Some in San Antonio have said, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” when it comes to Brackenridge Park, the city’s largest urban park.

This sentiment was expressed last year when citizens rejected a draft master plan which included closing parking lots and roads in order to add more open green space. The master plan that was approved Thursday heeded these requests.

But many in the community and in the landscape architecture world see Brackenridge Park’s potential to balance the current uses of the park and bring its cultural relevance into the light of the 21st century for even more locals and visitors to enjoy.

The Cultural Landscape Foundation is holding an intervention for us,” Leilah Powell told hundreds of landscape architects, engineers, professors, community leaders, students, and residents gathered at the Pearl Stable for the foundation’s Leading with Landscape III: Renewing and Repositioning Brackenridge Park, a full day of discussion centered around the park. Powell, the former executive director of the Brackenridge Park Conservancy, is now chief of policy for Mayor Ivy Taylor, who also spoke at the summit.

It’s not that the park is “broken” per se, but it could be much more to more people, she said. There is function and disfunction about the way we’ve treated Brackenridge Park over the years, Powell added, and now it’s a matter of “building the local capacity to understand why design, programming, and community gathering places are important.”

The day-long conference hosted local and national park leaders, advocates, and architects, who talked about the multitude of issues parks face in the modern age, including design, funding, maintenance, nature restoration, gentrification, and social equity. (While a full discussion is too much to dive into here, a full recording of the day’s discussions will be available on the foundation’s YouTube channel soon.)

Overall, the conference was a unique opportunity for San Antonians and professional “outsiders” to gain a different perspective on the park.

Social Equity and Community Engagement

The tension between old and new is no novel concept in San Antonio. Suspicion of change is not entirely unfounded, Hemisfair CEO Andres Andujar noted. Entire neighborhoods were destroyed for HemisFair ’68 through eminent domain.

“Developers of open space have to be trustworthy,” Andujar said, and transparency of the process and respect for public feedback is key to earning the community’s trust and producing a park that’s truly for the people – a belief echoed by fellow panelists throughout the day.

Community member and former school teacher Gloria Ramirez has been visiting Brackenridge Park for years and is against many proposals put forth by the master plan. Photo by Scott Ball.
Former school teacher Gloria Ramirez has been visiting Brackenridge Park for years and voiced her concerns about the draft master plan during a public input meeting at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in 2016. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Lake|Flato Architects Partner Bob Harris, whose firm is working on the forthcoming Confluence Park on the Mission Reach, said neighbors immediately adjacent to the project on the Southside were suspicious of the kind of activity the educational park would attract and wanted a wall or fence between their properties.

They wanted a wall, Harris said, but after going door-to-door and explaining what the educational park would become, “now they want a gate.”

As demonstrated by the local presenters that spoke about established and in-development park projects during the morning panel, it’s clear that robust community input will be critical to Brackenridge Park’s success.

“It is possible to restore visual and spatial relationships in a landscape and still introduce new features without diminishing the quality of the historic design or the visitor experience,” said Charles Birnbaum, who founded The Cultural Landscape Foundation in 1998 and is currently its president and CEO.

A common fear expressed during the additional community meetings, which were held due to public outcry about the draft master plan, was that the park would become inaccessible to poor people. As the park adds new amenities and programming, historic users of the park – especially low-income people of color – are concerned the park will stop hosting activities for them; most notably, the Easter tradition of driving into the park and camping out for the weekend.

The Easter Bunny pays families at Brackenridge Park a visit. Photo by Corey Leamon.
The Easter Bunny pays families at Brackenridge Park a visit in 2013. Credit: Corey Leamon / Rivard Report

San Antonio native Robert Hammond is co-founder and executive director of Friends of the High Line, the nonprofit caretakers of New York City’s wildly popular park that was built on an abandoned, elevated railway.

“Everyone wants a park to be for everybody, but the community means a lot of different people,” Hammond said. “No one wants to do this and you’ll never see people do it, but you have to prioritize communities … if you don’t make that conscious decision, you’re going to [subconsciously] prioritize for the people that are running the conservancy, running the city, or the designer. And that’s usually going to be – as an example here [at the conference] – mostly white people.”

The High Line itself has run into equity problems, according to a recent City University of New York study analyzed by City Lab magazine. Visitors are more likely to be tourists than locals and they are “overwhelmingly white.”

“Instead of asking what the design should look like, I wish we’d asked, ‘What can we do for you?’” Hammond told City Lab. “Because people have bigger problems than design.”

San Antonio is a “majority minority” city with the Hispanic population exceeding 60%. That diversity was not reflected in the audience or on stage. The city is also one of the most economically segregated cities in the nation.

Low-income, Hispanic voices were added to the Brackenridge Park Master Plan process by expanding the meetings’ geographic locations and hosting events in the park designed to stimulate feedback, said Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1).

“We took [their concerns] to heart,” Treviño said. “Brackenridge Park can help with these social equity issues.”

Later in the discussion, Kinder Baumgardner, managing principal of Houston-based design firm SWA, approached the issue of prioritizing communities from a different angle.

“There are subtle differences, for sure, but at the end of the day, a lot of [the needs and wants that different communities have for parks are] the same,” Baumgardner said. “If there is a neighborhood park with very specific needs, you absolutely need to do that … [but large, regional parks like Brackenridge] need to be more general.”

What most people are actually afraid of is change, he said earlier.

The San Antonio River flows through Brackenridge Park, which has been called one of the most significant archeological site in Texas.
The San Antonio River flows through Brackenridge Park. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The panel agreed that diversity in the field of landscape architecture and stakeholder involvement needs substantial improvement.

“It’s a travesty that our profession is still so white,” said Gina Ford, principal at Boston-based firm Sasaki.

Panelist Mia Lehrer, founder and president of Mia Lehrer + Associates, is a “rarity” as a Salvadorian-born American landscape designer. The 25-year project to turn the Los Angeles River – a waterway that was “encased in a straight jacket” of concrete – encountered several language and cultural barriers when it came to community engagement, she said.

“There was this sense that a lot of the immigrant communities did not understand passive restoration or restoration … that they didn’t appreciate native vegetation, trees, and some of the natural environments – [that] all they wanted was soccer field,” she said. “That was the subtext.”

Her team was able to host a series of work sessions that bypassed architectural jargon and even English by letting these communities vote on a series of images they wanted to see in the park.

“Connectivity won out,” she said. “People wanted to get from place to place on trails.”

What’s Missing From the Park?

City Council approved a master plan, but the design and programming work is far from over – not to mention the funding.

“People are designing the place in their heads as they use it,” Conservation Society President Vincent Michael said. “It’s the people’s park.”

Design-wise, the park is guilty of a “plop and drop” mentality, Birnbaum said. Since there never really was a master plan or architect “ownership,” amenities and needs are dropped in as needed: trash cans, parking lots, playgrounds, etc.

Do the historic and prominent features of the park have a “dignified setting” if there is a trash can a few feet away from Dionicio Rodríguez‘s faux bois bridge? Is the best place for a playground right next to one of the oldest structures in a park? Birnbaum let the audience mull these questions over.

President and CEO of The Cultural Landscape Foundation Charles Birnbaum wants to see Brackenridge Park become a Natural Heritage Area.
President and CEO of The Cultural Landscape Foundation Charles Birnbaum wants to see Brackenridge Park become a Natural Heritage Area. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Another consequence of not having a plan is that open space is often left “up for grabs” for other uses, he said.

Only about one-third – 115 acres of the original 343 acres – is considered open space and includes parking, trails, and pavilions. The Brackenridge Park Golf Course is 115 acres.

The San Antonio Zoo, the growing Witte Museum, and other adjacent cultural institutions seem disconnected from the park, Birnbaum said. Porosity and the ability to move seamlessly between destinations and transportation corridors will be key as the City implements its master plan.

Baumgardner joked that when he stumbled upon Kiddie Park, the children’s amusement park off Broadway Street, he thought he had arrived at Brackenridge Park.

“I did find the park eventually,” he laughed with the audience, but the point is that almost every single business on Broadway has better street presence and visibility than the park itself.

Panelists also agreed that the many layers of history – the Japanese Tea Garden, Miraflores, the original pump house, acequias, and others – represent another visibility issue.

“[I was surprised by] the amount of story in this landscape that’s partially visible, but mostly hidden,” Ford said, encouraging the audience to think of parks as ecosystems that balance people, places, and time.

Architects tour the Sunken Gardens in Brackenridge Park.
Landscape architects tour the Sunken Gardens in Brackenridge Park. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The educational and programming elements of the design, “have to be driven by need,” said Douglas Reed, principal of the landscape architectural firm Reed Hilderbrand and founding board member of The Cultural Landscape Foundation. “There’s already a palpable appreciation for the place …. the promise of Brackenridge Park lies in the revealing and interpreting of its cultural heritage.”

Needs will be informed by neighborhood users, regional visitors from five to 10 miles away, and beyond, said Suzanne Scott, general manager of the San Antonio River Authority.

“Everybody doesn’t have the same need or interest,” Scott said. Music, yoga, camping, walking a dog, and kayaking, will all attract different people to activate the park. Some might be ticketed events, but a majority of community engagement should be free, she said.

These Are Nice Ideas, But How Will We Fund It?

Some community members still disagree with Hemisfair’s new public-private partnership, which will ensure long-term maintenance and programming for the park, but after dozens of public meetings, Civic Park is on its way to becoming a reality in 2019. Revenues and rents from the residential and commercial entities that surround the park will be used to pay for a number of free amenities.

Almost $8 million will be allocated toward general park improvements and rehabilitation of modern and historic structures in Brackenridge Park. Several more millions will be spent on adjacent parking garages and related projects. The Brackenridge Park Conservancy, the nonprofit fundraiser and steward of the park, is constantly trying to raise money. Meanwhile, the City’s Parks and Recreation Department and budget has a long list of maintenance and repairs to keep up with across the city.

Often times “form follows funding,” Andujar quipped.

A restaurant or bar could open up shop in the park somewhere to generate revenue, some panelists and conservation staff suggested. Similar arrangements in Hemisfair’s  Yanaguana Garden, Discovery Green in Houston, and other successful parks have worked so far.

Discovery Green Park in Houston features several restaurants. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Discovery Green Park in Houston features several restaurants. Credit: Iris Dimmick / Rivard Report

“It was much easier to raise $300 million [to open the park] than to raise $14 million to operate it, take out the trash, and have gardeners,” Hammond said.

While Houston and other cities have a wealth of philanthropists willing to pay for naming rights and educational/maintenance endowments, San Antonio has yet to cultivate that community, Mayor Ivy Taylor told the Rivard Report.

Most panelists agreed that the park’s conservancy should continue to build its membership and look into public-private partnerships.

But partnerships that work for one park might not work for another, and they certainly don’t work for all, Hammond said.

Sometimes these arrangements let cities “off the hook” from the responsibility of providing and maintaining public space, he said, so he cautioned cities from relying on them for all their park needs.

“Most neighborhoods that are most in need of public parks are not going to be able to support a public-private partnership,” he added, so they really only work in center city or wealthy neighborhoods.

Brackenridge Park is a center city park, but it’s surrounded by mixed-income communities.

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@rivardreport.com