Rocío Guenther / Rivard Report
To the citizens who attended one or more of the eight public input meetings for the Brackenridge Park Master Plan: it seems your voices were heard loud and clear.
The City Council's Neighborhoods and Livability Committee voted Monday to remove the draft proposals that received the most opposition at the meetings hosted by the City's Parks and Recreation Department over the past few months. Ideas to have trams transport people to and from the park, reduce surface parking and other impervious cover, and close several roads that wind through the park were scrapped.
Councilmen Roberto Treviño (D1), Rey Saldaña (D4), and Cris Medina (D7) voted for the changes as members of the committee; Councilmen Ray Lopez (D6) and Alan Warrick (D2) were not available to vote, Treviño told the Rivard Report Tuesday.
Treviño said that Monday's meeting served to rebuild trust with the community. Many residents expressed feeling left out of the planning process since the draft was created before community input was collected.
"This is our way of building back trust with what we're doing," Treviño said. "What I said at the meeting is, 'We're not going to do this without you.'"
San Antonio Parks and Rec Director Xavier Urrutia told the Rivard Report that they hope the master plan will receive funding from the 2017 Municipal Bond, but "we will refine the draft master plan, what it can look like, feel like, and what it really means when you are in the park."
For Urrutia, the most important thing before moving forward is having "the committee refer to more community engagement and interaction," so that they can effectively determine priorities for the bond.
Treviño stressed the fact that the process will continue to be transparent and involve the community, so no one feels left out. He invited former Councilwoman Maria Berriozábal to open the meeting on Monday.
Berriozábal initially reached out to Treviño as a constituent via email and introduced the idea that park users felt they were being "excluded" from the process. She and other community members called for more meetings – only two public meetings were originally scheduled – so that more citizens could have a say in the final draft proposals.
"(Treviño) asked me to provide a statement at the beginning of the committee meeting to speak about the issues, and that was a very kind invitation," Berriozábal told the Rivard Report in a phone interview. "The committee heard what the people said, and the issue of trust is very important. (They promised to) do a better public process as they continue with the changes."
Berriozábal said that the master plan will move forward with the items that were supported by the community, such as restoring natural, historical, and cultural features of the park and increasing visibility and connectivity.
"A lot of people focused on the 'no' things at the (public input) meetings, but something does need to be done with the park," Berriozábal said. "There were just some areas that were so, so negative."
In total, more than 450 people attended the public input meetings and 104 people spoke.
At every public forum, citizens were invited to show their approval or disapproval of the proposals by providing feedback on an iPad or placing dots on master plan visuals, which were showcased on easels at the back of the room.
Parks and Rec staff totaled the "dot" and iPad tabulation results from all of the meetings and discovered that more than 90% of participants "strongly supported" restoring the San Antonio River banks, restoring the Catalpa Pershing Channel to a natural state, renovating the Sunken Garden Theater, removing invasive plant species, restoring the Spanish colonial dam and acequias, and restoring historic buildings and structures in the park.
On the Sunday before the committee meeting, Brackenridge Park Conservancy Executive Director Lynn Bobbitt gave a tour of the park to Councilmen Warrick and Treviño, she said. Bobbitt attended the Monday committee meeting and stressed the need for the park to receive appropriate attention, analysis, and documentation.
"I applaud City Council to take steps to update the master plan," Bobbitt said. "Unless you are standing in the park, you don't realize how much needs to be done. We learned from the meetings that the park is very loved ... by every district in the city."
Going forward, Treviño said that Council is working with Parks and Rec and the Brackenridge Park Conservancy to find "innovative" ways to engage people in the master planning process – at the park itself.
"Parks and Rec will sponsor this," Urrutia said. "We want to have something interactive ... (activities) around the concept of the master plan" that engage the park user and are family friendly and fun.
Assistant City Manager María Villagomez agrees that the events must be interactive in order for individuals to visualize what the improvements to the park will look like.
"(The events are meant to be) a deliberate process, to engage the community," she said. After they gather input following the events, she said, they'll take the information and proposals back to the committee, which will then approve or deny the changes and recommend the plan to Council for final approval.
Treviño said that the Brackenridge Park Conservancy has offered to give special tours to interested residents.
"Instead of looking at drawings and putting red dots on them, let's create events and showcases where there's charettes or mockups of things that are proposed," he said.
Urrutia said that when people only see renderings, it's hard to create the right context or explain a sense of place.
"Maybe we can try some type of screen over an area and do a scrim projection...to make it come to life," he said, and "to provide more awareness of the park and what the master plan (is) envisioning."
Urrutia said the goal is to have a "strong public engagement piece" by the time the 2017 bond goes to Council in January, in order to show "public will behind the funding that will be proposed in the bond."
Planning efforts for the aforementioned community engagement events are already underway, and Treviño hopes to have the first one in September.
In addition, Bobbitt said that the Conservancy will launch an oral history project that same month, "to document people's comments, feelings, and memories" of the park.
"There will be an area set up where people can come to be interviewed and bring pictures (so they can share) their memories of the park," Bobbitt said. "We want to create an archive."
A sticking point at the meeting and throughout this entire process for all of those involved is just how important Brackenridge is for the people of San Antonio.
"(Brackenridge) is the park for every district," Bobbitt said. "This is the common ground where people from all backgrounds can come and be together to enjoy the outdoors in this historic park."
Berriozábal sees the current, positive outcome of the planning process as a lesson to be learned.
"We need to learn from this experience," she said. "Whether it's parks or housing or any issue regarding public spaces, and as the city continues to grow, we need to be a very open government – transparent and inclusive."
Berriozábal feels that, initially, a lot of people were left out of the planning process, and although Council did take action, the same inclusive principles must apply to other things and places that are also changing across the city.
"We have seen what happens in other cities when people feel left out. It can get pretty bad," she said. "When people simmer for years, at some point it explodes."
More than $200 million worth of "transformative" citywide projects are slated for funding in the 2017 bond.
Top image: From left: Julián and Jayden watch ducks and play with a fishing rod on the river in Brackenridge Park. Photo by Rocío Guenther.