Among the five citizens groups reviewing the proposed 2022 city bond projects, only the Parks, Recreation & Open Spaces Committee deviated seriously from the overall professional plan.
Rather than devote $273.6 million in the $1.2 billion bond to the 67 projects recommended by city staff, the citizens committee co-chaired by Jeanette Honermann and Jim Bailey decided to spread the money more thinly among 85 projects. That 27% increase was financed by $28.6 million in cuts to 10 major projects proposed by staff.
City Council is expected to follow the parks committee’s recommendations when it votes Feb. 10 to place six bond initiatives on the May 1 ballot.
One of the city’s long-neglected crown jewels, the Sunken Garden Theater in Brackenridge Park was one of the casualties, despite appearing to enjoy unequivocal support from Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff. City staff had proposed including $10 million in the bond to renovate the 91-year-old venue but the parks committee cut that amount in half. It’s one of the many citywide projects that individual City Council members and committee members have targeted in favor of more money divided among the 10 council districts.
Project opponents who live in the River Road neighborhood, where opposition to area development projects is practically required for residency, also have campaigned against the rebirth of the theater. The attendant disinformation about feared noise levels, traffic and parking mayhem, and the ultimate nuclear destruction of the neighborhood has, unfortunately, been swallowed by some.
Thus a unique outdoor amphitheater carved into the limestone walls of a former quarry, one that brings back fond memories among generations of longtime residents, has been knocked off track by a very vocal minority.
Elected leaders need to right that wrong. What is it about San Antonio that it takes a decade or more to fund and restore the city’s long-neglected signature parks and cultural assets? Why is there opposition to every instance of protecting and supporting heritage sites or investing in arts and culture?
It’s been five years since the nonprofit Brackenridge Conservancy first advanced a thoughtful and well-researched plan for the $62 million restoration of the now moribund park that dates to 1930 and was completed five years later as a Works Progress Administration project during the Great Depression.
Yes, the Sunken Garden Theater was part of San Antonio’s urban landscape long before River Road was a neighborhood.
When my family returned to Texas in 1989 after more than a decade living abroad and then in New York, we came to see Brackenridge Park as San Antonio’s Central Park, the great gathering space for people from all corners of the city. Many of the park’s attractions were central to San Antonio’s claim as one of the most unique cities in the country.
A shaded picnic table along the river for the Easter weekend had to be secured days in advance by campers.
There was the park itself with its dense tree canopy, 2.2 miles of the San Antonio River, evidence of occupation dating to prehistoric times, and the contemporary draws for a family with two young boys of the San Antonio Zoo, the Japanese Tea Garden, the Sky Ride gondola, the miniature train, and the Grand Carousel.
The Sunken Garden Theater became a cherished destination, whether we were there to see Santana perform for hours, to attend Shakespeare in the Park or a performance by the San Antonio Symphony, or dance to conjunto music, all while the children ran free.
When City Manager Erik Walsh first unveiled the proposed 2022 bond to City Council in October last year, $25 million in city bond funds were earmarked for the Sunken Garden Theater, with a matching $25 million coming from Bexar County. The conservancy agreed to raise $12 million in private funding, all to be invested in a historic and culturally vital city property.
After a series of council meetings, the $25 million was reduced to $10 million, and then cut to $5 million by the citizens committee, with city staff working to make up some of the lost bond funding via tax revenues collected via its Midtown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone. That is where matters stand today.
Will the county respond with its own cuts? Is $15 million in proposed TIRZ funding secure? Questions without answers for the moment. Conservancy members are said to be discussing elevating the private funding component to $17 million, which will not be easy. The Midtown TIRZ board supposedly will meet Jan. 31 to discuss its funding capacity for the project.
In a perfect world, the Sunken Garden Theater restoration would be completed by the spring of 2025, a full decade after planning began. It’s not a perfect world, of course.
A city that claims to value arts and cultural investment, that struggles to retain young professionals and their families and to attract new talent to the city, is actually steadily losing ground to other Texas cities.