglect the park has suffered, Gilliland said. Voters were “overwhelmingly supportive” of the project, he reminded the room, and millions more have been raised to support conservancy efforts to fund park upgrades.

While some environmental advocates said they appreciated McCary’s apology and efforts to start fresh, others said they will only believe McCary once they see the city staff leave the birds at the park completely alone.

It’s unclear whether that will happen. At the meeting, city staff did not commit to changing its stance on disturbing the birds. Bill Pennell, the department’s assistant manager, reiterated the city’s stance that bird mitigation is important for the safety of park-goers. “The fecal matter from the birds is not healthy,” he said.

SWA Group’s Rachel Wilkins said while these are difficult conversations to have, they are ultimately good for the project.

“You know, they say a good compromise is where all parties leave a little unhappy; I don’t know if that’s the solution here, but we’ll see,” she said.

Members of the public are invited to submit comments or concerns about the project to the city at SASpeakUp. The third meeting is scheduled for May 24 at 6 p.m., also at the Witte Museum.

Correction: an earlier version of this story misstated the reason Alesia Garlock was hospitalized.

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Lindsey Carnett

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