A civil jury considering the Hays Street Bridge Restoration Group‘s lawsuit against the City of San Antonio for what it said was a breached contract to turn a 1.7 acre parcel at 803 N. Cherry St into a public park ended in a confused split verdict on Friday.
The jury itself was unable to reach unanimous agreement, voting 11-1 that the City of San Antonio breached its written agreement with the group to use the parcel for parkland, even as it ruled the City is not obligated to put the matter to voters because the land was conveyed to the City without restrictions to make it a park.
The bridge restoration group sued the City for what it argued was a violation of a 2002 memorandum of understanding after the City’s 2012 decision to sell the parcel, located under and adjacent to the Hays Street Bridge, to Alamo Beer Co. owner Eugene Simor.
(For coverage throughout the proceedings, see the Rivard Report tag “Hays Street Bridge Trial.”)
In effect, the ruling appears to support the City’s right to sell the parcel to Simor, but state District Judge David Canales could set aside the verdict and dismiss the case, and appeals could be filed. City attorney Deborah Klein asked Canales to issue directed verdict after the confusing jury decision. Several motions for dismissal made by Klein during the trial were denied. Canales did not immediately rule on the directed verdict motion.
In 2007, the bridge restoration group solicited the land donation from BudCo, the Anheuser-Busch distributorship then owned by brothers Berkley and Vincent Dawson, which once operated near the bridge. The Dawsons ultimately donated the land to the City without restriction, other than a stipulation that if the City decided to convert the land to a public park it be named after the Dawsons.
Testimony from city officials indicated the small parcel located on the industrial site along rail lines was never seriously considered for conversion to a park due to its small size, industrial setting, and the proximity to existing Eastside parks.
Simor’s subsequent bid to build his Alamo Beer Brewery complex on adjacent land created a whole new opportunity for bringing the area, a blighted zone frequented by drug dealers and the homeless, back to life.
Most welcomed new of the project, but the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, which has organized protests against several redevelopment projects in the urban core, opposed the City’s decision to sell the parcel to Simor for his brewery project. When that effort failed before City Council, Esperanza’s leaders helped organize the bridge restoration group and mount the legal battle that led to this week’s jury trial.
When the trial resumed Friday morning it was the City’s turn to make its case. Former Parks and Recreation Department Director Malcolm Matthews said the Dawsons had wanted to donate the land as a park, but the condition of the property and the lack of money to develop it as a park led his staff to reject it as a potential park site.
“The condition of the property was not really what we wanted to accept as a parkland,” Matthews said. “There wasn’t money to turn it from a caliche parking lot to a park.”
Xavier Urrutia, Matthews’ successor as director, toured the property after completion of the Hays Street Bridge Restoration and reached the same conclusion.
The Center City Development Office did ask Parks and Recreation to take over the parcel, but Urrutia said the property’s proximity to rail tracks, the existence of two other parks, and its location within an industrial area made it unsuitable as a city park.
Eastside resident Juan Garcia, president of the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association from 2009-14, met at various times with Simor regarding his intent to purchase the Cherry Street property.
During a DHNA board meeting at Garcia’s home, Simor presented his vision of the project, a microbrewery and restaurant. Garcia and a board majority voted to support the brewery project, and later invited Simor to address its members.
“There’s a big drive to provide incoming development to the Eastside,” Garcia said. “This project represented a great opportunity to bring that kind of development to an area that needs it.”
While the neighborhood association met with the bridge restoration group as well, he said having a park only blocks away from Dignowity and Lockwood Parks didn’t make sense.
In closing arguments Friday afternoon, Kastely echoed her opening argument, saying “A deal is a deal.”
“It was a wonderful bridge, but another plan started in secret,” Kastely said of the City’ property sale to Simor.
“What the City is trying to do is what the neighborhood wants,” Klein said in response.
She said the trial demonstrated the City’s commitment to Eastside economic development rather than a violation of the memorandum between the City and the bridge restoration group.
“To go with (group’s) argument, you’d have to rewrite their agreement,” she said.
“Miss Klein says we’re rewriting this contract, but the City is trying to rewrite history,” Kastely said. “It is a very twisted story they are trying to impose on us.”
In response to the jury’s verdict, Kasteley said the plaintiffs will not seek monetary damages. What they want is an agreement from the city to use the land for a park.
“What we’re asking is the City do what they planned to do,” Kastely said. “This restoration group has done an incredible job of observing the bridge and creating this landmark for all of San Antonio.”
The confusing jury verdict hardly clears the way for such action. A jury trial has ended, but the ultimate outcome of the dispute is still to be determined.
*Originally published on July 11, 2014.