This commentary was originally published June 8, 2019. Since publication, Taylor Watson describes the Mahncke Park neighborhood as continuing to experience many of the same issues with development — with residents just as engaged with the issues.
Because of its location, projects like development of the Broadway corridor, the proposed renovation of the Sunken Garden Theater and the recent controversy over heritage trees in Brackenridge Park all affect the community and its residents in some way. Despite the challenges the pandemic has posed, Watson said residents remain engaged and active to make sure their voices are heard when it comes to decisions that impact Mahncke Park, and she is encouraged by younger residents stepping into community leadership roles and older residents offering their support and mentorship.
At its core, Watson said Mahncke Park is a neighborhood of residents with diverse backgrounds and opinions and “a really good specimen of human relationships and humanity.” The people who live there care deeply about the community and strive to achieve balance in order to maintain the essence of Mahncke Park and improve the neighborhood for future generations.
Below is Watson’s 2019 commentary.
My military family moved from Annapolis, Maryland to San Antonio in 1998 when I was six. At the time, most of the land alongside Interstate 35 now occupied by shopping centers was still vast fields, Stone Oak didn’t exist and the only thing to do downtown was to visit the Alamo and have dinner on the old River Walk.
I lived on Randolph Air Force Base until I completed high school and grew to appreciate the tight-knit social network, historic homes and ability to bike everywhere I needed to go on base. However, I lamented the suburban pattern of development I saw happening in San Antonio. When the time came, I enthusiastically left for college.
As an urban-minded millennial, I had no intention of ever returning. After my long sojourn attending an elitist college in a northern city, I came back for what was supposed to be just a visit. But fate in the form of a blown car engine determined that I was going to have to stay longer than planned. I decided to embrace a city that had changed dramatically since my first arrival almost 20 years earlier.
The first job I took was in the Brackenridge Plaza building on the corner of Funston and Broadway. The commute from Encino Park, where my parents lived, was not ideal, and I started looking for an apartment close enough so I could walk or bike to work.
During my lunchtime walks in Mahncke Park, I grew increasingly charmed with the neighborhood and decided to make my home here. It had all the features of the community I’d loved growing up in at Randolph, and rent was far more affordable than newer apartments at the Pearl or further down Broadway.
Mahncke Park has been known as the “old hippie” neighborhood, and its younger population is similarly colorful. Gardens are pleasantly overgrown, yard art is diverse, there are several neighborhood bands and a handful of homes on every street have signs promoting or protesting various causes.
The area seems to attract artists, architects, educators, chefs, small business owners of a creative persuasion, yoga instructors, nonprofit employees and the occasional doctor or lawyer. Once a hub of prostitution and drug crime, streets were made safe again through grassroots activism by residents, and the stories give us character.
Access is everything here. We are close to some of the city’s best cultural attractions, such as the Witte Museum, the DoSeum, the San Antonio Botanical Garden and the San Antonio Zoo — all within walking and biking distance. Being within a 15-minute drive of the Museum Reach, the Pearl, Downtown, Southtown, and the St. Mary’s strip is also a huge plus.
Proximity to Brackenridge Park, Lions Field, and having our own large park in the middle of the neighborhood gives us much more green space than most urban neighborhoods and provides opportunities for me to meet my neighbors when out for a walk with my dog.
We have an active, successful community garden that often serves as a gathering space. The Pigpen is our neighborhood bar, Berry to Bean is our neighborhood coffee shop, and we are within walking distance of a number of restaurants, a bookstore and a handful of other local businesses. It’s a nearly self-contained neighborhood, a rarity in San Antonio. I love that I can walk to almost everything I might need or want to do.
I live on the south side of the park. This area developed later and consists of many multi-family properties, originally overflow housing for Fort Sam. My apartment is one of four in an oversized ranch-style building. The exterior lacks the architectural character I admire in older properties, but I chose to live here because of the amazing common area yard in front and private patio and backyard space perfect for my dog and my garden.
The neighborhood’s history of strong civic engagement is a point of pride and one of my favorite things about living here. In 1983, it was the first to have its neighborhood plan adopted by the city. Residents worked to convince San Antonio Independent School District to reopen Lamar Elementary after a period of closure. There has been a City Council candidate forum held here for over 20 years. And, as development patterns began to change in the 2000s, the neighborhood association has been highly organized in engaging with the city about its concerns, halting development some residents felt was not in keeping with the character of the community.
For all of the pleasant things about my neighborhood, the current dynamics also pose challenges. Situated in the heart of cultural activity in the city, we are on the frontlines of many of the changes taking place in San Antonio, and coping can be difficult. Mahncke Park is a neighborhood conservation district, kind of like a baby version of a historic neighborhood. We had an infamous fight over historic designation that split the neighborhood in 2015.
The construction of several dozen “skinny homes” on the south side of the park in 2018 created factions in the neighborhood we’re still working to overcome. Deep division emerged between property rights-focused and preservation-focused residents, and many working-class renters felt they weren’t considered at all. Compromise and community-building became the exception rather than the rule, a paradigm the current board is working hard to reverse through social activities that bring people together.
The new construction has helped raise the average price per square foot to about $240 in our area; median home prices around $205,000 in January 2010 went up to approximately $358,000 by January of 2018. Though the new building has reduced some of the problems with vacancy, decay and drugs on the streets where it has gone up, multiple residents have been forced to sell due to the increased property tax burden and some working-class renters are beginning to be displaced.
Mahncke Park sits along the Broadway corridor, and the plans for it are a prime example of the city’s vision to enhance multimodal transportation options in the future. However, accessible transportation has different meanings for different people. We have equal measures of residents who want to see protected bike lanes and public transit, and those who fear losing lanes because of their dependence on cars.
Some of the families in our neighborhood wish that our park, currently a largely wild area, had a few features making it more user-friendly for kids and activities. Others wish to preserve it as is, with its mesquite forest and vegetation that attracts native wildlife and pollinators. There are also plans to increase connectivity to Brackenridge Park creating a walkable greenway.
Plans for higher-density and mixed-use development along Broadway proved a contentious topic for our community in the recent Midtown Regional Planning process. Development may create more active street life and prevent quick, low-quality builds, but it could also impact the strength of the social network, privacy, affordability and character of the neighborhood.
My neighborhood is diverse, in terms of age group, family structure, socioeconomic status, and to an extent, racially as well. Everyone has different priorities, interests, and needs, making it difficult to ensure all voices are heard. However, all deserve inclusion in the life and the future of the neighborhood, and the opportunity to participate in planning for it. How can we ensure this happens?
This question is one my neighborhood, and all neighborhoods, need to continue to try to answer as we face change, development, and population growth in San Antonio. Mahncke Park is a microcosm of many of the most critical challenges San Antonio faces in becoming a 21st-century metropolis and world-class city.
The fight for the future of San Antonio is in its neighborhoods. Change is coming, and is necessary, to meet challenges ranging from climate change to economic equity in our city. But, as we tackle that change, we need to work hard to ensure our strengths — our culture, history, residents — are considered and included in our planning for the future.