Bekah S. McNeel

Who would have thought that someday the city and nature would meet on San Antonio’s Northwest side? But it’s there, in an undeveloped oasis surrounded by suburban development, that a former mayor’s dream is reaching fruition.

“This truly is the park the people built,” said Xavier Urrutia, director of San Antonio Parks and Recreation (SAPAR) as he addressed those gathered for the grand opening of the Urban Ecology Center at Phil Hardberger Park on Saturday.

Testifying to this claim were the hundreds who showed up for the opening, not only the architects, donors, and politicians, but neighbors, families, and park-lovers from all over the city.

Visitors and guides mingle on the steps of Phil Hardberger Park's Urban Ecology Center. Photo Courtesy of Lake/Flato Architects.
Visitors and guides mingle on the steps of Phil Hardberger Park’s Urban Ecology Center. Photo Courtesy of Lewis McNeel, Lake/Flato Architects.

Welcoming the crowds, members of the Alamo Area chapter of the Texas Master Naturalists (AAMN) lined the pathways, demonstrating their educational breadth. The AAMN will make its new home at the Urban Ecology Center, a fitting environment for some of San Antonio’s most nature-savvy residents formerly operating out of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension on Cherry Ridge.

Urban Ecology Center's inviting front porch. Photo courtesy of Lewis McNeel, Lake/Flato Architects.
Urban Ecology Center’s inviting front porch. Photo courtesy of Lewis McNeel, Lake/Flato Architects.

“It’s so wonderful that this is our new home!” said Liz Robbins, AAMN President.

“It’s bringing the outside in,” said AAMN member Sharon Kilmer.

These sentiments speak straight to the heart of the Urban Ecology Center, and the Phil Hardberger Park Conservancy.

The building, designed by Lake|Flato Architects and built by Guido Brothers Construction, is on track for LEED Gold certification. Designed to be a teaching tool for ultra-sustainable development and environmental stewardship, the building is in constant conversation with the land around it. From head to toe the building is made of locally sourced, sustainable material, finished in ways to be as low-maintenance as possible, minimizing both operational cost and environmental effects. The architects designated mature trees for preservation, and designed the building around that.

Pat Schneider of City of San Antonio's Capital Improvements Management Services; Ryan Jones, Lake | Flato Project Manager; and Sandy Jenkins SAPAR Project Manager.
Pat Schneider of City of San Antonio’s Capital Improvements Management Services; Ryan Jones, Lake | Flato Project Manager; and Sandy Jenkins SAPAR Project Manager.

“It was challenging for the contractors, because they had to build right up against the trees, whereas usually they like to have some more cleared area to work,’ said Lewis McNeel, one of the architects who worked on the project.

Full disclosure: Lewis McNeel is my husband.

The new landscaping is entirely native – not just Texas native, but specifically native to North San Antonio soil. It’s irrigated by an extensive rainwater collection system, including a bio-swale running parallel to the driveway. The bio-swale collects the runoff and channels it into a grass-covered detention basin for future use. Along with the parking lot runoff, 100% of the air-conditioning condensate will be collected for the same purpose.

The bio-swale at Hardberger Park.
The bio-swale at Hardberger Park.

One of the first things visitors will see as they pass through the pivoting wood-clad entry gate will be the solar electricity meter, demonstrating the effectiveness of the solar panels for all to see.  Enough electricity is generated through the photovoltaic solar panels to power three average houses.

The Gathering Hall looks out over restored savanna grassland, echoing back to what the region looked like as described by its earliest settlers. Before the good intentions of land management professionals stopped allowing occasional prairie fires to keep the cedar population in check. Paying homage to the landscape of the early pioneers, artist Anne Wallace was commissioned to install large works that resemble shimmering wagon wheels.

“It’s fun when you work so long on a building, to see it full of people,” said Ted Flato, principal at Lake|Flato Architects. He praised the work of his team, Ryan Jones and Lewis McNeel, and then made a nod to the scores of SAPAR and Master Naturalists buzzing around.

“The next chapter is the programming,” Flato said.

Pivoting gate and rainwater catchment at Hardberger Park.
Pivoting gate and rainwater catchment at Hardberger Park.

SAPAR employees are thrilled with their new asset. The $6.3 million project has added 18,600 sq. ft. to SAPAR’s facilities arsenal. While the spaces will be available for private events and meetings, the emphasis is predominately on education. Air-conditioned education space is at a premium for summer programming, and the Urban Ecology Center will allow for 40-50 seats in the small classroom and 150 in the Gathering Hall.

All that, and the building happens to be a looker, by any standard.

“This is by far the most beautiful building (SAPAR) has,” said Gail Gallegos, the Nature Preserve Officer for Hardberger Park.

Alamo Area Master Naturalists Amy Lane (l) and Emily Weiner (r) with Gail Gallegos.
Alamo Area Master Naturalists Amy Lane (left) and Emily Weiner (right) with Gail Gallegos.

As he entered the building, former Mayor Phil Hardberger himself was prepared to enjoy the building with fresh eyes.

“I haven’t really seen it all cleaned up yet,” Hardberger said as he set out to explore.

Even those most intimately involved in the project expressed surprise at the beauty of the building now that construction debris and equipment has been cleared. Another surprise was just how many people flooded the porches, patios, and picnic grove – more than 500 visitors of all ages explored the grounds on Saturday.

“It is an exciting gathering place. A way for people to get back to nature,” said Sandy Jenkins, SAPAR Parks Project Manager.

Bob Harris of Lake|Flato compares it to opening day at Government Canyon State Natural Area in 2006, which was a small event with a handful of the true believers and enthusiasts.

“It shows you how far we’ve come as a city,” Harris said, “How we’ve evolved.”

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, also a former San Antonio mayor, echoed that observation from the podium during the official dedication of the Urban Ecology Center.

“This city has come a long way,” said Wolff.

No one knows this better than Hardberger Park Conservancy board member and former Mayor Howard Peak, one of the longtime voices of environmental preservation in the city.

Peak’s involvement in the environmental movement started with grassroots efforts that his elected offices allowed him to take city and region-wide. He sees the success of the Hardberger Park as driven “in part by the growth of the citizenry who caught on.”

Man of the hour, Phil Hardberger
Man of the hour, former San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger.

The park, which extends into Districts 8 and 9, is a point of pride for City Council members Ron Nirenberg and Elisa Chan, both of whom took their turns at the podium.

“The vision for Hardberger Park called us like a beacon,” said Nirenberg of his own family’s relocation to the area.

“This park is not just in District 8 or 9. It’s a regional park,” said Chan.

Chan then reminded those in attendance that there is still work to be done. The park is only 60% completed, and more funding will be needed to realize its potential in a city with too little public park space.

Hardberger echoed this reminder later in his address. After complementing the private citizens and the City of San Antonio on their bold and generous support, he reminded all gathered that there was much left to do, including the issue of a connecting the east and west halves of the park, currently separated by Wurzbach Parkway.

He emphasized the driving force that has drawn private and public investment in the park.

“Our natural history is what we are…This building and the entire park is in dedication to that education, so that we don’t forget where we came from,” Hardberger said.

Inside the Gathering Hall at Phil Hardberger Park's Urban Ecology Center. Photo courtesy of Lewis McNeel, Lake/Flato Architects.
Inside the Gathering Hall on opening day at Phil Hardberger Park’s Urban Ecology Center. Photo courtesy of Lewis McNeel, Lake/Flato Architects.

Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy and frequent contributor to the Rivard Report. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.