A heated discussion about the Brackenridge Park Master Plan took place at Ramirez Community Center Wednesday evening during one of the last scheduled public input sessions before the draft goes before City Council for a vote in August.
Raised voices and, at times, chaotic interruptions demonstrated at least one thing for sure: San Antonians are deeply passionate about public space.
More than 50 people attended the more than two-hour meeting hosted by the City of San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department.
Citizens from all over city came to provide input to help improve – or prevent development of – the proposed vision for the plan, but an overwhelming majority of attendees were upset that the plan was drafted before community input was collected. They accused the City and its design partners of ignoring the needs of the average parkgoer and called for more public meetings for Brackenridge Park and other city projects.
"We need to start over," said Cynthia Brim, 58, a graduate student at St. Mary's University. "Do this for the people."
Lynn Bobbit executive director of the Brackenridge Park Conservancy, and Councilman Robert Treviño (D1) and Rey Saldaña (D4) attended the meeting and gave brief remarks to encourage citizen participation, highlight their support, and listen to the process.
Homer Garcia III, acting assistant director for the City's Parks Department, summarized the different strategies in the master plan, emphasizing that "it's only a vision plan" and that it's important that "it's supported by the community."
The five strategies of the draft master plan highlight the importance of preserving, protecting, and restoring the park. Key strategies for the park include improving the quality of the San Antonio river banks, preserving the acequias, closing some streets, opening up more green space, replacing surface lots with parking garages, and more pedestrian access.
To read the detailed master plan draft, click here.
Wednesday evening's audience were strongly opposed to proposed parking garages along the park perimeter and the trams or "people movers."
Many of those who stepped up to the microphone said they couldn't imagine how families would use the trams to haul all their picnic material, their disabled abuelitas, or other necessities for a traditional family gathering at Brackenridge.
For many working class families, some said, driving through the park in their cars during a free moment of their day is a "tradition" that road closures would abolish. Others were afraid that if the plan goes forward, the City or company running the trams, would implement fees on parkgoers.
Garcia reiterated that the draft of the master plan does not have any proposals for park fees of any kind.
Several senior citizens said that the seamless coming and going of cars through the park and the available parking near green areas, is still the best system when it comes to park access.
"It's not that we don't want change, we just want accessibility" said senior citizen Edward C. Mata.
"It's not a zoo. It's a living, breathing part of our community," said Palm Heights Neighborhood Association President Allen Townsend, responding to sentiments from other participants who claimed they don't want to ride trams, which seem more appropriate for places like "Disneyland," but not a public park.
What citizens did agree on, however, was the betterment of the Sunken Garden Theater, and implementing necessary renovations there.
Gianna Rendon, 22, thinks that parks in general are being overtaken. Four years ago, she said, similar community meetings were held for proposed changes in Elmendorf Lake Park, but input from the community to keep the park's popular pool was ignored.
Numerous attendees spoke of similar circumstances from years past, but most brought up the example of Hemisfair Park, claiming that it "has already been lost" to developers because of apartments and hotels slated for construction on what is supposed to be public park land.
"We've lost Hemisfair to developers, we don't want to lose Brackenridge Park" was a sentiment repeated throughout the night.
Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation, a nonprofit formed to oversee the Council-approved multi-million dollar redevelopment plan and management of the park, will use leases and revenues from the hotel, apartments, and small businesses that will be located on the perimeter of the park to fund its programming and maintenance.
Participants shared memories of attending the park as children, shedding a light on the countless of generations that have enjoyed the park over the years.
"It's our park," they said.
"We need a balance (regarding) this plan. What I don't want is to have local residents and park users treated like an invasive species," said attendee Brady Alexander, a play on words from the plan that also calls for the removal of invasive plant and animal species.
What Happens Next?
All community input gathered at more than six community meetings will be brought to City Council's Neighborhoods and Livability Committee on August 15. Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) chairs the committee that includes Alan Warrick (D2), Rey Saldaña (D4), Cris Medina (D7), and Ray Lopez (D6). Comment cards and video footage from the meetings will be made available on the Parks & Recreation website.
This 2 p.m. meeting in the Municipal Plaza Building is open to the public, but citizens on Wednesday called for a time change, as many of them will be at work at that time.
Once the committee reviews the information gathered from the public meeting, they will decide if more discussion is needed on the Brackenridge Park Master Plan, or if they should go forward with full Council consideration the draft.
Rialto Studio Principal and Landscape Architect James W. Gray, Jr., the lead designer of the plan, told the Rivard Report that the meetings have illuminated areas in the plan that need adjustment.
Gray said that most of those who have come to the meetings have highlighted certain "lightning rod issues" but have not read the full master plan draft, which would quench the fire of some of their assumptions.
"There is a lot of misinformation out there, they need to read the full plan," he said. "The plan doesn't talk about closing all the roads," only a select few.
And by reading the entire plan, people will likely find elements that they actually like he said. There has been "overwhelming support regarding the restoration of the catalpa perishing channel" and turning it into "a natural design with walkways."
Gray added that the design firms involved in the project are open to design changes, and that it is an ongoing design, which is why it is called "a draft master plan."
Top image: María Berriozábal, 75, a former San Antonio council member, has been to several of the public meetings. Photo by Rocio Guenther.