Brackenridge Park: The Public Interest vs. UIW Expansion

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Families enjoy time in Brackenridge Park near the San Antonio Zoo. Photo by Scott Ball.

Families enjoy a sunny Saturday in Brackenridge Park near the San Antonio Zoo. Photo by Scott Ball.

A major test of open government, the public interest, and the future of Brackenridge Park is on the near horizon in San Antonio, but don't blame yourself if the story is unfolding beyond your view. This drama is playing out in meetings closed to the public and the media, the kind of meetings where deals are cut, money is discussed, and commitments are made. Too often in such cases, a public hearing is held, a preordained vote is taken, and a decision is made that benefits a private entity at the public's expense.

Some stakeholders fear that's about to happen again. This story is based on interviews with parties on all sides of the matter, although most spoke only on background.

There are a number of powerful players and institutions with a stake in the outcome, but above all, this be a test for Mayor Ivy Taylor and City Council and the San Antonio Independent School District leadership and board. How the City and the school district proceed in the coming weeks could affect public confidence for better or worse.

At the heart of the matter is a battle to win control of two acres of district-owned land near Brackenridge Park that a City-funded master plan for the park, still in the works, identifies as the best location for a 600-space public parking garage. Now the University of Incarnate Word is seeking to buy the same land for its own parking garage and student dormitory before the master plan and public garage can be approved by City Council.

As is often the case in a deal involving undeveloped public land and competing interests in the urban core, much more is at stake than a single parking garage. Brackenridge Park's green space is surrounded by entities seeking more parking, and many of them would be happy to acquire a piece of the park for their own use. That would leave less park for the public in a fast-growing city that already lacks park space.

A Cash-Poor School District's Need for a New Central Office

One dimension of the debate not widely known is the cash-poor school district's ambitions to raise $30 million to construct a badly-needed central office headquarters on former Fox Tech High School property near the Outlet Tunnel and the northern reach of the San Pedro Creek Improvement Project. Such a facility would save the district at least $1.5 million a year by eliminating inefficiencies in having hundreds of administrators scattered in different district facilities. It also would help the district project a more professional image as it seeks to elevate education outcomes, attract more inner city families with school-age children, and compete with the growing network of inner city public charter schools.

For Mayor Taylor and the Council and for City Manager Sheryl Sculley and staff, it's a matter of safeguarding the $227,500 allocated for the Brackenridge Park Master Plan in April 2015. The City Council will vote on the master plan when it is finished in June, and it should serve as a guide for future stewardship of the city's biggest urban park and for much-needed improvements. The public parking garage, for example, could be funded in the 2017 City Bond. The alternative is to see the master plan, and the work of some of the city's most talented and thoughtful designers, fall victim to politics even before the plan is completed.

The SAISD school board will meet with Superintendent Pedro Martinez in a closed-door executive session Monday evening to consider the competing claims of the San Antonio Zoo and the Brackenridge Park Conservancy, representing the public interest, and the University of Incarnate Word, seeking to expand its vehicle-choked campus by acquiring public land across Hildebrand Avenue. None of the parties will be in that closed meeting.

For the record, Martinez said in a Sunday evening email that he will only discuss the Zoo proposal in closed session and will not be discussing a sale of the property to any entity. If the property is to considered for sale in the future, Martinez wrote, it will happen in a public and transparent process..

The two acres parking lot owned by the school district sits on Tuleta Drive across from the San Antonio Zoo. A second parcel, 2.6 acres of park property adjacent to the 1920s-era former Donkey Barn, was unsuccessfully sought by Incarnate Word in 2010 and is once again an acquisition target.

University officials originally set out late last year to make a second run at the parkland near the donkey barn. Then they learned of the proposed public parking garage, and a memorandum of understanding that zoo officials had presented to the district for board approval.  The district would essentially donate the land to the zoo, and in return, would have $1 a year access to the 600-space public garage for all events at Alamo Stadium. It would swap unused land it had acquired more than 75 years ago from the City at no cost and get a new garage for its use without investing a penny.

Such a garage would solve a serious game day problem for the district. Right now, high school football rivalries and other events cause traffic to spill chaotically into the park, throughout River Road and other nearby neighborhoods, and bring area traffic to a standstill. Fans have to navigate long, dangerous walks along Hildebrand Avenue to reach the stadium.

Once UIW officials learned of the pending deal in December they stepped in to express an interest in buying the land, which has been appraised at $2 million.The university wants the land for its own private parking garage and a two-story student dormitory it would build atop the garage. Lou Fox, the special assistant to UIW President Lou Agnese Jr. and a former San Antonio city manager, said the university has not made a money offer, but district officials clearly believe the school is ready to do so.

Some SAISD board trustees see that $2 million as a good start on the capital campaign for a new district central office. The district is preparing to offer for sale other properties it owns, including 17 acres on North Alamo Street in Midtown near the Pearl; its administration offices at 141 Lavaca St.; and other holdings. It's an approach similar to the P3 deal the City has done with Weston Urban and Frost Bank to finance its acquisition of the existing Frost Bank Tower to serve as an eventual central office.

UIW students wouldn't be the first to enjoy treetop views of Brackenridge Park living above such a facility. Agnese and his family live in a university-owned penthouse atop an on-campus parking garage.

Incarnate Word's 11th hour entry into the mix has upset Zoo CEO Tim Morrow, Conservancy Executive Director Lynn Osborne Bobbitt and others supporting the master plan work who thought the Zoo had a handshake deal with the school district. Guido Brothers Construction and Pape-Dawson Engineers have done preliminary work for the Zoo on a low-impact parking garage with exterior screening that would make it aesthetically compatible with a park setting.

The Conservancy, the Zoo and the other cultural and recreational entities associated with the park do not have funds to purchase the property. They hope the public parking garage will be funded in the 2017 City Bond.

The land was owned by the City until 1939 when it was deeded it to the school district so it could build Alamo Stadium, completed in 1940. The two-acre land parcel is left over from that time and has never been developed. A deed restriction requires the property to be used for education purposes and prohibits its use for private profit. One unanswered question is whether city fathers at the time meant public education when they stipulated its use for "educational purposes," or whether a private Catholic university can buy and develop the land and take it out of public use.

None of this, of course, is information that has been in the public realm, at least until now, and there is little to be gleaned from the school board's meeting agenda:

"Closed Session A. The Board will convene in Closed Session as authorized by the Texas Government Code Chapter 551, et. Seq. (TGC 551.071, TGC 551.072, and TGC 551.074) 1. Deliberation regarding the purchase, exchange, lease or value of real estate, including legal issues on the acquisition process. (TGC 551.071 and TGC 551.072)... B. The Board will reconvene in Open Session and take appropriate action on items discussed in Closed Session."

That satisfied the legalities, if not the public's need for real and timely information. There is, however, intense interest in the outcome, not only by the park and zoo stakeholders, but also the larger Midtown community, which would like to see the underutilized park become a destination for people moving into the city.

Some who support construction of the public parking garage and who do not want to see UIW expand across Hildebrand Avenue are expected to speak at the board meeting's 6 p.m. "Citizens' Presentations" session. Anyone with an interest in the outcome can sign up to speak during the 60-minute session. The school board meets at the Burnett Center at 406 Barrera St. in Southtown, a former elementary school property it could reopen if downtown residential development continues apace.

Brackenridge Park's Parking Problem

No one wants to see any green space lost in the park, yet everyone is clamoring for more parking. Every cultural and recreational entity in and around Brackenridge Park is starving for parking, including the San Antonio Zoo, the Witte Museum, The DoSeum across Broadway, Brackenridge Park Golf Course and the First Tee program, Lions Field, the Japanese Tea Garden and Sunken Garden Theater.

Brackenridge Park is 343 acres in total, but less than 120 acres are open green space. The rest is taken up by the park's cultural and recreational attractions. Given San Antonio's lack of public transit options, making space for people and their vehicles is critical to the park's long-term viability.

The 600-space public garage in the draft master plan would help ease those parking woes. Its proposed location just off Hildebrand won't solve everyone's parking problems, but it would be huge step forward without sacrificing any existing parkland. A second garage, it can be argued, is needed somewhere along the park perimeter near Avenue A, which runs alongside the Museum Reach west of Broadway. The Witte, which is undergoing a major expansion, and the DoSeum both attract huge crowds with their regular free admission events, despite parking shortages. Brackenridge Park would attract far more pedestrians and cyclists if there were more parking spaces where people could conveniently park and unload a bike or stroller.

A New Superintendent's Challenge

SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez – then a candidate for the position – answers reporters' questions during a press conference. Photo by Scott Ball.

Rivard Report file photo

SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez. Photo by Scott Ball.

For Martinez, a $2 million check from UIW might not be worth the money if it poses a risk of undermining growing public confidence in district leadership. Sources say former board president Ed Garza, now serving as the District 7 trustee, has spoken with Fox and is urging Martinez and other trustees to do a deal with UIW.

Garza said that is incorrect and that he has deferred to current Board President Patti Radle to handle any such inquiries.

District 1 Trustee Steve Lecholop, an attorney with the RPSA law firm, normally would be the strongest voice for weighing the ethics and optics of any district deal in the eyes of the public. But two of Lecholop's law partners serve on the UIW board and he undoubtedly will recuse himself from deliberations, as he did in 2013 when the district and UIW were discussing construction of the university's medical school on the Fox Tech property which instead was located at Brooks City Base.

SAISD Board Trustee Steve Lecholop (D1) watches superintendent candidates answer reporters' questions during a press conference. Photo by Scott Ball.

SAISD Board Trustee Steve Lecholop (D1) watches superintendent candidates answer reporters' questions during a press conference on April 16, 2015. Photo by Scott Ball.

It would be easy for trustees to cite the tax revenue-poor district's many needs in cutting a last-minute deal with UIW, but it would undermine the growing community confidence in the district board and Martinez, and perhaps, violate the spirit of the land gift by the City in 1939 if the land is sold to UIW without competing bids. Such a deal would be seen by many as putting the expansion ambitions of Agnese and the university ahead of the public good for a onetime payday.

Interestingly, Mark Watson Jr., the now-retired founder of Titan Holdings insurance company and a major supporter of UIW, the Briscoe Western Art Museum and others, gave the university a generous donation some years ago that allowed it to purchase a choice corner parcel at Broadway and Burr roads. Just over one year ago, UIW sold the parcel to CVS Pharmacy, realizing what some say was an $8 million windfall. Park advocates and others who support the master plan process wonder why UIW did not use that land for university expansion.

Fox said there are height restrictions there along Broadway, although the nearby Broadway condominium tower rises 21 stories. He also said the parcel itself was not big enough to support a multi-story parking garage. The university, Fox said, still hopes zoo and park officials will agree to make available the 2.6 acre parcel next to the former donkey barn for purchase by UIW.

The Donkey Barn. Photo by Scott Ball.

The historic former donkey barn in Brackenridge Park at 950 Hildebrand Ave. Photo by Scott Ball.

It's been six years now since Agnese was shut down in an effort to purchase that land and the former donkey barn in the park. UIW was going to use the land to build a university fine arts complex, and the historic building with its Alamo facade to open a museum.  The building had long been promised to the Zoo, which managed to fend off UIW amid a public outcry, and win approval to convert it into a $500,000 zoo education center. The building now houses the Zoo's human resources offices and remains underutilized. Some working on the master plan believe its best future use would be as a park visitor center.

The San Antonio Zoo has followed through on its plan to establish an education center. The Zoo recently purchased the 27,000 square foot Kipp Esperanza Dual Language Academy on Tuleta Drive to house its accredited pre-school. The school, which offers a nature education curriculum, currently serves about 70 students. The new property will allow it to triple the size of its student body, according to a report on News 4 San Antonio.

The Master Plan Team

The first draft of the master plan is due to be completed in February for presentation to the City's Parks and Recreation Department. Staff members will review the document and then send it back for revision to Rialto Studio Landscape Architecture and studio principal and master plan author James Grey Jr.

He heads a formidable team: Irby Hightower, a principal at Alamo Architects and someone who has had a seat at every planning table involving the San Antonio River and Broadway, among other major projects, for more than 20 years; John Mize, architect and president and COO at Ford, Powell, & Carson; and Jay Louden,  a principal at work5hop, a new firm recently noted on the Rivard Report for sharing the $15,000 prize for its winning design with Brantley Hightower and HiWorks of a new control tower for Stinson Airport. Louden also is a former president of the nonprofit Conservancy, a major volunteer undertaking and community service.

The timeline calls for a public hearing and a final version of the master plan to come before City Council in June for final approval. A quarter of a million dollars sounds like a lot of money, but it breaks down into small pieces when you consider the number of individuals working on the project and the number of stakeholders they have worked with to fashion the plan. All of the park's tenants and neighbors have been interviewed to determine their future growth. Even park neighbors who are private landowners have been interviewed.

A strong master plan could help the City activate Brackenridge Park. Many locals don't give it a second thought, but outsiders and newcomers often note that they've never seen such a beautiful urban park go so unused. The park is unusual in that it is surrounded by underutilized private property, some of it left vacant or untended for decades. Most such urban parks are ringed by residential and commercial towers, with the park serving as a major amenity attracting people who want to live and work on its perimeter. Such development serves to activate park space with nearby residents and visitors enjoying a safe venue to walk, cycle, or simply relax. Brackenridge Park overflows with families during Easter and other holidays, but in between, it fails to attract the kind of park traffic found in other cities.

That might be why the Conservancy has been woefully underfunded since its founding in 2008. Leilah Powell, who served as its first executive director, now is chief of policy for Mayor Taylor. She has not taken a visible position on the parking garage issue, but she could prove to be an important defender of the master plan inside City Hall. District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño, a practicing architect and the strongest voice on the Council for urban core investment and good design, also could make it his cause.

One simple solution for the Zoo, the Conservancy, the City and the school district would be to include the land purchase price in the 2017 municipal bond. That would give the district its much-needed cash infusion, keep the property public, and stop UIW from spilling across Hildebrand Avenue into the park. Whether City officials agree to that formula remains to be seen.

The Zoo and conservancy also could reach out to benefactors to contribute to a land fund to match any City contribution. One way to test that possibility is for the district to offer the property for sale rather than negotiate behind closed doors with UIW alone.

Much depends on what is said and agreed upon in the school board's executive session Monday evening. Unfortunately, that meeting will be closed to the public and media.


CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified, via Google Maps, the properties in question. The images have been updated to reflect their locations relative to nearby landmarks. That version of the story also said SAISD Trustee Ed Garza was not expected to seek another term on the Board. Garza said Sunday he intends to seek re-election in 2017.

This story was originally published on Sunday, Jan. 10, 2015.

*Top Image: Families enjoy a sunny Saturday in Brackenridge Park near the San Antonio Zoo. Photo by Scott Ball. 

Related Stories:

Brackenridge Park: San Antonio’s Neglected Crown Jewel

‘The First 100 Days': SAISD Raises the Bar High

‘New Witte Museum’ Opens its Arms to Broadway 

Post-Easter Trash: Cleanup at Brackenridge Park

Lucky’s Future at San Antonio Zoo Now in the Courts

24 thoughts on “Brackenridge Park: The Public Interest vs. UIW Expansion

  1. Thank you Sir. This information needs to get out. Park land needs to remain public land not private land. SAISD needs to disclose what they plan on doing with all their properties. Charter schools take a lot of heat for hurting SAISD but there are many reasons why charter schools are full and SAISD schools are not. These stories need to be told.

  2. Ah, San Antonio politics… the more things change, the more they stay the same. UIW can’t operate a quality university as it is now; why do they need to expand? To serve Agnese’s megalomaniac ego? To do a back room deal with UIW would undoubtedly taint the new SAISD superintendent for the remainder of his tenure, weakening his ability to actually achieve much needed reform and improvement. As Rivard stated, alternate solutions may be found if discussion and negotiation is conducted in the light of day.

    • Ahh, elitist white San Antonio attitude….the more things change, the more they stay the same. UIW is a great school. It is financially “hampered” by the fact that it serves the actual demographics of San Antonio–it does not cater to an elite, white privileged student body the way other institutions in Texas do.

  3. The Brackenridge Park Conservancy strongly supports the Master Plan process which is addressing needs and plans of stakeholders in and around the park so that a comprehensive plan can be presented to City Council. 2016 is the year of Brackenridge Park, and we cannot miss the opportunity to make Brackenridge a world-class park, preserving its history and making improvements that are needed.

    As the Executive Director of the Brackenridge Park Conservancy, a nonprofit created to be the steward of and advocate for the park, I invite you to join the effort to make the park the best it can be and help protect it for use by all of us citizens.

  4. I would love to see Brackenridge Park improved and used as other city parks in more lively cities. Sad that it’s blocked from view in so many places along Broadway by hideous strip malls and ugly buildings, and that more events don’t happen there throughout the year. Thanks to Robert Rivard for such an informative article — I did not know about this issue and will be tracking it closely now. It would be so disappointing to see that land go to UIW for a small dorm of all things, but sadly I wouldn’t be surprised.

  5. Disclosure I live in Bexar County not the City of San Antonio….but what happens in San Antonio is important to all of us. First and foremost the “University of The Incarnate Word” is not a “Public” institution in any use of the word. I believe, like all of us, they need to learn to maximize their current resources. I would hope the council members and Mayor of the City of San Antonio they have only one allegiance and that is “to the citizens of San Antonio”…. Please don’t let “personal political considerations” go against the needs of the Citizens…

  6. Do not let a parking lot by UIW or anyone else encroach on Brackenridge. Let’s improve it so maybe even the locals might use it.

  7. It’s not clear to me that all parties can’t simultaneously achieve something of value.

    Not a long time ago, this site lamented the option of locating the UIW med school out of the core. Now, when the tables are turned such an idea is an aggressive land grab.

    UIW will be a better school if it expands contiguously to its main campus, not scattershot around the county. I wouldn’t of hand much fun at UT if I had to drive to Round Rock and Buda.

    Lets find a way to satisfy the needs of all parties.

    • It will be a better school if instead of expanding, it refocuses its energies where it does best: student education. Its attempts at expansion are not creating a better educational system, it’s diluting the quality it already has.

  8. How’s the River Walk Museum Reach – Park Segment (Phases 1 and 2) coming along? In 2015 from the Pearl north, it didn’t look so great and wasn’t safe. . . even with the opening of the DoSeum just south of Mulberry in ‘Phase 1’ territory.

    In March 2015, SARA was still predicting that both phases of the Museum Reach Park Segment would be done by Spring 2015 (moved to “late 2015” in June):

    Now it seems it might be completed by mid-2016?

    I hope so, as visitors and locals are looking for a safe, easy and pleasant way to follow the River Walk from downtown on foot or bike to the Doseum, Witte and the Zoo – as well as to the Japanese Tea Gardens, and Alamo Stadium, Trinity University, Incarnate Word and Central Market.

    Instead planning more parking, why isn’t San Antonio focused to completing the Museum Reach Park Segment – as well as improving pedestrian access fo Brackenridge Park and the Museum Reach through Incarnate Word, Trinity University and the Alamo Stadium grounds?

    Tuleta Drive, which runs by the parcel mentioned above (and which lacks sidewalks and protected bike lanes, including near an elementary school), is one key stretch that needs attention now – in anticipation of the completed Museum Reach Park Segment and to improve pedestrian connections with the Alamo just three miles south.,-98.4782023,3a,90y,240.5h,51.2t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sg1Gy1pHeKpontklZuUfpOg!2e0!7i13312!8i6656!6m1!1e1

  9. I don’t think catering to cars is the solution here… San Antonio doesn’t have much greenspace left in its cramped downtown. However, these specific projects don’t bother me on their own – It’s not taking away from the use the public already enjoys. Your top picture of the green field was a bit of click bait. Maybe UIW should go back to Allen and Davis Court for more parking. If the DoSeum can get permission to remove housing stock from the Mahncke Park neighborhood for parking, so should UIW.

    • UIW tried that once, and failed (for good reason in my opinion).

      From the various reports I read, it seems that the Mahncke Park neighborhood was torn on whether to allow demolition of housing stock for additional DoSeum parking. One group of homeowners was in favor of demolition, but another group just as large was opposed.

      It has been said that a neighborhood is like a rug – you have to ensure that the edges do not fray or unravel. Taking down homes on a neighborhood’s edges to build a parking lot could eventually cause the same amount of ruin that San Antonio College did a few decades ago – one parking lot begets another.

  10. This is a great opportunity to leverage a long underutilized corner (and relatively small parcel) of the Brackenridge Park Area to bring the many stakeholders together in an otherwise likely unattainable mixed use project. This is exactly what we need. Certainly, the timing could be better but the UIW/SAISD project is a bird in hand that addresses the need for parking, supports growth of UIW and helps to better link the park to with it’s westward neighbors . Master plans are great tools and Brackenridge has already had several. What’s desperately needed are collaborative project’s like this to bring them to life.

  11. It’s time to look at whether the City should devote 113 acres to the Brackenridge golf course used by a few citizens or devote that land to creating a first class park for all the people of San Antonio. With the addition of walking paths and landscape features, such as fountains and ponds, the former golf course would be a wonderful place for families to picnic, gather, and enjoy our city.
    I know golfers will be upset by the loss of their preserve, but shouldn’t parkland be available to all and not just those who can afford green and cart fees?
    Instead of arguing about a few relatively small parcels, City leaders need to re-evaluate the use of park property for Brackenridge golf course. With a quick decision, the conversion could even be accomplished in time for the SA Tricentennial and be just as important to San Antonio as Hemisfair was in 1968.

    • Ummmm. NO. That golf course is historic and although i hate tha they have made it so expensive it is perfect where its at. Also it is available for free use, as a golfer i would love to see people picnicking and watchint the golfers as they tee off. The green fees are only for those who play. I see walkers and joggers there all the time.

    • It’s nice to see that I’m not the only one that thinks the Brack Golf Course is a waste of space. The Riverwalk could be extended straight into that area and serve as a main connection from downtown to the zoo/Witte Museum/Do-seum.

      The stretch of sidewalk that goes from 281 to Lion’s Park is STILL under construction and overall just not a very safe stretch to ride or jog, especially in early morning hours or after dusk.

      • The golf course is not expensive for locals, those who buy an annual pass through the Alamo Golf Trail. I walk the course and pay $20-$30 a round. That is cheaper than any other historic, metropolitan course in the United States.

        Young golfers, many from underprivileged backgrounds, from the First Tee Foundation learn about the fundamentals of golf at the range across the street on Mulberry and play Brackenridge at reduced rates.

        The course hosted the first professional tournament west of the Mississippi, and its architect, A.W. Tillinghast, is world famous having designed courses for the U.S. Open.

        Closing the course would be like bulldozing the Missions.

  12. You also need to understand that this will not be the end. The other piece that UIW would love to gobble up is the the only remaining natural space owned by the Sisters of Incarnate Word — the 53 acres in the Headwaters Sanctuary (this includes the historic Blue Hole and the restored natural area between the UIW athletic fields and the Olmos Dam). UIW needs to acknowledge that expansion will need to occur somewhere else and not taking historic protected lands. We need to make sure there are no back room deals for this property either.

  13. The point of the park is to preserve nature. _It is not undeveloped land._ There is a lot of beauty there as is and wildlife deserves a place to live too. Why are we even considering paving over this beautiful place to a parking lot?

    It sounds like the real problem is too many cars.

    Perhaps we should look at solving the problem of too many cars by reducing the quantity of cars out there with better public transportation? There is a finite amount of land out there and we should not waste it on parking lots. Better public transportation will benefit all parties. For most people, the point of having a car is for transportation, not for the object itself. We should design our city around the idea of transportation of people, not machines.

  14. “Brackenridge Park is 343 acres in total, but less than 120 acres are open green space.”

    ^That says it all, right there.

    I agree with the crowd that thinks the golf course should be converted to open park space, but I also recognize that 1) the history of the golf course makes it a sentimental landmark and 2) it provides a low cost venue for those in SA who cannot access country clubs. It’s just such a shame it was located at a choke point between downtown and the Olmos Basin. I don’t see the golf course moving during my lifetime. Just hoping to get a few divided bike lanes during my lifetime.

    So, being a bit more pragmatic, it would be great if the city could connect Breckenridge Park to the Olmos Park Greenway Trail, then across Basse into the upper Olmos Basin parks. I look forward to the completion of the construction on Avenue B and around the Witte. It would be nice to open up the eternally-closed Miraflores Park and provide access through UIW campus into the Olmos Basin dam area.

  15. The ultimate answer has nothing to do with parking garages and golf courses, and everything to do with safe and convenient alternatives to driving!

    The first north/south streetcar route (and yes, it will happen someday!) should go along the Broadway corridor from downtown to Hildebrand.

    San Antonio’s growth and prosperity is being irrevocably harmed through our allegiance to autocentrism.

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