Hours before San Antonio's largest inner city district school board met Monday evening to consider disposition of a 2.43 acre property sought by the San Antonio Zoo for a public parking garage next to Brackenridge Park, a senior University of the Incarnate Word executive emailed a letter to school board trustees seeking to wrest control of the property so UIW could construct its own private garage and 368-bed student dormitory there.
San Antonio Independent School District Superintendent Pedro Martinez and Kamal ElHabr, the district's associate superintendent for facilities, were left in the dark about the proposal, even though the letter sent by email to trustees was addressed to ElHabr and supposedly copied to Martinez. The letter was dated Jan. 7, four days before the board meeting.
The undisclosed UIW offer was structured in the form of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) and the letter's heading and date left trustees with the misimpression that senior district administrators had been presented the MOU days earlier. As of Wednesday afternoon, the letter from UIW had not arrived at SAISD administration offices.
Click here to download the letter.
San Antonio Zoo and Brackenridge Park Conservancy leaders also were unaware of the letter, but they knew UIW was working behind the scenes to gain control of the property before the district and Zoo finalized a pending agreement. UIW officials have tried without success for years to alleviate traffic congestion on its campus by expanding across Hildebrand Avenue on to land in or near the park.
The growing concern about UIW's actions among a number of sources led to a Rivard Report story published Sunday that publicly disclosed the university's actions for the first time. See: "Brackenridge Park: The Public Interest vs. UIW Expansion."
In the letter, UIW's Vice President for Business & Finance Douglas Endsley proposes a 99-year lease that would give UIW control of the 2.43-acre parking lot across from the San Antonio Zoo near Brackenridge Park where it intended to build a 12-story structure: the lower six floors for parking and the top six floors for a student dormitory for a total of 646 parking spaces and 368 beds. The MOU stated that 221 of the garage spaces would be reserved for public use.
No dollar amounts are mentioned in the UIW letter, but it does offer an adjustable monthly lease payment to the district, which presumably would be based on revenues UIW earns from leasing parking spaces to the public.
SAISD Superintendent Martinez did not learn of the UIW offer until a trustee shared the letter with him, according to Leslie Price, the district spokesperson, who said Wednesday that ElHabr still has not received a copy of the letter addressed to him. The letter also states that copies were sent to Martinez and to David Star at Clermont LLC at 7334 Blanco Rd.
"Kamal never received any letter," Price said Wednesday afternoon. "Perhaps it got mailed, but Kamal never got it. Neither did the superintendent. No one did until it was sent to the trustees. I don't know why the letter was addressed to Kamal, or why the superintendent did not get it from UIW, either. "
A copy of the letter, obtained Wednesday by the Rivard Report, underscores the secretive nature in which UIW officials have worked to gain control of the property that a City-funded draft master plan for Brackenridge Park recommends be used to develop a public parking garage.
Zoo officials, working with the Brackenridge Park Conservancy and others, already had submitted their own MOU to district administrators on Dec. 18 that Superintendent Martinez presented to trustees in executive session Monday evening.
The 11th hour MOU submitted by UIW was not considered in that closed-door session, according to district officials, but in the wake of the Rivard Report story published Sunday, a who's who in San Antonio's zoo and park leadership, including former Mayor Lila Cockrell, showed up at the school board meeting to speak in defense of the master plan process and against any outcome that would allow UIW to expand across Hildebrand Avenue on to land in or near the park.
The Zoo's MOU calls for a 600-space parking garage that officials hope will be funded in the 2017 Bond and then would be available to the Zoo, Brackenridge Park and other cultural and recreational entities in and around the park. Such a facility also would be available to SAISD for use during football games and other events at nearby Alamo Stadium that now result in unwanted traffic congestion in area neighborhoods and the park.
Before the school board meeting, UIW President Lou Agnese Jr. spoke to an Express-News reporter and "strongly denied reports that the university had offered to purchase the land," according to the newspaper story. Interestingly, the Rivard Report published the only media account before the school board meeting of UIW's backroom maneuvering to gain control of the parcel and that story never stated that UIW offered to buy the land. The Express-News did not cite the source of the report Agnese was denying, or acknowledge any media coverage of the university's actions before the school board meeting.
“How we got dragged into this, I don’t know,” Agnese told the Express-News in an interview before the meeting. “We don’t need that property whatsoever.”
His statement disavowing university interest in the property came only a few hours after the letter signed by Endsley was sent to trustees at 2:37 p.m. The school board meeting started at 6 p.m. Agnese did not respond to a Rivard Report request for an interview Wednesday to reconcile his statement with the letter. Endsley also did not make himself available for comment.
The UIW letter seeks the land parcel at no cost to the university in return for UIW reserving 221 parking spaces for district use. Endsley says Clermont LLC will serve as developer of the property, and he states that "the financing of the development will be accomplished by UIW in conjunction with the City of San Antonio."
How the City could act as a financial partner for a private Catholic university in acquiring property at the same time it is overseeing the $227,500 Brackenridge Park Master Plan, which identifies the same property for a public parking garage, is unclear.
City officials were unaware of UIW's MOU to the district until questioned by the Rivard Report late Wednesday about Endsley's reference to the City participating in the financing of the deal. City officials were expected to comment Thursday after reviewing the letter and any conversations City staff has had with UIW officials on the proposal.
SAISD spokesperson Price said that on Dec. 18, the same day that Zoo CEO Tim Morrow sent his MOU to the district, Martinez and ElHabr had a meeting at district headquarters with Trish DeBerry, the principal of the DeBerry Group public relations firm, and an attorney whose name Price did not know. DeBerry clarified that the other individual was Tom Marks, a colleague in her office. The purpose of the meeting, Martinez and ElHabr learned only after sitting down, was so DeBerry and her colleague could pitch them on the merits of the UIW deal.
"They were surprised that was the nature of the meeting, they weren't expecting it," Price said.
*Top image: The land (parking lot) between the Alamo Stadium (right) and San Antonio Pets Alive (left) owned by SAISD on Tuleta Drive across from the San Antonio Zoo. Image courtesy of the San Antonio Zoo.