Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Saturday's highly anticipated eight-acre expansion of the San Antonio Botanical Garden aims to brighten the facility's star in the constellation of cultural institutions drawing school groups and families from around the city to the Broadway cultural corridor.
The $22 million enhancements will be evident from the moment visitors arrive, with a “parking garden” and redesigned entrance to the Botanical Garden. Inside, guests will find a new welcome building and discovery center, a new culinary garden and outdoor kitchen.
The improvements come at a time when the institutions nearest the Botanical Garden, the DoSeum and The Witte Museum, are still fresh from their own rebirths. Together, the three institutions have raised about $146 million to fuel their growth and added more than 550,000 square feet of new or renovated space, largely devoted to a common mission: education. But all the cultural institutions along the corridor – from theMcNay Art Museum at the northernmost point to the San Antonio Museum of Art four miles to the south – are expected to benefit from the area's new attractions.
"We are so thrilled about the renaissance of the Broadway cultural corridor and, right now, so delighted for the San Antonio Botanical Garden's expansion and transformation," Witte Museum President and CEO Marise McDermott said. "It is spectacular in every way. Cumulatively, what we offer San Antonio residents and visitors to San Antonio is amazing. This is a cultural and culinary paradise."
The Witte has seen more visitors since the debut of the "New Witte" in March than it did in the entire fiscal year previous, McDermott said. The Botanical Garden expects a similar jump in numbers.
"My expectation is that the cultural corridor will slowly but surely grow as each new transformed site opens," McDermott said. "Ultimately, the entire corridor will experience very high visitation from the growing city and also cultural tourism. We all already have strong visitation, but we have built for a larger capacity and have room for additional visitors over the next decade."
What visitors will see Saturday is only the first of the garden's two phases of the expansion, with a Family Adventure Garden slated to open in the spring of 2018. Currently the Botanical Garden reports about 150,000 visitors per year, about one-third of whom are children.
"We think we have a unique opportunity to showcase horticulture in a way that no one has ever seen before," Botanical Garden Executive Director Bob Brackman said. While the garden does strengthen the fabric of the growing cultural district, Brackman said, "this is really about the community at large."
The discovery center is the heart of the Botanical Garden's educational programming, which is rooted in principles of botany and conservation, as well as helping children and adults understand the various connections between themselves and the plants around them, Brackman said. These themes feature prominently in the expansion.
School groups and out-of-school-time groups also will be able use the discovery center as a lab. In addition to emphasizing botany and life sciences curriculum, the Botanical Garden's educational programs will tie math and art to the natural world.
“Environmental education is able to capture all subjects. You’re just using the outdoors as the context,” said Todd Beasley, former director of programming for the Botanical Garden. Beasley left the Botanical Garden in August, but was director of programs throughout the construction of the expansion.
While the Botanical Garden, the Witte, and the DoSeum host school groups from across the city, schools within the Broadway corridor have taken the relationship a step further. Lamar Elementary School is located in the middle of a walkable triangle formed by the Botanical Garden, the DoSeum, and the Witte. The small neighborhood school has formed partnerships with these and other institutions along the corridor, including the San Antonio Museum of Art and the Brackenridge Park Conservancy. Most students at Lamar visit four to 10 of these community partners per year, school officials said.
"We're really focused on trying to provide kids with an opportunity to learn in context," said Lamar Principal Brian Sparks, who considers the Witte almost an extension of his school's classrooms. "Finding ways to contextualize ... student learning through the use of these different organizations is a really impactful way for students to draw meaning from what they are learning and how they are learning it."
Each institution not only offers different experiences, but a "different lens through which they think about how to work with schools," Sparks said. Some experiences, like the Botanical Garden, is about a connection to nature, while others, like the San Antonio Museum of Art and the DoSeum, are staffed with teachers who engage in more direct academic instruction.
The DoSeum opened in 2015 as the rebirth of the San Antonio Children’s Museum, formerly located downtown on East Houston Street. It celebrated its one-millionth visitor over the summer, and estimates that it has hosted 28,000 students on school field trips.
The San Antonio Museum of Art couples on-site learning with pre- and post-trip visits from museum staff, even providing transportation free of charge. It has fostered fruitful partnerships with individual schools, such as Lamar, and school districts such as Harlandale Independent School District.
The Witte’s own $100 million renovation and expansion includes exhibits devoted to human and natural history in South Texas are ideally suited to school field trips, with eye-catching dioramas, immersive experiences, and hands-on learning opportunities.
Getting around the Broadway area that surrounds these cultural institutions will look quite different in future years, thanks to the City of San Antonio's 2017 Municipal Bond. The bond allocates $21.5 million to Brackenridge Park and $42 million to revamping the streetscape of Lower Broadway. The 2017 Bond also included $7.75 million for the Botanical Garden expansion, and on Thursday City Council approved an additional $500,000 in funding from Bexar County to bring the total allocation from the 2012 Bond to $1.7 million.
The infrastructure changes include narrowing the number of traffic lanes for motor vehicles and adding bike lanes and pedestrian walkways.
Along with the changes coming to Broadway, Brackenridge Park will undergo a major revamp along the corridor. In March, the City approved a master plan that will better showcase the 118-year-old park – the home of the San Antonio Zoo, Japanese Tea Garden, and Sunken Garden Theater.
The Brackenridge Park Conservancy is highlighting the need for repairs and historical restoration of the Sunken Garden Theater. The facility was not included in the 2017 Municipal Bond, and its maintenance costs exceed the Brackenridge Park operating budget.
With all these cultural institutions in such close proximity to one another, collaboration among the institutions makes sense, McDermott said, because each has a "different and complementary" program. The leaders of the institutions meet regularly to discuss ways to support each other, she said. For the first time this month, several institutions along the Broadway corridor, along with other arts and culture institutions downtown, are participating in Museum Month, during which members can enjoy reciprocal benefits.
Members of any of the 11 participating institutions will enjoy admission and perks at other institutions, giving families a chance to sample educational offerings they might not have previously considered for their children. The museums are also connected by a special VIA Metropolitan Transit bus line, VIVA Culture.