This article has been updated.

More than a dozen young Monterrey oak trees were mysteriously cut down last week on a 9-acre tract of State-owned land off Broadway Street under Interstate 35 and U.S. Highway 281.

Various lines, names, and initials – such as “David,” “Fred V.,” and “REBO” – were marked with bright orange spray paint in their place. Bollards that line the street were each marked with a large “S.”

A Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) official said the agency was not responsible for the tree-cutting or spray paint. GreyStreet Partners, which owns several acres of property in the area and has plans to build a hotel nearby, is leasing the land from TxDOT to build a parking lot there. A company spokesman said they, too, were unaware why some of the trees were cut down – or by whom.

“All those trees are dead. … It makes me sick to my stomach,” said Larry Clark, founder of Bender Wells Clark Design. Clark’s landscape architecture firm had been hired to work on now-scrapped 2016 plans for a pocket park and parking lot the City wanted to build there.

Clark noticed the missing trees on Wednesday morning, he said, though it’s possible they were gone before that. Several trees still remain on the property.

The trees and other minor landscaping improvements for the underpass were funded through a $1 million TxDOT beautification grant, said Laura Lopez, a TxDOT spokeswoman.

The plan for a City-operated parking lot and greenspace fell through last year, Lopez said, but the City had been responsible for maintenance of the land until its lease expired in December.

A March 2019 Google Maps image shows Monterrey oak trees before they were felled off Broadway under Interstate 35 and U.S. Highway 281. Credit: Courtesy / Google Maps

“The City [and the State] did not have anything to do with the cutting of the trees,” Lopez said. Asked if TxDOT is aware who cut them down, she said, “I do not have that information.”

John Jacks, director of the City’s Center City Development and Operations (CCDO) Department, confirmed Monday that the City did not authorize tree cutting on the property.

Peter French, development director for GrayStreet Partners, also doesn’t know who cut down the trees.

“I also called TxDOT this week to inquire whether they did the cutting,” French said via text. “We were planning to relocate them in the medians between parking lanes. Once construction of our proposed parking lot starts (sometime after Fiesta) we will now plant new trees instead.”

The City’s 2016 plan to build parking and greenspace near the Pearl and developing Broadway fell through because it couldn’t afford to pay the market rate lease for the land required by TxDOT while keeping parking fees low, said Suzanne Scott, general manager for the San Antonio River Authority (SARA). With major street improvements slated for Broadway, the area is expected to attract more businesses and traffic.

“It ended up that parking was going to be more expensive so it wasn’t going to meet [the City’s] desired goal,” Scott said.

Affordability was a concern, Jacks said, as was the ability to produce enough revenue to keep the parking lot open to the public. A public lot may not be used as much as a private lot serving a specific population.

The project was going to be funded with a portion of the TxDOT beautification grant, $1 million from the Midtown and Inner City tax increment reinvestment zones, and up to $100,000 in Watershed Wise rebates from SARA for implementation of low-impact development features that reduce rainwater runoff and improve water quality.

That TIRZ money was allocated toward the project – but very little if any of it was spent, said Scott, who sits on the Midtown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) board. “We didn’t want to pursue it too aggressively until we had the agreement with TxDOT.”

Veronica Garcia, assistant director of CCDO, confirmed that no TIRZ money was used on the project.

GrayStreet also has been in talks with officials about using the rebate program and TIRZ funding, she said, though new designs and contracts would have to be reviewed and approved.

So who cut down the trees? That part remains a mystery.

For decades local families and companies have staked out locations along that stretch of Broadway to set up risers and chairs for annual Fiesta parades in April. That, coupled with the unofficial-looking spray paint, could lead a person to think a group of individuals – anxious about claiming their spots – might be responsible for the tree-cutting.

The City’s 2016 plan included a strategy to maintain viewing spots along Broadway, Scott said, “so people could still have their Fiesta [parade] locations that they’ve had for generations.”

“Those trees have been there for a few years now … they weren’t in the way of anyone [during Fiesta parades],” Jacks said, unless maybe someone wanted a bigger footprint.

Part of the City’s plan for a parking lot was to “get to a more orderly, organized process,” for how those spots are utilized, Jacks said. Reserving or selling spots to watch the parade on the State-owned land is “not [currently] a permitted activity.”

Lopez said TxDOT is not taking any action regarding the missing trees on its land. It was unclear whether any police reports had been filed alleging theft or vandalism. The Rivard Report has a pending request for that information.

Clark said he’s hopeful that some greenspace is maintained on the property – which is seen as a kind of “gateway” into downtown from the Pearl and upper Broadway Street.

“If it’s just another crappy parking lot, what kind of a gateway is that?” Clark said.

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@rivardreport.com