Architects don’t often get to work on a 12.5-acre plot of open land in the urban core of San Antonio, but ford, powell & carsonWestEast Design Group and landscape architects Rialto Studio have been hired to transform the long-vacant Playland Park parcel that lies between Fort Sam Houston and Broadway into a new campus for the Alamo Colleges.

Conceptual massing studies (see featured image and click-to-enlarge image below) were presented to the board of trustees Tuesday to help them better understand land use and development of the new central headquarters. The renderings will be presented a second time this week to the Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) at WestEast offices on the second floor of the Full Goods buildings at Pearl. The Thursday, 6 p.m. meeting is open to the public.

Rendering courtesy of ford, powell & carson Architects & Planning and WestEast Design Group. (click to enlarge)

What committee members see is a campus plan overwhelmed by a suburban-like parking lot big enough to service a Walmart or other big box store. Building a surface lot that could hold 500-600 vehicles might save the district the cost of building a parking garage, but the forfeited land surface would limit architects to designing a suburban-like development.

The Alamo Colleges is fiscally strong and trustees have voted to place a $450 million bond project on the May 2017 ballot, $50 million more than originally anticipated, thanks to the district’s strong balance sheet and low interest rates. The proposed use of the funds would allow the district to expand into Boerne and other growing suburban communities, although inner city trustees are calling for greater investment in underserved communities.

One obvious option not yet considered is allocating an estimated $5-7 million in additional bond funds to the headquarters project, which would allow the design team to produce a denser, mixed-use plan more in keeping with the infill development found along Broadway and at Pearl. Such an approach would incorporate the new campus into the Broadway community, whereas a parking lot dominating the front of the site will leave the campus disconnected from its neighborhood and limit the buildings to the back of the parcel.

A parking structure also could prove to be an added new revenue source for the district, given the demand for parking that now exceeds supply, everywhere from Pearl to the DoSeum to Brackenridge Park.

The former Playland Park site at 2222 North Alamo St. has long been coveted by developers. It opened in 1943 as a homegrown amusement park, best known for “The Rocket,” a popular wooden roller coaster. The park closed in 1980, and the property has sat vacant ever since then. The district purchased the 12.5 acre property for $4.1 million in 2008 with plans to develop a central headquarters there, but internal opposition and the Great Recession put the project on hold for several years.

“It’s one of the hottest properties in the urban core,” said one developer not involved in the project. “A parking lot big enough for 500 or more vehicles would mean a very suburban looking campus totally inconsistent with everything happening on and around Broadway and Pearl. A parking garage would allow for much greater density, something more appropriate to the location.”

Trustees appointed the CAC in May 2015, “to bring a community perspective to (the district’s) work to develop a facility to house the 465 District Support Operations employees…As a dedicated community partner, the Alamo Colleges relies heavily on citizen advice and input…”

That’s exactly what happened. Trustees originally planned on adding a building to its current headquarters located at 201 W. Sheridan St. just south of the H-E-B Arsenal headquarters. Richardson “Dick” Gill, the CAC vice-chair, in particular, pushed district officials to develop a showcase campus on the Playland Park property. He and other committee members pushed for a campus that would elevate the district’s profile as the leading provider of higher education in the metro area with nearly 60,000 students enrolled at its five colleges.

Such a campus, committee members reasoned, also would demonstrate the district’s commitment to sustainability, energy efficiency, and contribute to the city’s momentum in building a more vibrant urban core attractive to new generations of students and workers. The CAC and trustees agreed the cost of building at Playland would not be higher than the cost of building at its present headquarters at 201 W. Sheridan St. On July 16, 2015 the CAC voted unanimously to recommend the Playland site.

Gill and CAC Chair Gloria Ray, a retired senior official at Kelly Air Force Base, declined comment for this article pending Thursday’s presentation of the renderings to the citizens advisory committee. Click here to see the CAC membership.

Two months later in September, trustees approved construction of a new $55 million central headquarters on the Playland site, which will allow 465 district employees now scattered at three different office locations to work at a single location. An events center available for public and private use will generate additional revenue but also will require extensive visitor parking.

Alamo Colleges Chancellor Dr. Bruce Leslie. File photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Sale of the office properties Alamo Colleges intends to vacate at 201 W. Sheridan St., at 611 W. Houston St., and off Pat Booker Road and I-35 North are expected to reduce the cost of the project by an estimated $10 million, Alamo Colleges Chancellor Bruce H. Leslie said in an interview this week.

“I do credit the CAC members as the ones who recommended we use the Playland site, and now that group will be vetting the renderings, which are more for understanding the site,” Dr. Leslie said. “We are looking for energy conservation strategies, but I don’t think we can afford a LEED Platinum project. We are excited to get to this stage, but as the architects explained in their presentation, we don’t want to build on all 12 acres. One of the issues is parking and how we manage the parking so it doesn’t overwhelm the property.

“There is, however, a fiscal issue here,” Dr. Leslie said. “A couple of the renderings show some below ground parking, but we need 450-500 spaces for employees and we want another 200 for the conference center. The thinking is we could do surface parking now, and if we have to expand the facility some day, we could do a garage later.”

John Mize, the ford, powell & carson principal leading the project, said the conceptual massing studies do not include actual building designs.

“They show how the buildings could be arranged, but we have not begun to design the buildings,” Mize said. “It’s going to be a great project, its so rare to find 12 open acres in the urban core that you can build on, but we are going to need to be as inventive as we can be about the parking. We want to minimize the impervious cover on the site. We are targeting 600 spaces because that is what they’ll need for employees and visitors to the event center.”

Eliminating the massive surface parking would allow architects to be far more inventive in capturing the site’s history, which not only has cultural implications because of Playland Park, but the property’s early use dates back to San Antonio’s founding nearly 300 years ago.

The Acequia Madre, built in 1719once carried water from the San Antonio River at what is now the Witte Museum south along a route parallel with Broadway to Mission San Antonio de Valero in the 18th century and to the Alamo in the 19th century. The renderings show the original course of the acequia as it entered the property at what is now Cunningham Street, and then wound its way along what is now the property line with Fort Sam Houston before exiting on Josephine Street to the south.

The original course of the acequia winds through the property from Cunningham Street to Josephine Street on the other end. Rendering courtesy of Ford Powell & Carson Architects & Planning and WestEast Design Group. (click to enlarge)

Leslie said the district wants the new campus to include elements of a reconstructed acequia, and some expression of the importance of the site in relation to Fort Sam Houston. The district also owns a collection of artifacts from Playland Park it hopes to incorporate into the campus design. Leslie said district officials are interested in hearing from individuals who might have additional Playland Park artifacts they would be willing to donate or sell.

Leslie and Mize hope the campus is completed in “the next few years.” Finishing in time for the city’s 300th anniversary celebrations in May 2018, they said, will be a challenge.

Other firms involved in the project include Pape-Dawson Engineers doing the civil engineering; Datum Rios doing the structural engineering; Cleary Zimmermann Engineers doing the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing; and Skanska USA serving as construction manager.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated the Alamo Colleges has five campuses. It has four accredited colleges and one college not yet accredited.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published on July 24, 2016. 

Top image: Conceptual massing study by ford, powell & carson shows massive parking lot envisioned as part of new Alamo Colleges central headquarters on former Playland Park site. Rendering courtesy of Ford, Powell & Carson and WestEast Design Group. 

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor and publisher of the Rivard Report.

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