Former Mayor Phil Hardberger chose the perfect place to celebrate his 80th birthday with family and friends. It was standing room only at the Urban Ecology Center at Phil Hardberger Park as a few hundred people gathered in Hardberger's honor and watched him cut an oversize cake, a symbol of sorts for his lifetime achievements in this city.
Linda Hardberger, his spouse, and Amy Hardberger, his daughter, noted the mayor's affection for big gifts and then unveiled a new park trail bearing his name. The wooded pathway leads right to the heritage oak tree Hardberger famously embraced in a widely shared photograph taken a few years earlier.
The crowd wasn't there, however, just to sing "Happy Birthday" and enjoy a slice of cake. Most were there because they know Hardberger is not yet done with public life and will not rest until he achieves one last ambitious goal to transform San Antonio.
That goal is to see a unique land bridge constructed across Wurzbach Parkway that now cuts Hardberger Park in half and makes it impossible to move from one side of the park to the other without driving some distance in a vehicle. A land bridge, rare in the United States yet common in Europe, would provide a natural path for humans and wildlife alike to move from one side to the other.
(Readers can delve more deeply into the problem and the proposed solution by reading earlier coverage: A Land Bridge To Complete Hardberger Park).
"It's a real hassle getting from one side of the park to the other, so we need to get that fixed," Hardberger said. "But this isn't just an opportunity to get people and wildlife from one side of the park to other. It's an opportunity to create a world-class public art statement. Big cities should have big visions. I think we can make this something that is unique in the United States.
Realizing such lofty ambitions, Hardberger believes, would create a new national attraction in San Antonio.
"Done right, I believe it will become the third or fourth most visited site in the city after the San Antonio River, the Alamo and the Missions," he said.
Helping drive Hardberger's vision is a design produced by one of the country's top landscape architecture firms, Stephen Stimson Associates in Cambridge, Mass. Stephen and Lauren Stimson, husband and wife and the firm's principals, were on hand at the 80th birthday party to present the firm's latest renderings, which have evolved considerably since earlier versions presented in the recent Rivard Report article.
The land bridge as they now envision it would create a wildscape and savannah sculpted across a concrete bridge that would emerge from an oak mott, stretch across the Parkway at its lowest elevation, and disappear into the landscape on the other side. The land bridge would be wide enough for whitetail deer and other wildlife already present in the park to transit comfortably from one side of the park to the other.
A major improvement in the latest design is an elevated pedestrian bridge that gracefully emerges from the elevated tree canopy on one side and almost invisibly descends into the margins of the land bridge, only to emerge again skyward on the other side and then back down to the earth.
Steve Stimson said the project as envisioned now would cost about $23 million.
"I believe it will be done. I believe it can be done," Hardberger said. "It might take five years to get it done. It's a fair amount of money, and we will need corporate buy-in and probably public money. There's even a possibility of some federal money. But most of the funds will have to come from private sources.
"The Hardberger Conservancy will lead the mission," he added. "The bridge would belong to the park and the park belongs to the City of San Antonio, but the Conservancy's job is to take on challenges that are not within the City's routine of providing maintenance, daily love and care. When it comes to doing things of lasting nature, the funds are not there, so the Conservancy is there to lead the way in getting it done."
Hardberger has recruited Larry Zinn, his former chief of staff, to join the Conservancy board and coordinate planning with the Stimsons and help lead the community campaign. In a sense, the former mayor has assembled a team that has proven successful in past endeavors.
J. Bruce Bugg Jr., chairman of the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, knows Hardberger well and is intimately familiar with the challenge of leading a major fundraising drive. He has no doubts the former mayor will succeed.
"I was chairman of Phil Hardberger's campaign when he ran for re-election as mayor, and when he left the mayor's office the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts was the first board he joined," Bugg said. "Phil is a visionary and an extraordinary leader and I have every confidence he will be successful in raising the millions of dollars. Whatever goal Phil sets, he achieves."
Bugg now sits on the Hardberger Conservancy board.
"The job Bruce did raising $54 million in private funds for the Tobin Center is a model and inspiration for me," Hardberger said in an interview. "$20-25 million is a lot of money, certainly, but this land bridge and this park will endure for generations, long after we are gone and after our own children and their children are gone. I want to see it in my time, and I know I will not be alone. Everyone in San Antonio will be really proud of it."
Hardberger knows that the City of San Antonio cannot offer any help before the next bond election in 2017, but he hopes City Council will agree to oversee the land bridge project. He believes there will be strong citizen support in a city that has always wanted better parks, especially in the city's outer suburbs.
"The number one question we get from people in the park is, 'When do we get the land bridge?' People love the park and they want the connection," said Betty Sutherland, executive director of the Hardberger Conservancy. "We will raise funds the same way we've always done for Phil's campaigns or other projects. It just seems that on any issue that Phil fights for, the leadership of this city trusts him and comes through with the necessary support."
*Featured/top image: Rendering of Hardberger Park foot land bridge. Courtesy of Stephen Stimson Associates.
This article was originally published on Monday, Oct. 20, 2014.