The design of an important public project can be a contentious, sometimes uncomfortable process, but critical input from citizens to the design team and the public entity client often leads to a better outcome. The San Pedro Creek Improvements Project, now a little more than one month from groundbreaking, is such a case.
It’s too early to tell in the case of the new headquarters campus that the Alamo Colleges will build on the former Playland Park site, but a public meeting and site visit Thursday suggested the project is evolving, thanks to outside participation led by the Alamo Colleges Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC).
Three San Antonio firms – ford, powell & carson (FPC), WestEast Design Group, and landscape architects Rialto Studio – have been hired to design the new headquarters campus on the long-vacant 12.5-acre parcel that lies between Fort Sam Houston and Broadway at 2222 N. Alamo St.
A four-story building that will house most of the district’s 465 administrative employees, and a smaller conference and event center with offices and a cafeteria, will form an L-shape around a garden-like courtyard with water and shade features. Both buildings will follow the undulating landscape where elevations vary by as much as 25 feet from one corner of the property to the other.
An inviting wildscape, rare in the urban core, has claimed the portion of the property that juts like a peninsula into Fort Sam Houston, with dense undergrowth surrounding heritage oaks. A red-tailed hawk soared overhead during the Thursday site visit and Westfort neighborhood residents who live a short distance away say fox, rabbit, and other wildlife sightings are common.
Where the new buildings will be sited and how much of the property will be used for surface parking are the two most pressing questions. Initial plans to include surface parking for as many as 600 vehicles, the equivalent of a major suburban box store parking lot, was the subject of a Rivard Report article published last week.
John Mize and Adam Reed, principal architects at FPC, led a presentation Thursday at the WestEast offices at Pearl for the advisory committee members and a small group of residents from the small Westfort pocket neighborhood. Westfort sits across Cunningham Avenue from the former Playland Park site, a street that serves as a major gateway connecting Broadway and Fort Sam.
Mize and Reed were joined by a number of principals and designers from the three participating firms in a conference room at the WestEast offices that gave visitors a sense of a firm busy with various projects, with virtually every wall and surface papered with renderings and scale models.
Bruce Leslie, Ph.D., chancellor of Alamo Colleges, and John Strybos, associate vice chancellor of Facilities Operation and Construction Management, also attended.
All four versions of the siting sketches show up to 600 parking spaces on the site, each version placing the buildings on different parts of the property to give board trustees and the advisory committee members a better sense of the options.
Following the presentation by Mize and Reed, CAC Chair Gloria Ray invited Vice Chair Richardson “Dick” Gill to present to the group a fifth option he conceived while previously walking the site. Gill is something of a polymath with a portfolio of degrees from the University of Texas at Austin. He is trained as both an electrical engineer and anthropologist, with degrees in Latin American history and a Ph.D. in archaeology. He is also an expert and published author on the decline of the Mayan civilization.
“All four versions would require cutting down some amazing heritage trees on the property, and I would vigorously defend those trees,” Gill said. “Some are truly immense and are wider than this. We must save these trees.”
Gill, who is tall, spread his arms widely and, acknowledging he is a tree hugger, said he was unable to reach all the way around the biggest trees.
“I also would vigorously argue that this should be a world-class architectural design and statement. We want this project to make a statement by the Alamo Colleges…something truly distinctive. We need to have a building that is distinctive as the Central Library has been downtown.”
Gill asked Mize and Reed if they would prepare a fifth site rendering that protected the grove of 15 or more heritage pecan trees at the front of the property and sited the buildings from the northeast corner extending south.
After Gill finished his presentation. Leslie addressed the group, telling them he and the other trustees were listening seriously to the CAC members and their ideas. He said the district would do a wildlife assessment and would provide Westfort residents worried about further traffic congestion on Cunningham Avenue with a traffic assessment. It was noted that none of the four plans presented showed Cunningham Avenue being used as an entry or exit point to the campus, although that could change.
Leslie also said trustees were reconsidering the surface parking.
“Parking is important to the board, but we have a budget, we are responsible stewards,” Leslie said, “but we are going to continue to assess it and we will consider the citizens committee’s views. We want to be good neighbors now and for the next 100 years.”
Alternatives to the massive surface parking became evident during the presentation by Mize and Reed and after the meeting when the group boarded a small bus to visit the nearby site. The board wants sufficient parking for the district’s 465 administrative employees and as many as 200 visitors attending conference center events.
Mize and Reed said ground-level podium parking under the main building would provide 200 parking slots, and they and others noted that some employees will choose to live within walking distance of the new campus, and not all employees will be present every day or even arrive or depart at the same time of day.
City codes are probably going to be adjusted to reduce the number of parking slots required for new construction, giving the growing desire of many young workers to live and work in close proximity, and to commute by bus, bicycle, or foot.
Groups renting the conference center for events often will be there after business hours or on weekends, meaning there would probably be few times when 650 vehicles need to be accommodated.
With 200 spaces located under the main building, the district will have several more sustainable options for accommodating, say, 500 parking spaces. One option explored by Mize and Reed is to use hybrid turf grasses specifically designed to bear parking vehicles. Bexar County Commissioners use such turf for overflow parking at Mission County Park. Surface parking that is incorporated into landscaped green spaces with water features would be preferable to striped blacktop parking, Mize and Reed agreed.
Another option would be to leverage the district’s larger than anticipated proposed $450 million bond initiative to underwrite the cost of a 300-400 vehicle garage that likely would cost between $7.5 and $10 million, and would allow much more of the open campus to be reserved for walking trails, native landscaping, and other amenities for employees and area residents.
Top image: John Mize (center) and Adam Reed (behind Mize), principal architects at ford, powell & carson, lead a site visit for Alamo Colleges Citizen Advisory Committee members and residents of the adjacent Westfort neighborhood. CAC Chair Gloria Ray (left) and Vice Chair Richardson Gill (right) look on. Photo by Robert Rivard.