San Antonio City Council on Thursday approved on a new parking garage for the San Antonio Zoo and Brackenridge Park, one of the few proposed changes to the park that survived a contentious public debate that started in 2016.
The approved proposal allows for a three-story garage costing up to $10.8 million on the northeast side of U.S. Highway 281, according to a map shared by the City’s Transportation and Capital Improvements staff. The City owns the property and leases it to the zoo.
The new garage was originally included in a draft 2016 master plan proposing ideas for parking and traffic flow that proved unpopular with many visitors to the historic 343-acre park north of downtown.
The additional space will help relieve the streets and parking lots that often clog with vehicles and pedestrians, Zoo CEO Tim Morrow said. He and his staff often see drivers simply giving up after not finding enough parking, he said.
“They turn around and just leave,” Morrow said. “We want those people to have better access to the zoo.”
Morrow also described plans to build a continuous sidewalk on the north side of Tuleta Drive from the Will Smith Zoo School at Stadium Drive to the zoo’s entrance.
In the original plan for Brackenridge Park, designers hired by the City had proposed more sweeping changes to how people get around in the park. That plan called for replacing a parking lot at the intersection of North Saint Mary’s Street and Tuleta Drive with a so-called “grand lawn” and closing other street entrances and parking spaces.
These would have been replaced with garages around the park’s perimeter and a tram system – some called it a “people mover”— that would have taken visitors from the garages into the park.
“All of that is off the table,” said Lynn Osborne Bobbitt, director of the Brackenridge Park Conservancy, a nonprofit that works with the City and other groups to preserve and enhance the park.
After an initial outcry, the City scheduled two rounds of additional public meetings. City officials heard from “between 800 and 1,000” residents, according to the final plan.
The final plan City Council approved in 2017 includes the new zoo garage and an expansion of an existing garage on Avenue B near the Witte Museum. The plan dropped proposals to close the streets and install the trams.
Included in the final plan were proposals to restore and place interpretive signs near the Spanish colonial acequia and dam near the San Antonio River, preserve a pump house from 1877, improve water quality in the river, and fix some of the crumbling stone walls along the river channel, among other ideas.
“The plan as it went to Council is what we all found common ground on,” Bobbitt said.
In the debate over the park’s future, former City Council member Maria Berriozábal became one of the strongest advocates for the predominately Latino community that uses the park regularly for Easter celebrations and other family events.
In an interview Monday, Berriozábal said she was satisfied that the final plan maintains access for everyone.
“Our issue was … we didn’t want any streets closed, we didn’t want the grand lawn, the tram that went along with closing streets,” she said. “We didn’t want the tram because we thought it would take access away from people who use it most.”
The garage proposal that City Council is set to vote on Thursday features one change from what’s described in the updated master plan: Instead of placing the garage on a San Antonio Independent School District parking lot on the southeast side of U.S. 281, the garage will be built on City-owned property on the other side of the highway.
Razi Hosseini, assistant director of the City’s Transportation and Capital Improvements department, said City officials spoke with their counterparts at the school district over three or four months but were not able to come to an agreement about sharing the garage space.
“We realized they have also a need for the parking spaces,” Hosseini said. “We need that one full-time, not part-time. … They have the same need we do.”
A spokesperson for SAISD had a different view.
“My understanding from our Facilities office is that the City and Zoo officials decided that the new location for the parking garage fits better as part of the long term master plan for the Zoo and Zoo school ” Chief Communications Officer Leslie Price said in an email Monday.
Morrow said one issue would have been the “tight and painful timeline” for construction on the district’s lot, which would have required the garage to be finished by spring break of 2019. The garage also helps add total parking spaces to the area, he said.
The updated Brackenridge Park master plan includes an illustration of an older version of the garage. City officials do not yet have an updated rendering, Hosseini said.
If the project is approved, Guido Construction would design and build the garage with up to 600 spaces. Construction would likely start in September, according to City documents. Funding comes from the City’s 2017-2022 bond initiative.
At Brackenridge Park, the bond also includes $2.6 million for the Witte garage expansion and $7.75 million for the historical restoration and interpretive projects.