Plans to revitalize the aging Sunken Garden Theater with millions in 2022 bond money have drawn fire over the potential impact to surrounding neighborhoods and Brackenridge Park.

As part of its overall renovation plans, the Brackenridge Park Conservancy has proposed a $62 million renovation for the 92-year-old outdoor theater, which has fallen into neglect in recent years. The plan would increase capacity at the venue from 4,800 to 7,000, for up to 60 concerts annually.

Residents of the nearby River Road neighborhood, including representatives of the River Road Neighborhood Association (RRNA), have spoken out publicly against the proposal, characterizing it as “damaging,” “a bad idea,” “a huge mistake and waste of money.” They also claimed that it “will severely and fatally impact our quiet community,” and called the project “an existential threat to the peace and tranquility of River Road residents and their property.”

The residents mostly cite noise, traffic congestion and parking as primary concerns. In a statement sent to media organizations, the RRNA expressed concern over the potential negative effects on nearby Trinity University, Sunshine Cottage School for Deaf Children, Incarnate Word High School and Incarnate Word University, and the San Antonio Zoo.

The citizens committee charged with making recommendations on the parks, recreation, and open space portion of the $1.2 billion 2022 municipal bond listened.

City staff first recommended dedicating $25 million in bond funds to the project, then reduced the amount to $10 million, which was further reduced to $5 million in the committee’s final recommendation.

City Council heard the committee’s recommendations Wednesday and will vote on the proposal on Feb. 10.

Save the animals?

Aaron Zimmerman, vice president of Tobin Entertainment, said recent concerts held at Sunken Garden Theater have not caused problems of which he is aware. Zimmerman cited the Snoop Dogg concert on July 2 as one example of a successful show that brought 4,500 patrons to the venue.

“We don’t get complaints. We know that the neighborhood doesn’t necessarily love it, but that’s been ongoing for decades,” Zimmerman said.

RRNA President Lucy Wilson said one reason complaints are avoided is because the neighborhood prepares for events in advance, working with Brackenridge facilities and the police department to try to avoid traffic and neighborhood access issues.

She said that in the past, the popularity of the San Antonio Zoo during spring break, fireworks and some loud concerts have been problematic, and though those examples are infrequent occurrences, they provide templates for concern about a potentially active music venue.

Zimmerman said Tobin Entertainment pays strict attention to current noise ordinance limitations on sound levels and cutoff times, which stipulate an end to loud music at 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

A group called Save Brackenridge has lodged other complaints, including a charge that “3500+ animals will suffer from noise pollution and traffic.” The group, which does not name its members, makes several exaggerations and mischaracterizations. They cite current Sunken Garden Theater capacity as 879 — a reference to fixed seating that does not account for general admission capacity — and claim that events at the renovated venue would attract 11,000 attendees. Capacity in the renovated venue would be 7,000 for each event, with 5,900 fixed seats and 1,100 lawn seats.

Also among the group’s claims is that the renovated theater would host “60+” events per year and “a minimum of two concerts per week,” which suggests a greater number than proposed.

In its initial redevelopment proposal, the Brackenridge Park Conservancy estimated 48-60 events per year, though this information is not stated on its website.

Wilson said that during a presentation by the Brackenridge Park Conservancy, the RRNA learned that most concerts would be scheduled between April and October, which would amount to an average of two concerts per week during the 30-week period.

The animals are alright

Tim Morrow, president and CEO of the nearby San Antonio Zoo, said noise is not an issue for the animals in his care. In his seven-year tenure, Morrow said he’s never heard music coming from the venue into the zoo during concerts and events such as the annual A Taste of New Orleans, a daytime festival run by the San Antonio Zulu Association that hosts several bands.

Morrow said when he asked Alan Kardon, the zoo’s vice president of animal care for 45 years, about noise issues, Kardon concurred.

“I think the way the theater is designed, the sound does not come this way,” Morrow said.

The Sunken Garden Theater stage directly faces U.S. 281 and Alamo Stadium. Augie’s Smokehouse is the nearest commercial establishment, with the San Antonio Water System headquarters, Bombay Bicycle Club, Wells Fargo Bank, a Valero gas station, and a strip mall with several businesses between the Sunken Garden and the nearest house in the River Road neighborhood, approximately 2,000 feet away. The zoo entrance is approximately 1,500 feet from the theater.

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

The renovation plans include various sound mitigation measures, including a new sound attenuation barrier encircling the rear of the venue along Alpine Drive, a wooden roof structure that would absorb sound frequencies, and a new enclosed concrete stagehouse to contain sound emanating from the back and sides of the stage, though the plan does not provide details on how much sound from modern amplification equipment would be attenuated.

Parking perceptions

Morrow and Zimmerman both said the new zoo parking garage, with a capacity of 600 spaces, would help alleviate potential parking issues, along with the existing theater lot adjacent to Augie’s, the Japanese Tea Garden lot, the SAWS lot, which opens to the public after 6 p.m., and the Witte Museum parking structure.

“I think there is enough parking and I think it’s one of those like perceptions that isn’t totally accurate,” Zimmerman said, stating that Tobin Entertainment has worked with the zoo to ensure ample staffing during events.

Morrow said both venues keep the neighborhood’s concerns in mind. “We’re all working really hard to help be good neighbors, and work with the neighbors and for the neighbors in what we’re doing.”

He said the zoo and the Sunken Garden are the two remaining pieces of the renovation puzzle for Brackenridge Park, “the two things left to get this park to the elevated level that it deserves, like a Central Park … that people know when you go to San Antonio, you’ve go to that area and take advantage of those amenities.”

The zoo is planning to revamp its entrance, in part to alleviate traffic and pedestrian congestion during busy periods, which Morrow said would also help the overall situation in the park. The 2022 bond includes a proposed $10 million for the project, which would launch a capital campaign that could eventually also include renovating animal exhibits — with the possibility of designing for noise abatement should that become an issue in the future, Morrow said.

But Morrow emphasized that the Sunken Garden Theater also needs attention. “If you go in there now, it’s rundown. There’s no cover for the stage. There’s no chairs anymore for people to sit in. There’s no real permanent bathrooms. … It’s in really bad shape. Brackenridge Park is such a jewel for San Antonio. … And to have that just sitting there wasting away is really a shame.”

Wilson said she recognizes the need for attention to the Sunken Garden Theater, but that the renovation plans as presented have overwhelmed nearby residents.

“We’d like to be involved, have the nearby communities here engaged with the people that are planning it early on,” Wilson said. “We would hope to see something more modest in size than what’s being proposed, and more modest in the frequency of its use.”

This story has been updated to correct when the San Antonio City Council will vote on the bond funding proposal.

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...