School board meetings only draw crowds when a topic of significant public interest arises, and so it was Monday evening when 21 people spoke in favor of a proposal that would allow two acres of San Antonio Independent School District property near the San Antonio Zoo and Brackenridge Park to be developed as a public parking garage that the zoo, park and district could share.
The proposal is part of a draft Brackenridge Park master plan funded by the City of San Antonio that will be brought before City Council for approval in June.
Zoo officials already believed they had reached a tentative deal with district officials to move forward with the garage project and were in early stages of design that included a memorandum of understanding given to the district.
Sources say the University of Incarnate Word learned of the master plan recommendation and began talks to see if they could purchase the two acres, appraised at $2 million, to build a private university parking garage topped by a two-story student dormitory. UIW also is exploring the possible purchase of 2.65 acres of park property close to the former Donkey Barn near the Hildebrand Avenue entrance to the park.
The zoo had planned to use that land, which prevented UIW from acquiring it in 2010, but the zoo no longer is pursuing expansion there, rekindling hope among university officials that it can secure the property to expand its campus across Hildebrand Avenue.
One supporter of the UIW expansion told the Rivard Report that a tunnel could be constructed under Hildebrand to allow students to walk between the parking garage and the main campus. He acknowledged that would not alleviate the crush of student vehicle traffic that would have to use the north side entrance to the park.
All of this led to hours of public comment and a lengthy closed session. Trustees were not expected to take any action on the matter Monday, and while district officials contemplate the best use of the property in the larger context of a proposed effort to raise $30 million for a new Central Office, a proposal only in the discussion stage, the matter is likely to become an issue at City Hall, too.
Zoo and Brackenridge Park Conservancy officials and supporters hope Mayor Ivy Taylor and City Council will reinforce their support of the master plan process, funded by a $227,500 allocation last year.
The behind-the-scenes negotiating and maneuvering was first reported on the Rivard Report on Sunday.
(Read more: Brackenridge Park: The Public Interest vs. UIW Expansion.)
A UIW official confirmed this weekend that the university was interested in both properties, but denied any offers to purchase land were imminent.
While nothing of consequence was decided regarding district holdings, the 21 people signed up to speak during the Citizens' Presentation period sent a clear message that people are passionate about preserving Brackenridge Park and giving the public greater access to its green space and various cultural and recreational amenities
In this first meeting of 2016, Board President Patti Radle anticipated an active year as SAISD pursues bold changes under the leadership of Superintendent Pedro Martinez.
"I hope we're all ready for a vigorous year together," Radle said.
The vigor began straight away with discussion of the proposed land use.
"We know that there's been angst in the community about the land on Tuleta," Radle said.
She voiced concern that misunderstandings and assumptions had been made, and asked Martinez to clarify the process of facility and land acquisitions.
"We take the management of resources on behalf of taxpayers, schools, and children very seriously," Martinez said.
If SAISD were to sell, Martinez said, the district would do so through a public process. He reaffirmed the district's commitment to transparency and openness.
"People make a lot of plans about our properties, and they don't really talk to us about it," said Martinez, adding that he would not agree to any approach that was not transparent.
The meeting then opened to citizen comment.
"We will hear you, we will be good listeners, but we will not enter into discussion," Radle said, explaining the procedure.
Chris Bathie, president of the San Antonio Zoological Society Board of Directors, was the first to speak. Bathie referenced the memorandum of understanding between SAISD and the Zoo for a shared parking garage.
"We believe we have a common mutual goal," said Bathie.
Bathie yielded the rest of his time to former San Antonio Mayor Lila Cockrell. Many other representatives from the cultural institutions surrounding Brackenridge Park would follow suit, making simple statements and yielding their remaining time to Cockrell.
Cockrell, 93, used that time to reiterate the need for public parking. Because the parking garage would not infringe on park land, it is "uniquely wonderful" to address a shared parking deficit, she said. It probably was not necessary for the community icon to remind listeners, but Cockrell did recall her decades-long association and work with SAISD, Brackenridge Park, and the City of San Antonio.
"We just wanted you to know of the community support that is there," said Cockrell.
San Antonio Zoo Executive Director and CEO Tim Morrow reiterated the value of the parking garage to both SAISD and the Zoo, as well as the work that had gone into planning for it.
The Brackenridge Park Conservancy opposes private development on the parcel, Executive Director Lynn Bobbitt told board members. She spoke in support of the master plan and the opportunity to develop the park in a comprehensive way, rather than taking a piecemeal approach.
"Today there is a window of opportunity where the constituencies are all coming together," Bobbitt said.
Much of the support was to keep the parking resource public, rather than allowing it to go to private interests.
"What we're really talking about is access," said San Antonio Parks Foundation President and CEO Noah Almanza.
Parking is desperately needed in the area, according to the many neighbor representatives who spoke.
"I can speak to the fact that parking is at a critical mass," said Caryn Hasslocher of the Japanese Tea Garden.
Marise McDermott, president and CEO of the Witte Museum, and DoSeum CEO Vanessa Lacoss Hurd, reiterated the importance of preserving the park's master plan. Both explained that Brackenridge Park is key to programming at their museums as the Broadway Cultural Corridor continues to develop and attract more visitors and their vehicles.
"As we grow, there are some growing pains. I believe that this parking structure is going to be part of that solution," Hurd said.
Janet Dietel, president of the San Antonio Conservation Society, tied the current discussion to the dispute over the donkey barn, and opposed UIW's possible purchase of the property, which she said is not part of the draft master plan.
Mimi Quintanilla, representing the River Road Neighborhood Association, said quiet residential streets are overrun with vehicles during football games and other district events at nearby Alamo Stadium, and from the overflow traffic during zoo and park events. She expressed strong opposition to any district decision that would result in a UIW-owned parking garage in or near the park.
The board adjourned to executive session. District 1 trustee Steve Lecholop recused himself. One of his law partners sits on the board of UIW, and Lecholop wanted to avoid the appearance of conflict as trustees met behind closed doors. When the board returned to open session, trustees agreed to take no action on the items discussed in closed session.
All SAISD board members were present for meeting, which was live streamed.
*Top image: SAISD board members ask questions following a presentation. Photo by Scott Ball.