After listening to two hours of passionate opposition from more than two dozen residents Wednesday, the city’s Historic and Design Review Commission delayed a decision to approve the removal of seven heritage trees within Brackenridge Park that city staff says are threatening historic structures within the iconic park.

Commissioners spent almost two more hours asking questions and discussing the project before approving a one-week continuance on whether to grant a “certificate of appropriateness” so the trees along the banks of the San Antonio River can be removed. An earlier motion to deny granting the approval failed.

Several commissioners said they were uncomfortable approving the removal because the city does not yet have plans for how it will shore up the historic structures once the trees are removed. A city attorney reminded commissioners they were not voting on those plans, simply the removal of the trees, but her reminder appeared to have little effect.

The HDRC will likely meet again next Friday, Feb. 25.

The continuance follows approval by the San Antonio Planning Commission late last month for a variance to the Brackenridge Park 2017 bond project. City staff said the removal of 104 trees, including the heritage trees, is necessary to protect historic park structures including the Lambert Beach river walls, beach steps, Brackenridge Pump House, Upper Labor Acequia and Upper Labor Dam.

The variance includes the planting of 200 to 400 new trees within the park, 219 of which would be in the vicinity of the project, according to city staff.

Jamaal Moreno, an employee with the city’s Public Works department and a project manager on the bond project, told the HDRC that in order for the project to meet Texas Historical Commission and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers requirements, trees threatening the historic structures would need to be removed. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has taken jurisdiction over the project, Moreno said, but both groups have made it clear the structures must be fixed in place.

Moreno added that if the trees are left as is, many will likely fall after pushing through the historic retention walls, meaning they would still be lost and would take out historic structures as well.

Bill Pennell, assistant manager of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, said public input was collected on the project prior to its approval in the 2017 bond. More than 1,300 people agreed on the importance of saving the more than 100-year-old structures, he said.

But “the people of San Antonio did not vote on the demolition of these trees,” said Alesia Garlock, a San Antonio resident and environmental advocate, arguing that the project variance breaks the city’s 2010 tree preservation ordinance, which protects 100% of all heritage trees from demolition.

Several speakers expressed concerns for migratory birds, such as egrets, that use the heritage trees for roosting. City staff hoped to have the trees removed before those birds return to the San Antonio area this spring, they said, so the birds could roost in other trees along the river.

Once the birds have returned, any trees they nest in cannot be touched until they leave again, Moreno said, delaying the project by almost a year, during which time the trees would continue to damage the historic structures.

“The timing is urgent,” Moreno said Wednesday. His opinion was echoed by Assistant City Manager David McCary, who said leaving the trees as is becomes a safety hazard for those visiting the park.

Texas Parks and Wildlife urban biologist Jessica Alderson said the project has the full support of Texas Parks and Wildlife, which will continue working with the city on the project.

During public comment, Grace Rose Gonzales, a San Antonio activist and community volunteer, said the HDRC should not be making an either-or decision between saving the walls or the trees. The city should work to find a way to save both the trees and the structures, she said.

Gonzales’ sentiments were echoed by several others, including Trinity University sociology and anthropology professor Richard Reed and resident Susan Strawn.

“We are not against this project going forward,” Strawn said. “What we are against is this rush to get rid of these trees that will never be replaced in our lifetime in favor of walls, which can be replaced, can be restored in a way that preserves our trees.”

City staff repeatedly pointed out that far from rushing, the project team has spent two and a half years working on ways to save as many heritage trees as possible, while still completing the 2017 bond project.

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Lindsey Carnett

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