Phil Hardberger Park is no longer the best kept secret in town. Opened in 2010 in the heavily trafficked near-northwest part of San Antonio where green space is limited mostly to well-tended lawns, the former dairy farm of Max and Minnie Voelcker is now busy seven days a week.
This is a part of the city where pedestrians and cyclists venture on to primary streets and avenues at their own risk or not at all, so a park where families and children and their pets can recreate and safely enjoy the outdoors in an urban setting has been enthusiastically embraced. Hardberger Park's parking lot, shaded by dense tree canopy, is filled with SUVs, trucks, and cars, even on weekday mornings.
Venture on to the crushed granite trails that wind through the oak trees, persimmon and underbrush, and the city goes quiet, as if the urban surroundings were not there. The trees act as a sound barrier, and suddenly there is the sound of birdsong. People of all ages materialize out of nowhere: walkers, joggers, cyclists, parents pushing strollers, dog walkers, others pausing to shoot photographs.
Hardberger Park is a natural park, not the typical urban park featuring ball fields, a zoo, and other improvements. There are, however, playgrounds for children and dog parks for pets.
Voters approved a 2007 bond initiative to acquire the 311-acre Voelcker property and prevent its development. Seven years later it has become the centerpiece attraction shared by Districts 8 and 9, bounded by NW Military Drive on the west and Blanco Road to the east, Huebner Road to the north and nearby Lockhill-Selma Road to the south.
There is only one problem: Hardberger Park is actually two parks, not one. There is Hardberger Park East and Hardberger Park West. The still-under construction Wurzbach Parkway severs Hardberger Park nearly in half, making passage on foot from East to West impossible. The only option, inevitably, is to get in a vehicle and drive from one side of the park to the other.
Hardberger Park East
Hardberger Park East, entered from Blanco Road, offers two miles of trails, including The Geology Trail and the Water Loop. The trail heads are just beyond the Salado Creek Building and the adjacent Outdoor Classroom, home to a small butterfly garden in full bloom, fenced against marauding white-tail deer.
"I hope you know your wife, Monika, was the inspiration for the butterfly garden," Hardberger told me on a recent field trip to the park. "She offered a monarch butterfly demonstration for the public out here when we first opened the park, and that was when she gave us the idea."
Migrating monarchs en route from their summer residence in Canada and the northern United States to their small mountain winter retreat in Michoacan, Mexico, should pass through San Antonio and the Texas Hill County in October. You can follow the migration and read more on Monika Maeckle's Texas Butterfly Ranch blog.
The 5.1-mile Salado Creek Greenway North Trail, which begins at Huebner Road, makes its way through the park along Voelcker Lane to the Walker Ranch Historical Landmark Park along the Howard W. Peak Greenway, San Antonio's extraordinary and still-growing creek and trail system also named for a former mayor with a passion for the environment. The Voelcker Lane Trailhead, where we parked, is near the half-way point and has more than 70 parking spaces.
The Heritage Homestead lies on several acres within Hardberger Park East. Historic conservation and restoration of the Voelcker's farmstead, the last working dairy farm in a district once known as Buttermilk Hill, is partially complete. The original 1800s Texas Stone House, which was an operating farm at the time of the 1836 Battle of the Alamo, is nearly complete and will serve as the offices of the Hardberger Park Conservancy. The adjacent barn-red dairy farm and the working windmill are fully restored. The 1930s farmhouse, occupied by the Voelckers until Max's death in 1980 and Minnie's death in 2000, will be the final restoration project.
Hardberger Park West
Hardberger Park West is entered from NW Military Drive. It includes the .84-mile Oak Loop Trail and the 1.8-mile Savannah Loop Trail, where 13 acres of land once choked with cedar has been restored to natural grasslands. Hardberger Park West also includes the Urban Ecology Center, designed by Lake/Flato and available for meetings, events and used for park activities.
There are dog parks in both park segments where owners can unleash their dogs and let them run free. There are even small and large dog parks so people with smaller pets can let them loose without fear of the bigger animals. Mutt Mitt dispensers and trash receptacles are everywhere and the trails are mostly spotless. Either people are policing themselves and their pets, or the park's small staff is getting the job done.
A Land Bridge
The divided park remains a major impediment that former Mayor Hardberger is not content to let stand. As someone who enjoyed considerable success transforming San Antonio during his four-year term as mayor, Hardberger at age 80 is still at work on what could be his last major effort to further that transformation.
There is some irony to the fact that the Hardberger Park Master Plan by Stephen Stimson Associates in Cambridge, Mass. and D.I.R.T. Studio of Charlottesville, Va.. has garnered national recognition, yet locally, the funds are insufficient to complete the plan or join the two halves of the park.
We walked the trails one recent morning with Hardberger, Gail Gallegos, the park's knowledgeable nature preserve officer, and Larry Zinn, Hardberger's onetime chief of staff at City Hall and now a Hardberger Conservancy board member. As we explored the park, Hardberger discussed his plan to lead a major fundraising effort to connect Hardberger Park East and West.
"The solution is a land bridge," Hardberger said. "There aren't any that we know of in the United States, but they've worked well in Europe and elsewhere in the world, and our architects are at work on just such a solution here. All we need is the money, and San Antonio will have a natural attraction unlike anything else found in this country.
"People have always come to San Antonio to visit the Alamo and the Missions, to enjoy the River Walk and now enjoy the San Antonio River," Hardberger continued, "but if we can raise the funds and get this land bridge built, we will attract people from far and wide who will be drawn to a part of our city that has never attracted visitors."
An early reader of this story, Brenda Plotkin, drew our attention to an existing wildlife/human land bridge built in Florida in 2000 that claims to be the first such structure in the United States. The Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway Land Bridge connects the east and west sections of the 110-mile long Cross Florida Greenway, that is bisected by I-75, just south of Ocala in the Sunshine State. The project was completed for $3.1 million, substantially less than what Hardberger and others have been told such a bridge would cost here.
The land bridge was designed by Daniel, Mann, Johnson, and Mendenhall, a Los Angeles-based architecture and engineering firm. Readers wishing to learn more about the Florida land bridge can click here to read an article in Florida Hiker magazine that gives a good sense of the bridge experience.
The land bridge is 52.5' wide, 200' feet long, with an additional 400' of ramp on each side. The land bridge in Hardberger Park, as envisioned, would be wider, and probably would be of similar length. Zinn said a preliminary cost estimate and better understanding of the design and dimensions could be available by next week.
Zinn is serving as a liaison on the preliminary design and cost of the land bridge with its architects, Stephen Stimson Associates. What's evident from an early version of the concept is that the land bridge would reach across Wurzbach Parkway in mid-park and serve as a steel and concrete platform for an elevated savannah, perhaps 100 yards wide, that would invite free passage of wildlife and humans and connect Hardberger Park East and West.
In the alternative, tunnels or small foot bridges could be constructed to move people from one side to the other, but neither would address the issue of protecting wildlife in the park. A proper land bridge could cost more than the $20 million price tag noted on the Hardberger Park website. Can Hardberger and those working on his behalf at the Conservancy raise that kind of money?
"I've come to learn there is a difference between being mayor and being ex-mayor," Hardberger quipped as we stood in place and imagined the land bridge reaching across the highway. Some of the country's most famous parks, including Central Park in New York and Millennial Park in Chicago, are home to major streets and thruways.
"Still, one can imagine a combination of private philanthropy as well as money from the next city bond election," Hardberger said. "This isn't about me. This is about the fastest-growing area of our city getting the first-class park it needs and deserves. This is where future generations of families will come to learn about, appreciate, and enjoy nature right in the middle of San Antonio. If we can build the land bridge we will be able to honestly say we've built a world-class park."
Hardberger and his wife, Linda, who has built her own considerable record of public service in San Antonio over the years, will kickstart the land bridge effort with Hardberger's 80th birthday party in the park next Monday. Oct. 6, at 6:30 p.m. "Around the World in 80 Years" will be staged inside the Hardberger Ecology Center. Click on the link to purchase a table or individual tickets, with the funds benefitting the Conservancy.
"No suits, no ties, no high heels," Hardberger said. "Come dressed for a visit to the park."
*Featured image: The land bridge envisioned by Phil Hardberger to connect Hardberger Park East and Hardberger Park West. All photos and images courtesy of Gail Gallegos, nature preserve officer of Phil Hardberger Park.
This story was originally published on Monday, Sept. 29.