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Parking, traffic, and funding were three focal points of discussion among community members Tuesday night after project leaders laid out the first draft of the Brackenridge Park Master Plan for almost 75 San Antonians at the San Antonio Botanical Garden.
The transformative, “big idea” amenities and redevelopment projects that the plan calls for could cost around $150 million, according to a very rough and preliminary estimate by James W. Gray, Jr., Rialto Studio principal and landscape architect who is leading a team of architects, engineers, and other consultants behind the City-commissioned plan.
“I know we’re not all the way there yet, that’s why this thing says ‘first draft,’” Gray said to the crowd.
Those big ideas – like replacing a space surface parking lot with a 10-acre Grand Lawn, closing down roads that carve through the park, building an electric tram system to ferry park goers, land/property acquisition, being able to touch or even swim in the San Antonio River again, and redeveloping waterways into healthy, multi-use ecosystems – are backed up with implementation and timeline suggestions in the plan, but it’s fuzzy on the funding details.
“(Brackenridge Park) really needs to focus on the pedestrian,” said Jay Loudon of work5hop, an architect working on the master plan team. “It’s the greatest part of the city that you don’t know about.”
Dive deep into the draft here: Brackenridge Park Master Plan: More People, Fewer Cars.
To convert the park from a car-centric, compartmentalized thoroughfare into a pedestrian and bike-friendly oasis with cultural relevance, parking needs to be moved to the perimeter of the park, Gray said. Only one-third of the city’s largest urban core park is available for free, unscheduled use and too much of that acreage is used for cars instead of people.
“But closing all the roads in the park and telling people to walk wouldn’t work,” he said.
One of the big ideas called for is a rubber tire electric tram that would provide free rides around the park and to adjacent institutions.
Engineers on the team said could work, he said, but the “fatal flaws might be what things cost. … Strategies for paying for them are not really gelled.”
Those gathered in the Garden Center – mostly residents of River Road, which shares almost all its borders with Brackenridge Park, and other nearby neighborhoods – seemed to at least agree that some change is needed. What that change should look like varies.
Most agreed that road closures, like the entrance to the park off of Hildebrand Avenue, would be a welcome relief for neighbors and pedestrians. But the park also acts as a necessary traffic valve for the surrounding area, one attendee said. The park is nestled between a bustling Broadway commercial corridor, the University of the Incarnate Word and U.S. 281, all of which draw their own traffic in and around the park.
Larry DeMartino, a local landscape architect that had worked on the seemingly-forgotten 1979 master plan for the park, suggested that the “glacially-inspired Scottish golf course” be reclaimed by the public park and restored to a more natural state.
That sparked some enthusiastic applause from the audience, but others were shaking their heads in disapproval.
The ethos of the plan, Gray said, was not to take away any existing uses of the park. Most days the trails are used for running and picnic tables host friend and family outings – all accessible by free parking.
But even if the $150-million question of implementation is answered – and park advocates hope it’s answered by the 2017 municipal bond program – attendees came back to the question of how the park will sustain the improvements, programming and maintenance implied by the master plan.
“Typically you do it through a nonprofit,” said Alamo Architect Principal Irby Hightower, another architect on the master plan team. “The most consistent way to get funding is to make sure you aren’t as dependent on (the City).”
But San Antonio “doesn’t quite have the cash flow or the donor society” that Dallas, Houston, or Austin has.
(Read More: Leading with Landscape: Redefining ‘Houstonization’)
“We have to be a little bit more inventive,” Hightower said, nodding to the board members and staff of the Brackenridge Park Conservancy that sat at the front of the audience.
“Anything from a small increase in taxes for (nearby) businesses that depend on the park, increased ticket prices (at the Zoo or golf course, for instance), the private property around the park could be turned into park-appropriate kinds of development owned by the Conservancy,” he said. “There will always public money (needed for the park) … but incremental money from a lot of sources will be key.”
The park itself will remain free indefinitely, but as a neighbor pointed out, perhaps its time to start charging for special uses like easter celebrations that draw thousands of families – and piles of trash – to the park. Hightower said that’s something the City could consider in the future, but the key would be to gradually introduce changes to users.
“But the people I see in the park everyday are not the people I see in this meeting,” said resident Myfe Moore, noting the difference in demographics. Lower income families that travel from all over the city are some of the main users of the park. The room on Wednesday was filled with residents that drove – or walked – less than five minutes (depending on Broadway traffic).
“Maybe we ought to do a couple more of these (public meetings) and maybe they ought to be somewhere else,” Gray said. “In my mind there is another piece of work (the final draft) that needs to be circulated in some way before it gets to City Council because the last thing we want to do is vet public grievances at City Council.”
Gray would rather work with the community on any concerns before getting to that point.
But the plan is on a tight timeline to align itself with City funding. The goal is to have the final version available so that Council members can consider approving and partially funding elements of the plan while budget sessions take place in August, said Homer Garcia, acting assistant director of San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department, after the meeting.
“The project team has an extensive list of stakeholders that they’ve reached out to and so through that process we should have captured those everyday park users,” Garcia said. Another public meeting of this scale with proper notice is unlikely.
More than two dozen smaller, more focused stakeholder meetings have taken place since the plan’s first public meeting took place in July 2015. About one year will have passed by the time a final draft of the plan is reviewed by City Council in June – before it takes its month-long break in July.
Top image: Rialto Studio Principal Jim Gray, a landscape architect, gives a presentation to community members at the San Antonio Botantical Garden Center. Photo by Scott Ball.