More than three months have passed since an Eastside hotel owner's plans to purchase and develop a small, city-owned park surfaced and sparked a passionate debate about the future of Healy-Murphy Park on Nolan Street. The City park is used mostly by vagrants, who use the park to drink, sleep and loiter. Their presence intimidates many area residents, including young mothers with babies who are enrolled at the Healy-Murphy Center across McCullough Avenue.
The park is the scene of frequent police summons and is located next to a Salvation Army emergency shelter, a destination for homeless men seeking food, clothing and overnight facilities. Residents in Dignowity Hill see the avenue and park area as a major gateway to their historic neighborhood, where significant strides have been made in recent years to reduce the inventory of vacant houses and buildings. Vagrancy and property crimes remain major problems in the neighborhood, even as more young professionals move in and fix up once-vacant homes.
After many formal meetings and informal discussions in and around the Dignowity Hill Historic District, the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association issued a statement Tuesday morning clarifying its position on the sale of public parks in the near-Eastside. It essentially reads: thanks, but no thanks.
"Any sale of public parks in our neighborhood is not in our community's best interest," states the letter, signed by DHNA President Donalda "Dee" Smith and Vice President Brian Dillard and sent to City officials. "We look forward to working with all community stakeholders to develop new approaches that will enhance and create synergy for our network of parks in Dignowity Hill."
City officials, including Councilman Alan Warrick (D2) whose district includes the slowly revitalizing Eastside, were waiting to hear from the association before making a decision on the unsolicited bid to purchase the approximately one-acre park. The bid was made by Sherry Chaudhry, owner of the nearby Comfort Suites Alamo/River Walk. Chaudhry developed big plans for the tiny Healy-Murphy Historic District that included buying the park, moving the Dullnig-Schneider House that she now leases from the City's Park and Recreation Department, and constructing a budget hotel.
With the neighborhood's strong stance against the sale, that's no longer on the table, Warrick said, but "it's really about what we are going to do that's different. The last time this property came up (for sale and was rejected), nothing changed. ... we need tangible change to add to the quality of life of the residents of the Eastside."
For many of those residents, it's deja-vu all over again. Chaudhry tried to purchase the land in 2008, a bid that also lacked City Council or community support. Nothing has since changed at the park. Chaudhry did not respond to interview requests. She told the Rivard Report in November that she shared the neighborhood's desire for something, that would transform the park.
“I don’t have to build the hotel and I don’t have to buy that land,” she said.
Healy-Murphy Park needs a plan for community engagement and activation, Dillard said during a phone interview, and the neighborhood association will continue to work with area stakeholders to figure out what to do next.
“There's too big of a dynamic of transition in the neighborhood to sell a public park,” he said. "We need to come back with a coordinated conversation rather than people throwing out ideas randomly."
The park is flanked by a Salvation Army emergency services center for men and the Dullnig-Schneider House. The Healy-Murphy Center, a nontraditional high school/services center for disadvantaged youth, is directly across Nolan Street. The center also operates a preschool and education facility across Live Oak Street and the Dullnig-Schneider House. Industrial warehouses and complexes in various stages of disrepair and revitalization surround the historic district.
These organizations, including Chaudhry and other commercial business owners, are invited to continue talks about what to do with the park, Dillard said. There has already been discussion with the Healy-Murphy Center about activating the park with programming for its students. Others have suggested a community garden. Many in the neighborhood believe the presence of the homeless shelter is the biggest challenge to activating the park. A center that serves women and children could be a better fit for the existing and future demographics of that particular intersection.
The shelter requires residents to be sober before entering or leaving during the day to pursue employment and housing opportunities.
"Basically our position hasn't changed. We're in the beginning stages of a mission planning study to determine the needs in various parts of the city. Depending on the outcome, it'll dictate where we focus our efforts," stated Juan Reyes, executive director of The Salvation Army's local office, in an email.
The Interstate 37 underpass, a stone's throw away from the day care center, is also considered a safe place to sober up – despite the San Antonio Police Department's attempts to discourage it.
Chaudhry said in November that she will continue renovation plans to turn the Dullnig-Schneider House into meeting and administrative space for the Comfort Suites – regardless of the sale approval. She signed a 20-year lease with the City in 2013 for the property. Engineers that inspected the house deemed it unfeasible to move. The lease does not require her to improve the property, just to maintain it. Today it remains vacant.
“I will still do something with the (Dullnig-Schneider) House regardless if they don’t sell me the park," she said in November. "But at the end of the day, it’s not going to do anything for the community.”
*Top image: The basketball court in Healy-Murphy Park. Photo by Iris Dimmick.