Wurzback Parkway runs straight through Urban Ecology Center at Phil Hardberger Park, but plans to create a wildlife crossing land bridge are in place. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone
One-lane closures in both directions of Wurzbach Parkway remain in effect during the day on weekdays as part of the Robert L.B. Tobin Land Bridge project. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

Groups seeking $10 million in private funds to develop a land bridge for Hardberger Park told the Streets Bond Committee on Tuesday that the structure will make the park more complete and benefit humans and animals alike.

But a few committee members are questioning where the City’s 2017 bond calls for a total of $15 million to help with the land bridge, wondering if it would benefit residents as much as more basic needs in the bond, such as road, drainage, and sidewalk fixes.

The committee reviewing streets, bridge, and sidewalk projects in the $850 million total bond met for the second time at the Central Library. The committee also heard more support from residents on bond-funded proposed enhancements for major downtown-area corridors, and pitches for a few more projects that did not make the list of projects recommended by City staff.

The proposed land bridge would be built above Wurzbach Parkway, linking the two halves of Hardberger Park. It would measure 155 feet wide and 1,200 feet long. Amy Hardberger, associate dean at St. Mary’s School for Law and daughter of former Mayor Phil Hardberger, told the committee that her father’s namesake park has become an important place where local residents and nature “co-exist to benefit one another.”

Amy Hardberger is also a board member of the Phil Hardberger Park Conservancy, which has long been designing the land bridge concept and is looking to help leverage $10 million from individual donors and philanthropic groups toward its development.

The land bridge is part of the Hardberger Park master plan, which City Council adopted in 2008. While it would not accommodate vehicular traffic, the land bridge would provide safe passage for humans and wildlife between the two parts of the 300-plus-acre park. Hardberger added that a traditional concrete bridge would not be inexpensive.

“The land bridge would be a critical extension of this facility,” she said.

Attorney Banks Smith represented the Voelcker Fund in its sale of the former Voelcker dairy farm to the City, which turned it into Hardberger Park. He told the Streets Bond Committee that Wurzbach Parkway is a vital road that serves San Antonio’s motorists well.

“But now is the time to reunite the farm. Now is the time to reunite the park,” Smith added. The Voelcker Fund has pledged $1 million toward the $10 million in private money that park advocates hope to raise for the land bridge. Smith said the land bridge must be something that lasts for generations of visitors to enjoy.

“I have no doubt that $10 million in private funds can be easily raised for this project,” he added.

Later in the meeting, a few committee members questioned the land bridge proposal. Council District 6 member Oscar Rosalez asked whether the structure would, in fact, reduce the number of animals and humans who risk their safety – and that of motorists – to cross the busy parkway.

“I haven’t seen anyone die there,” he added.

District 5 appointee Raymond Garza asked whether the land bridge was more for recreational purposes than for safety.

District 7 committee member Bianca Maldonado said she feels the City would have difficulty convincing voters citywide that a park land bridge is equally or more important than road, drainage, and sidewalk improvements, all of which she said are needed.

“We didn’t get quality work on our (neighborhood) streets in the last bond,” she added.

Other proposed street improvements in the 2017 bond received more backing at Tuesday’s committee meeting. A handful of audience members showed support for a $43 million revamp of Broadway from Houston Street to Hildebrand Avenue, the second phase of street work in Hemisfair, San Pedro Creek improvements, and upgrades for Commerce Street on the west side of downtown.

All of these projects combined, backers said, would make for a safer, more efficient and vibrant urban core that’s alluring to businesses, tourists, longtime residents and newcomers. Elias Neujahr, president of The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio, said the facility has always been part of the urban core.

“We’ve made a conscious effort to stay downtown, (in) the heart of San Antonio,” he added.

Neujahr, his colleagues and hospital supporters said the proposed improvements, like those on Commerce Street and along San Pedro Creek, will make the medical campus feel and look more welcoming to employees, patients, and their families. He also said these and other improvements could bring more businesses and residents downtown.

Omar Gonzalez, real estate director for the ?Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation (HPARC), said the old Hemisfair Park, which was built to accommodate the 1968 World’s Fair, achieved its goal for six months by welcoming millions of visitors. However, he added that it had the lasting effect of breaking up streets and neighborhoods that had been there decades prior.

Gonzalez said the restoration of the internal pre-fair road grid is critical to Hemisfair’s transformation into a civic park.

“It’s something that really wouldn’t be possible without the streets,” he added.

Witte Museum President and CEO Marise McDermott told the committee that remaking Broadway into a “complete street” with a variety of multimodal amenities will support the increase in and efficiency of housing, traffic, parking, and business along a corridor that links many of San Antonio’s best-known recreational and cultural destinations.

A round of small business owners and other young professionals who work in and around downtown, such as Libby Day of SATX Music, Steven Darby, Ben Hodge, and Ashley Riley said improving these major downtown corridors will make San Antonio more socially and economically attractive to all kinds of people.

“As someone who didn’t intend to stay here, these things make me excited about the progress in this city,” Day said.

The committee presented details on some of the new proposals that residents made at the first Streets Bond Committee session:

*$95,000 for construction of sidewalks along West French Place

*$25,000 for replacement sidewalks on Leroux Street between S.W. 26th and S.W. 25th streets

*$650,000 for construction sidewalks along Carson Street from Austin Street to North New Braunfels Avenue

These sidewalk projects could be funded within the bond’s allocations toward pedestrian mobility in Districts 1, 5, and 2, respectively. Pedestrian mobility funds within the bond have not yet been recommended for any specific streets.

At the last meeting, one resident suggested improving the three-way intersection of Porter, Pine, and Aransas streets. This $620,000 Eastside project could be funded by the City’s Neighborhood Access Mobility Program (NAMP), Transportation and Capital Improvements Director Mike Frisbie said.

The committee is also considering the following new projects for the bond:

*$2.4 million for rebuilding Griggs Avenue from Fig Street to Efron Avenue

*$9 million for rebuilding 34th Street from Castroville Road to Enrique Barrera Parkway

*$8 million for rebuilding Fredericksburg Road in the Woodlawn and Cincinnati avenues area

*$10 million for rebuilding Sligo and Esma streets, as well as San Juan Road, including sidewalks, driveways, and channel improvements

*$2 million for a new two-lane street between Winans and Rittiman roads between Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston and John James Park.

Frisbie said this would improve traffic access to Rittiman Road for students and employees at Cole Middle and High schools.

Diane Rath, Alamo Area Council of Governments executive director, pitched the Winans Road proposal last meeting. On Tuesday, she said the project is well intended, but hopes the City revises its new road route.

She added that Winans Road is presently the only exit for school personnel, base housing residents, and several operations. If there were an incident on base, she said, it would “have a tremendous impact, and these folks would have no chance for escape.”

Additionally, Frisbie reemphasized how City staff has applied “rough proportionality” toward recommended bond projects, balancing greatest needs across all Council districts. Former District 10 Councilman Carlton Soules, however, criticized the 2017 bond for being slanted toward the urban core in the San Antonio Express-News. 

According to Frisbie, each Council district averages between 6.1% and 7.1% of the dollars proposed in the bond as well as money the City budgets annually for maintenance and capital improvements. He said it would be hard to avoid infrastructure needs in the older parts of the inner city.

“If your core isn’t strong, you’re going to have problems,” he added.

The Streets Committee next meets Nov. 7, rescheduled from Election Night, Nov. 8.

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.