The Southside has waited long enough for Pearsall Park, their showpiece amenity, according to City Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4). Now, with the public unveiling of the park’s $7.5 million makeover just a couple of months away at most, he reflects on what it will mean for his district to have a destination park in place of a landfill.
“Before this there was not a regional destination park south of Hwy. 90,” he said.
The 526-acre park will be the one of the city’s largest, and the only park in the city with a 5K, 10K, and single loop half-marathon course. To augment the 231 acres of former landfill, the city purchased 268 acres from the Cox family for roughly $1 million, according to Saldaña. The park also includes 26 acres of the Leon Creek Greenway, according to the department of Transportation and Capital Improvements.
Perhaps the most progressive element of the park has been the financing. When his district was awarded $8.5 million for park improvements in the 2012 bond, Saldaña had a tough case to make to his district.
Most park moneys are split between numerous district parks, and the end results are not always noticeable. Saldaña wanted to go for impact. After dedicating $1 million to critical improvements at Heritage Park and Golden Community Park, he took his idea for a destination park to his constituents. Dedicating $7.5 million, essentially the entire district park bond allocation, to one park was a hard sell in a city where everyone had grown accustomed to having their pet projects funded to the detriment of world-class civic development.
Eventually though, the citizens of District 4 took the long view, and dedicated their bond money to Pearsall Park. This would be a park for everyone, and the pride of the district.
The resulting master plans contain hundreds of pieces of public input, said Larry Clark, principal with Bender Wells Clark Design, the landscape architects chosen for the project. Their master plan eventually won a merit award from the Texas Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects in 2015.
The final design divides the park into “bubbles” to reflect the shapes of the rolling hills around the site. Each bubble has a different focus: fitness, family fun, nature trails connecting to the Leon Creek Greenway, BMX and mountain bike courses, a dog park, and a wild area along the Leon Creek flood plane. The three-story playscape seems to include every large motor activity imaginable. In the more teenage-adult areas, a zip line and CrossFit pavilion deliver even more intensity.
A concrete skatepark will add yet another dimension to the activity at Pearsall Park. Designed and built by skaters with the group Artisan Skateparks, the large concrete structures are intended to become a destination for the skating community. A prior skate park in District 4 was very well received, Saldaña said, and the community expressed a need for more designated places to congregate.
Clark also advocated to bring showpiece public art to the park.
On a hill overlooking the park, artist Buster Simpson’s Wickiup Overlook and Wickiup Encampment are odes to the Native Americans of the Southwest. The metal domes offer shade on the bald hilltop, as well as a view toward the downtown skyline. Benches beneath provide a space for conversation or contemplation. Simpson used material common to the aircraft at Lackland Air Force Base, colors and patterns to reference traditional Native American textiles, and solar panels to power lighting.
Simpson’s inspiration came from what he called the “midden mounds” around the central park area. In archaeology, midden mounds are repositories of waste where scientists and researchers can find a concentrated collection of artifacts from ancient cultures. Clark and Simpson joke that someday archaeologists will excavate Pearsall Park to understand the aerospace industry and evolving communication technology.
Building on the concept of ancient civilization, Simpson chose the Kickapoo wickiup structures to create shelter on top of the mounds. The Kickapoos’ nomadic journey eventually brought them to Texas. Their light footprints are a stark contrast to the landfill-making civilizations that would follow.
“It seemed nice to have the contrast of a very light kind of lifestyle with the dominant culture of the mounds,” Simpson said.
The landfill was functional from 1961-1982, and in 1986 the city took ownership of the land. As the EPA-mandated waiting period neared its end, community activists brought in Bender Wells Clark (the first time) to design a master plan for the park. With minimal funding, the master plan never got off the ground, but they did have one key success. In 2007, the city’s first dog park opened on the property. Its success proved that the Southside was a viable destination for visitors throughout the region.
“People were coming in from Schertz and Selma for the dog park,” Clark said.
It was a good start, but for Saldaña, using less than 1% of the original 232 acres was not enough. It was time to create a real destination.
The 29-year-old councilman doesn’t necessarily remember the days when Pearsall Park was a landfill, but he does remember wondering why the neighborhoods in his part of town lacked the kinds of retail and restaurant amenities he saw in other parts of town. In their place were chop shops, junk yards, and other businesses that carried on the tradition of the landfill on Old Pearsall Road.
“We’ve always been an area of town that has been dumped on … literally,” Saldaña said.
Even at Pearsall Park, companies continued to dump their waste after the landfill closed. Old habits die hard. The area that is now a series of nature trails was still littered with waste when Bender Wells Clark identified it as the nature trail sector.
“We’ve cleaned a lot of brick, glass, and tire material out of that area,” Clark said.
Saldaña traced the problem back to the 1960s and ’70s when a multi-member district City Council placed their bets on development in the city’s Northside. The Medical Center, the University of Texas at San Antonio, and the infrastructure to support them went north of Loop 410, setting a trajectory for the next three decades of development as businesses followed the market that the city created, and the city followed the businesses in continued investment.
At the same time, a city produces waste, and that waste has to go somewhere. For a City Council heavily invested in northward development, that somewhere was the Southside.
Things changed when the Council converted to single-member districts in 1977, Saldaña said. For the first time, Southside communities could count on a representative to voice their interests. The basic infrastructure needs of the early ’80s were so pressing that it was hard to see the investments. Once roads, lighting, signage, and utilities began to improve, the community turned their eyes to business. Not only did they want to see the major employers, but the retail and grocery stores that contribute to the higher quality of life experienced on other sides of town. These conversations were ongoing in 2011, when Saldaña was first elected.
“(The need for more businesses) was the melodic symphony of the community when I first came into office,” Saldaña said.
Five years down the road, Saldaña feels that it is time for the Southside to stop playing catch-up and take the lead in a noticeable way. With Pearsall Park, he plans to give his district a superlative – a “best,” a “biggest,” and “most exciting.”
Top image: Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) walks on an ADA compliant trail leading up to public art installations. Photo by Scott Ball.