Birds-eye view of Hardberger Park Urban Ecology Center, courtesy of Lake|Flato Architects
Bekah S. McNeel

With each public project, our city makes a decision: Do we tighten our belts and go for great? Or do we chicken out at the last moment, and settle for mediocre?

Hardberger Park begs that question.

To make San Antonio a better home for all who live here, and a more desirable destination for those who would move here, Phil Hardberger made increased green spaces part of his mission as mayor from 2005-2009. His rationale had to do with what he calls the “politics of beauty.”

Hardberger Park Urban Ecology Center across restored grassland, courtesy of Lake|Flato Architects

People want beautiful things in their life. Mates, homes, etc. They are also drawn to beautiful places. This “politics of beauty” applies to corporations as well. When a company decides where to put its headquarters, the quality of life and attractiveness of the city play a surprisingly significant role. After all, company executives have to convince employees to move there. Not to mention the spouses and kids.

Former San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger

Under Hardberger’s leadership, the city’s most notable maneuver in the politics of beauty was the purchase of 311 acres between Northwest Military and Blanco Roads, north of Loop 410, formerly belonging to the Voelcker estate. The land became known as Phil Hardberger Park after the mayor left office, not because of a private donation, but because of his role in leading the city to purchase the land.  An additional 17 acres were annexed later in a deal with the imminent Wal-Mart Super Center.

At $50 million dollars for the initial land acquisition, Mayor Hardberger did not take the investment lightly, “We wanted to do this right,” he said. A design competition generated the Stimson Associates design (with D.I.R.T. studio) that a San Antonio jury deemed to be the right fit. This would be no haphazard green space; it is developed around a theme: urban ecology.

Hardberger Park Urban Ecology Center gathering porch, courtesy of Lake|Flato Architects.

Urban ecology education would make Hardberger Park a resource for the city on par with the Witte Museum, the San Antonio Zoo, and the Mission Trail.

One of San Antonio’s key assets is its natural beauty, sitting on the edge of the Hill Country and the Coastal Plains. It’s a beauty, however, that is often lost to inner city communities, and increasingly threatened by development.

“Many times the building that replaces [nature] doesn’t even come close [to the beauty]. At best, it ties it,” Hardberger said.

Lake|Flato architects is going for the tie. Nationally known for their environmentally sensitive design, the firm was the natural choice for the urban ecology center, currently under construction. Classes at the center will, as Hardberger says, “teach to an urban environment our South Texas heritage and how these two can be coordinated.”

Aiding in this educational initiative will be the restored 1850’s home and 1920’s farmhouse and barn with soon-to-be working windmill. These facilities together will help urban students, young and old, connect food to its origin, and promote preservation in everything from education on South Texas flora, to how to harvest grey water.

View of restored grassland on future site of Hardberger Park Urban Ecology Center, courtesy of Lake|Flato Architects

These initiatives, as well as a trail system, are already under way, but the park remains severed by Wurzbach Parkway, and projects are slowing as funds run short. As of now, 50% of the park is not utilized for its intended purpose.

Perhaps the most detrimental threat levied by a cash shortage is the pressure to scrap the iconic feature of the award-winning Stimson Associates design: a land bridge linking the two segments of the park.

The land bridge, which would be unique in the United States and among world-class land features of its kind, would cost $20 million. The last bond allocated $3 million to Hardberger Park, and District 9 Councilwoman Elisa Chan dedicated approximately $1 million of her discretionary funds to the park as well.

The City then proposed an alternative solution, which would be to have Wurzbach Parkway overpass the park, allowing visitors and wildlife connectivity underneath. This $4 million dollar solution is more within reach, and others have been suggested as well, sparking debate among members of the Hardberger Park Conservancy Board how to proceed.

The former mayor himself stands by the original design: “It is in every way more expensive, and in every way better.”

Hardberger’s continually relevant philosophy of leadership is this: let’s think big. Prior to Hardberger’s mayoral tenure, San Antonio’s approach to dividing funds among the city was simplistic: the ten districts each received an equal share of the budget. Not surprisingly, the resulting projects often had the sophistication and reach of a city one-tenth the size of San Antonio.

Birds-eye view of Hardberger Park Urban Ecology Center, courtesy of Lake|Flato Architects

If park monies are allocated evenly among the districts, the land bridge at Hardberger Park could become another of these projects. Another time where underfunded pragmatism yielded a mediocre alternative to greatness.

As mayor, Hardberger saw the constraint that making everything even-steven put on projects of major importance. He called for a broader wider vision on City Council. In what Hardberger calls “an act of selflessness,” the Council deferred portions of individual district budgets to projects that benefitted the entire city, disregarding district lines. From this season of civic-mindedness our city has gained the Mission and Museum reaches of the Riverwalk, the revitalization of Main Plaza, and Haven for Hope.

“We work better united than as ten fiefdoms,” Hardberger said.

The land bridge of Hardberger Park could become another of those projects. It could be a major accomplishment on the part of the united city and attract attention from national leaders in urban planning and development.  It could be something we brag about. To become a city known for progressive and innovative green space will benefit us for years to come.

Hardberger Park Urban Ecology Center, courtesy of Lake|Flato Architects

The Phil Hardberger Park Conservancy is doing all that it can to raise funds for the continued development of its namesake park. However, private funding will not come near the amount needed to give the more than 1.3 million citizens of San Antonio the world-class park they have the potential to gain. The City will need to invest in the final push for a high profile feature. Whether by bond, Certificate of Obligation or the use of general revenue, the park is a worthwhile investment in the marketability and livability of our city.

While Hardberger Park and the San Antonio River improvements are in their infancy and require significant investment, these are the transformative projects that change a city forever and pay for themselves ever after. It’s the politics of beauty.

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog,, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.