It was quite fitting to take a path through Travis Park last evening when I walked over to the public meeting held downtown at the historic St. Anthony Hotel.
But I hesitated at the corner of Pecan and Navarro Streets – and anyone who lives, works or plays downtown knows exactly why.
Philosophically, this city (any city, really) is for everyone – especially downtown and especially its parks. Travis Park, however, is not for everyone. Despite the police officer slowly making her rounds on the sidewalk (perhaps assigned to this location because of the meeting), it would have been hard (and naïve) not to be aware of the intimidating glances during my stroll through the park. Perhaps the presence of my camera added to my out-of-place-ness.
Travis Park has plenty of tree shade, open space and is close to several office buildings, hotels and a few downtown apartment complexes. The park's Navarro Street boundary is also a transit hub, hosting three VIA Metropolitan Transit bus stops and 14 different bus routes. It's green, surrounded by concrete, people and activity, yet is largely avoided by most of the downtown population.
"What's up, girl?" A young man asked me in passing, licking his lips. He and his friend laughed, now behind me, at my meek half-smile and automatic response:
I need to work on saying nothing at all. Big city livin’ rule number one.
As I approached the garage entrance to the hotel on Travis Street, my two new friends began to yell at a homeless man sitting on raised, semi-circle of concrete; one of eight that surround the United Daughters of the Confederacy monument in the center of the city-block park.
"It's not a peaceful place," said Barbara Powell at the open house meeting hosted by the Center City Development Office. " The homeless (people) and drug dealers have taken it over … They ask for money, cigarettes ... some talk loudly to themselves."
She was one of about 45 people on hand to inspect and provide feedback on a draft concept plan for Travis Park produced by the New York-based urban planning consultant Project for Public Spaces. Contracted by the city, PPS has been collecting data and holding public input meetings since early March.
The plans depict a park with kiosks, shelters (i.e. outdoor reading room, bus stops), game areas (i.e. bocce ball, chess, dominoes, and ping-pong), picnic tables, a moveable stage, food trucks, public art, a dog run and increased landscaping – all the typical amenities and improvements one would expect for a public park.
Powell owns Big Apple Bagels, just a block away on Houston Street. She told PPS representatives that she's tired of avoiding the block – that Travis Park seems to be a wasted resource.
Like PPS, Powell believes that more facilities, events and activities will draw a more diverse crowd from downtown business and residential communities – true customers of the park’s public goods.
Travis Park isn't completely void of programming, but events are few and far between – most notably the two-day Jazz'SAlive Festival.
When Haven for Hope, a transformational center and shelter for homeless people, opened just west of Interstate 35 in 2010, nearby churches (Travis Park Methodist and St. Mark’s Episcopal) began to consolidate some of their efforts with Haven. This may account for a slight decrease in the vagrant population, but most assistance programs still require sobriety – a stipulation that many people cannot or will not fulfill.
While park programming and amenities won't solve San Antonio's drug and homeless problems, it might provide an opportunity for surrounding businesses and the city to reach out to these populations, said former City Planning Director Emil Moncivais, now a local architect.
"Maybe that could be something for the guys at Centro, in yellow shirts, to do," Moncivais said, referring to Centro San Antonio employees often seen downtown sweeping up trash and staffing information kiosks. Centro’s office is right across from the park on Travis Street.
José Luis, vice president of Travis Park Lofts, attended the meeting as an obvious stakeholder in the revitalization efforts – the lofts are less than a block away from its namesake park.
“Not only is it an (untapped) asset to the neighborhood and (business), it could also be a great connection or gateway from downtown to the upcoming (Tobin) Center for the Performing Arts,” Luis said. “This could be our mini Central Park.”
The St. Anthony Hotel itself, currently undergoing renovations under its new owner as of last year, BC Lynd Hospitality, stands to replace a long-standing uncomfortable first-impression with a pleasant front-yard welcome for its guests.
Several suggestions were scrawled on large note-pads during the open house: "Creative/artistic bike parking," "water feature," "drought/horticulture awareness," "lots of light for bus shelters," "foot pond (like in Millennial Park)," and, simply, "stage."
"(Travis Park) has both structural and psychological problems ... it needs more than what's (proposed) here, for sure. Something that's a unique draw," said local architect Mark Kellmann.
Structurally, he said, “The four-foot sidewalks are way too narrow” for two-way pedestrian traffic and people sitting on the foot-tall park borders waiting for the bus “creates pressure on that space.”
Madison of PPS agrees, and noted that while so many elements of the area are up in the air, the park isn't ready for a long-term plan with major projects, like widening sidewalks, attached to it. She explains that this is a representation of small improvements that can be made on a small budget – which hasn't officially been discussed yet. At a meeting with the City tomorrow, PPS and other parties will be discussing what department or organization is best suited to implement these plans and find funding. Further public feedback will be taken via online survey (coming soon) and the final suggestion package from PPS to the City should be ready by the end of June, Madison said.
"These are things that can be done quickly and cheaply," Madison said. "This is just a (preliminary) short-term plan ... many elements can become something bigger, more long-term."
Getting rid of a certain population isn’t the goal of this project, she explained. “It’s not to displace anyone, but to add other activations to the space … half of the people you think are loitering today, could be playing chess tomorrow.”
If she had to choose just one amenity or feature to Travis Park to make it more inviting to more people:
“Only one thing will not do it,” she said. “You’ll need a critical mass of small projects to really see a change … but if I had to choose one, it would be a concession stand, newsstand, or kiosk” of some sort – to provide a sense of purpose and authority to the park.
PPS will also be making suggestions for a broader, long-term strategy for how to creatively help the homeless in Travis Park and beyond, Madison said, though this is not a part of the official project commissioned by the City.
Shelters at the park's bus stops on Navarro Street are already a part of VIA's short-term capital plan and the transit organization is a participant in the PPS project's studies and meetings, said Abigail Kinnison, VIA facility planner.
"We've been taking the bus more often now, (the bus stops) so close to our office," said Heather Holdridge, sustainability manager at Lake/Flato Architects. "I want it to be a park for all demographics ... I think if the park is more of a destination, that would enable it to be a better transportation hub and promote wider use of mass transit."
Holdridge paraphrases a quote and encourages me to look it up later, I found: "A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation," Translated from Enrique Penalosa, former Mayor of Bogotá, Colombia.
Ultimately, Travis Park could serve as a valuable neighborhood amenity for existing and future downtown housing – that is, if it can overcome its reputation.
Mark Dominguez just moved into the Milmo Lofts on South Flores Street and came to the meeting to find out more about urban living in San Antonio. He grew up in San Antonio and just returned from Baltimore about a month ago – relocating his small business, Strategic Cyber Solutions, to tap into the local cyber security industry.
"Not much has changed" in 30 years, he said. Parks are capable of hosting so much activity, from music events to a simple game of frisbee, "It's odd that (the park) hasn't been used ... I've been to (Washington) D.C., Balitimore and San Diego area – a lot of fun things happen in their parks."
Not at Travis Park. Not yet anyway. For now, I'll take the long way home.