A virtual town hall meeting called to gauge how public input might affect City Council support of renovation plans for the Sunken Garden Theater drew nearly 200 community participants Monday.

Suggested actions ranged from reinstating the $10 million in 2022 municipal bond funding recommended by city staff, to agreeing with a citizens bond committee recommendation to reduce funding to $5 million, to eliminating the renovation from bond funding altogether.

The $1.2 billion bond package, which City Council will finalize on Feb. 10, comes up for public vote in May. As the two-hour meeting neared its end, the possibility emerged that the Sunken Garden project could be excluded from the 2022 bond if a majority of City Council agrees. Two councilmen at the meeting signaled tentative support for such a possibility.

The town hall was called by Councilman Mario Bravo (D1) to bring together representatives of the Brackenridge Park Conservancy, an all-volunteer nonprofit board that manages the park and called for the $62 million Sunken Garden Theater renovation plan. The meeting also gave residents an opportunity to air their opinions in a public forum in advance of City Council’s final discussions on what projects will be included in the bond and the amount of funds to be dedicated to each project.

Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2) and Councilwoman Phyllis Viagran (D5) were also present, as were city staff including Razi Hosseini, director of the Public Works Department.

Some of the current seating at the Sunken Garden Theater is visibly worn.
Some of the current seating at the Sunken Garden Theater is visibly worn. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

Before a video presentation on the proposed renovation, conservancy board member Suzanne Scott stated that both a 2017 master plan and a 2020 report by the conservancy identified the renovating the Sunken Garden Theater as a ” very important opportunity to enhance the use and enjoyment of the park’s resources and to restore a very important cultural feature of the park.”

She noted that “the project design and operational plans and costs that you will see are conceptual, and will benefit greatly from much more public engagement as these plans move forward.”

Several community participants in the meeting expressed views that the public has not been adequately informed of important elements of the plans. That included potential disruptions in parking, traffic, and noise levels from up to 60 shows annually in the expanded 7,000-capacity venue that would affect surrounding neighborhoods.

Project consultant Kirk Feldmann led the video presentation (available here) that addressed concerns raised in social media debates and recent media coverage. A parking study found sufficient parking within one-third mile of the theater, though multiple residents of the nearby River Road neighborhood, which has been vocal in its objections to the plans, insisted that traffic is already a problem and would only be exacerbated by a significant uptick in concerts and events.

Several community participants pleaded for further study on noise effects from concerts on the surrounding neighborhoods and the animals in the nearby San Antonio Zoo, and for all renovation-related studies to be released to the public.

Other questions from the community focused on whether revenue from theater operations would benefit Brackenridge Park. Underfunding for maintenance and upkeep over several years has resulted in deteriorating conditions for several of the 123-year-old park’s features. The Sunken Garden Theater opened in 1930.

The level of funding has yet to be determined and depends on contracts negotiated with the event producer who will eventually operate the venue. Conservancy counsel Frank Burney explained that all costs will be borne by the facility operator, and “furthermore, we would intend to establish a preservation fund at the theater where a portion of each ticket would go into a fund to ensure the long term capital maintenance or repair of the facility,” to avoid venue maintenance costs accruing to the city or to the conservancy.

Both Bravo and McKee-Rodriguez expressed openness to the idea of scaling down the renovation plans to achieve the goal of renovating the 1930s-era theater while keeping any expansion to a size that achieves consensus.

A conceptual rendering of an updated Sunken Garden Theater shows all new facilities and accommodations for visitors.
A conceptual rendering of an updated Sunken Garden Theater shows all new facilities and accommodations for visitors. Credit: Courtesy / OTJ Architects

McKee-Rodriguez said one of his options is to seek “a commitment to want a reduction in capacity, because that seems like one of the non-negotiables right now.”

He said another option would be “a motion to move the $5 million away from the Sunken Garden to something else,” though the city would still need to maintain the facility and a renovation “has got to happen.”

Bravo said he was grateful for public participation in the process, and that input from the meeting would be conveyed to the City Manager’s office.

“I still have a lot of questions before I’m ready to support a project like this,” Bravo said. He said he is open to exploring different options for the $5 million in bond funding recommended by the citizen committee charged with debating parks and recreation bond priorities.

“And so is it possible to maybe move forward with some broad language on a flat $5 million in park improvements, which could go towards Sunken Garden Theater renovation, or if we can’t get to a consensus on that, then it could be other improvements in the park, which wouldn’t be a bad thing, to invest in the park.”

Bravo confirmed after the meeting that City Council has the authority to remove a specific funding item from the 2022 bond proposal, if a majority of council members agree.

One former River Road resident, who now resides in the Monte Vista neighborhood near the Sunken Garden, joined other voices in support of the full renovation plan.

“I’m really excited about this update,” wrote Monica Rowland in the chat section of the videoconference. “We have chosen these neighborhoods because of their urban proximity. I love hearing the concerts from my house, it’s a reminder that there is life and energy in the city. The only question I have is what took so long? This should have been done 20 years ago. I fully support more spending on arts and culture in our beloved city.”

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...