This story has been updated.

An updated version of the Brackenridge Park 2017 bond project presented to the public Tuesday night would save 19 of the 104 trees initially projected to be cut down by relocating them within the park.

The updated plan, presented during the fourth public meeting by the city’s parks and recreation department and the SWA Group — the landscape architecture firm working on the project’s design — will not, however, include moving the 1920s-era retention walls whose rehabilitation, along with other historic structures, make up the core of the 2017 bond project.

Advocates at the meeting expressed frustration over the latest plans.

Ida Ayala said she felt the city and its partners aren’t listening to what they’re saying the public wants. Ayala said she and other advocates would rather save the trees than the walls.

“These walls were built to protect the trees from soil erosion,” Ayala said. “So for you to keep telling us you have to cut down the trees to preserve walls — you’re supposed to preserve the trees. The walls were made to protect the trees.”

While that may have once been the case, the walls have themselves become a historic part of the park, and these structures, as well as others the project is prioritizing, are at risk of collapsing due to the trees, said Kinder Baumgardner, managing principal with SWA.

The bond measure that passed in 2017 was about addressing “deferred maintenance on historic structures,” he said.

Tuesday’s meeting focused on changes to what officials are calling phase one of the project, which will include restoration of the river walls, the Lambert Beach walls and stairs, grading and earthwork improvements.

Phase two, which will be the topic of discussion in the three more as-yet-unscheduled public meetings, will include the restoration of the Upper Labor lily pond, fixing and uncovering the Upper Labor dam, rehabilitating the historic pumphouse and repairing the historic acequia, Baumgardner said. City officials said later that every effort would be made to save additional trees as phase two is designed.

The walls cannot be moved into the river as environmentalists have suggested, Baumgardner said, because doing so would narrow the waterway and could make properties downstream more prone to flooding. Additional consultation with experts re-confirmed this, he said.

Addressing the tree loss, Baumgardner said new trees would be planted to replace the lost canopy. The trees need to be removed for various reasons, he said. Some are affecting the historic structures, cracking them or pushing them into the river. Others are sickly or dead and need to be removed for that reason, he said.

Much of the opposition has been focused on heritage trees, 10 of which were originally slated for removal. Over the past six months, the SWA Group and city have been able to whittle the number of heritage trees down that will need to be removed to six. The city defines heritage trees as trees that have a diameter at “breast height” of 24 inches or greater.

Many of the smaller trees slated for removal are considered “volunteers” because they have sprouted naturally over time from larger trees.

Several advocates remain focused on how the tree removal will affect the cattle egrets and other birds that nest in the trees in the park and along the river. While first denying that the bond project had anything to do with the city’s ongoing efforts to remove these rookeries, documents showed the parks department saw the reduced nesting area as a positive side effect of the bond project.

City officials later apologized for denying the connection, but the city has shown no willingness to back down from its efforts to remove the rookeries, citing bird droppings that make parts of the public park, including a playground, unusable to residents.

Bird feces cover a sign intended to make park visitors aware of nesting egrets and herons at Brackenridge Park on Thursday.
Cattle egrets surround a sign intended to make park visitors aware of nesting egrets and herons at Brackenridge Park in May. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

On Tuesday night, birder and citizen scientist Alesia Garlock tearfully asked the city and zoo officials once again to halt its bird mitigation efforts and leave the birds alone.

Toward the end of the meeting, Assistant City Manager David McCary said the city will continue to collect residents’ input for phase two of the project during the next three meetings. None of the designs are final, he said. After the SWA Group finalizes project designs — likely this fall or winter — those plans will be submitted to the Texas Historical Commission and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for approval.

Those agencies could still deny approval or ask for changes, Baumgardner said.

Following the meeting, environmentalists voiced their displeasure. Ayala said the ability to save 19 trees shows that the city can find ways to save all the trees.

The city and Baumgardner, on the other hand, appeared upbeat about the updated plan. “I think that we have found a good path forward,” Director of Parks and Recreation Homer Garcia told the San Antonio Report.

Baumgardner, too, said he feels like citizens’ input has helped shape the updated design, which was the goal of these public meetings.

“These projects are difficult,” he said. “We have real laws and requirements we have to consider … You have to understand that we’re full of ideas too, but … we have [to follow these guidelines].”

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Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.