In 2015, CPS Energy offered to turn land over to the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA). After a hard 2021 winter, that might not happen.

CPS Energy owns two 3.47-acre parcels next to the museum, one parcel fronting the River Walk and the other facing Jones Street. Tasked with offloading unused property, the energy utility sought to transfer ownership of the Jones Street parcel to the museum, which has expressed a need for expanded exhibitions space.

The offer expired Dec. 31, 2019, with no agreement reached, and CPS Energy is now considering selling the land rather than conveying it to the museum.

During a Sept. 27 meeting of the CPS Energy board of trustees, a motion was passed that allows CEO Paula Gold-Williams to explore the sale of all 6.94 acres, appraised at $22 million.

Damage wrought by winter storm Uri in February left CPS Energy with up to $1 billion in debt for energy charges — a figure the utility disputes — and changed its financial considerations, said Lisa Lewis, chief administrative officer.

Money gained from a sale of the property could be used “to bring that debt down, which is a positive. We don’t want to have to apply that debt to our customers,” Lewis said, and that as a municipally owned company, “all the money is our customers’ money.”

One vote against

One board member voted against the motion. At issue for dissenting board member John Steen was the ambiguity of the motion made by board Chair Willis Mackey: “to authorize the CEO to explore all marketing options for the sale of the entire property with continued discussion with SAMA on the highest and best use of the property.”

Steen said during the meeting that “this suggests that we’re now, in essence, cutting SAMA out of this, but we’re saying because you’re a neighbor, we’ll continue to discuss this with you.”

Gold-Williams assured Steen that she was being authorized to explore the possibility of selling the land and that, if an agreement with SAMA was not reached, she would come back to the board for further instructions rather than move ahead with a sale.

Ex officio board member Mayor Ron Nirenberg weighed in to “remind everybody this is public property. … It’s my reading and my interpretation that the motion is to authorize the CEO to enter discussions with them to come to a resolution to this, we need closure with it. And ultimately if no resolution can be found with SAMA — and we are authorizing the CEO to market the property — but it is our hope that there is a mutually agreeable solution.”

Pressed to vote, Steen said, “I feel strongly that … I cannot, in good conscience, vote to renege on the deal that CPS Energy made in 2015 to convey the 3.47 acres to SAMA.”

‘A really serious problem’

SAMA Co-Interim Director Emily Sano told the San Antonio Report that SAMA has for years sought additional space for offices, educational classrooms, a library, and art storage, with a growing collection of objects and not enough space to display them. Moving offices and storage space out of the main museum building could generate as much as 16,000 additional square feet of exhibition space, she said, according to a survey undertaken by former Chief Curator William Keyse Rudolph.

Sano mentioned an entire collection of African art that has not yet been seen by the public and that a space formerly devoted to Islamic art was converted to storage. SAMA also lacks space to host touring exhibitions, she said.

Such exhibitions would help fulfill the museum’s mission to create educational opportunities for the San Antonio community, as well as generate additional revenue by attracting paying visitors, she said.

Visitors at the San Antonio Museum of Art walk across the sky bridge between the two wings of the museum. March 2021 marked the 40th anniversary of the museum.
Visitors at the San Antonio Museum of Art walk across the sky bridge between the two wings of the historic brewery-turned-museum. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

SAMA board Chair Ed Hart and board member Cecilia Herrera addressed the CPS Energy trustees during the Sept. 27 board meeting, making pleas for the land based on the museum’s educational mission.

Herrera said, “Our need for additional space is great,” specifying that as SAMA celebrates its 40th anniversary year, “our collection has grown to 30,000 outstanding works of art, spanning 6,000 years of human creativity.” She estimated that space gained from receiving the 3.47 acres of CPS Energy land, including one building formerly used for administrative offices, would tender 11,000 square feet of additional exhibition space.

Sano would not comment on ongoing negotiations with CPS Energy, but told the San Antonio Report that when she became co-interim director in early 2020 the uncertainty of the land transfer had her seeking other options. She put in a 2022 municipal bond request for $15 million to construct a new building on property the museum owns, in current use as a parking lot.

With an estimated 60% of proposed capital improvements projects to be left out of the upcoming bond, Sano said she does not expect that the project funding will be approved. However, “it was a dream of mine, or at least an idea to solve this problem [of a lack of space], which is a really serious problem — if it could happen,” she said.

Asked what a likely timeline would be for a conclusion on whether CPS Energy sells the acreage or conveys it to SAMA, Lewis said, “We’re trying to move as efficiently as possible so we don’t get bogged down again.”

Lewis said the discussions will address the concerns not just of CPS Energy and SAMA but of the entire north downtown neighborhood.

“We’re looking at how we prepare an offering memorandum and get input from SAMA in order to try to do it in a way that … would be a value and benefit to the neighborhood and to them, and looking for ways to make sure that that property does become value-enhancing for that part of the Museum Reach.”

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...