Whether it is Easter camping or just an afternoon picnic, San Antonians have a long history with Brackenridge Park.
The centrally located green space offers miles of nature trails, the Sunken Garden Theater, the Japanese Tea Garden, the Witte Museum, and the San Antonio Zoo.
But one area, in particular, is the center of a debate between San Antonio’s Parks and Recreation Department and a group of local advocates.
While centuries of history surround the entire 349-acre park, the highlighted portions (phases one and two) in the rendering above are the focus of this story.
The question at hand is: Can the city preserve the park’s rich history while protecting its fragile nature?
“The evolution of the park mirrors the evolution of the city itself. Other parks in other cities take a vacant lot somewhere outside... you put a park there and that’s pretty much it. Here, the past, it’s always present and it can be recovered again as it will be on this new restoration,” says historian Lewis Fisher.
The Conservancy says Brackenridge Park has been “an oasis for humans for over 12,000 years, spanning back to indigenous people who found water, food, and shelter here...”
For the purpose of this story, we begin in the late 1800s.
Oldest industrial building in Bexar County
Nestled in a thicket of large mature trees on a bend of the San Antonio river sits quietly an abandoned structure.
Pumphouse No. 1 is the oldest industrial building in Bexar County and still stands today.
Erected in 1878, the pumphouse is what Mr. Fisher refers to as one of the most visually interesting areas in the park.
The pumphouse was built when the acequia (irrigation) system became outdated.
As more development happened in the region, the acequias, which are gravity fed, could not take water uphill... but the city was growing uphill.
Turbines in the pumphouse forced thousands of gallons of water miles uphill to what is now the San Antonio Botanical Gardens.
From there, the water would flow downhill and into the growing city.
During that time, the pumphouse had arches that the water would flow under.
Over the years, those arches were filled in and a road was built over the now-empty canal, known as the “raceway.”
Today, the raceway is dry and sits full of concrete and debris.
The city’s renovation plans aim to restore the raceway and the pumphouse and allow water to flow naturally through the system once again.
Giant arches are also covered by stone and pavement.
With the 2017 bond project renovations, the magnificent arches would once again see light.
Spanish dam built in 1776
The history continues further north in the park, near the Hildebrand entrance.
In 1776, the Spanish dam was built in what is known as the upper labor to divert water from the San Antonio River.
The area was later turned into a lily pond before it began to crack and dry up.
Today, the dam is not visible, instead, buried under feet of dirt to preserve it.
The renovation plans will restore part of the dam.
Surrounding all of these inanimate historic structures... are historic living structures.
The hundreds of giant, decades-old trees keep families shaded during hot summer activities at the park and provide a habitat for the numerous bird species that call Brackenridge home.
Seventy-seven of these trees are slated to be cut down under the latest renovation plans.
“You’re removing how many trees from a park? We need those trees,” said Garlock.
“I really thought that that was something that would never come to fruition,” said Nyiri.
The City of San Antonio says... there simply is not.
“We get the pain that this is causing. We wish there was another way,” says Ross Hosea with the Parks and Recreation Urban Forestry and Trails Division.
Hosea is also a certified arborist.
“It’s a tough decision and it’s one that we don’t take lightly,” he said.
The Plans: Previously and Now
The Parks and Recreation Department secured the first major round of funding ($7.75M) to renovate Brackenridge park through the 2017 bond project.
To date, $9.15M has been allocated to the project.
The first round of plans was released to the public during a public meeting in March 2022.
Note: You can find recordings and slideshows from previous public meetings here.
More than 100 trees were slated to be chopped down in the original plans.
Ten of them were heritage trees, meaning larger than 24 inches in diameter.
The rest were considered dead or invasive.
Sample renderings show how the root systems of trees intervene with the historic Lambert Beach walls. The two are competing for the same exact spot.
“If nothing is done, the tree is always going to win,” says Jamaal Moreno, a landscape architect with the City of San Antonio Public Works Department.
The walls have since been temporarily shored up and the area is not accessible to the public.
“In order to rehabilitate those walls, from a construction method perspective, it is necessary to remove some trees,” says Homer Garcia, City of San Antonio Parks and Recreation Director.
Following the first public meeting, pushback from the community began.
“There was a call to action that we look at and reevaluate the proposed plan for tree removals,” says Garcia.
In February 2022, protests were held in the park to halt the Historic Design and Review Commission’s vote.
The public feedback led city officials back to the drawing board several times.
The Parks and Recreation Department held its final public meeting for Phase One of the project on August 31, 2022.
The plans presented during that meeting reveal a detailed map of the existing tree canopy and a comparison to what the area would look like post renovations.
“We’ve been able to provide an update, a revised plan that would decrease the number of trees removed, specifically in the Phase One area and also Phase Two,” says Garcia.
In total, 267 trees are tagged to be part of the removal/relocation process. 77 of those will be removed, including 8 heritage trees.
Planting new trees is also part of the plan.
A city ordinance requires three trees to be planted for every heritage tree that is removed.
“If tree(s) are approved to be removed, mitigation will be at 1:1 unless heritage-size which are mitigated at 3:1 (with the exception of species listed in table 523-2, column B, row 1 which will be mitigated at 1:1) and are to be maintained by the project applicant.” - Unified Development Code, Article V, Division Three Landscaping and Tree Preservation
More than 200 new trees will be planted in the area.
As for the structures, the plans for Phase One remain the same:
- To renovate the pumphouse into a modern version of what it once was
- Create a new cultural plaza near the pumphouse
- Reopen the raceway to water flow
- Restore the lily pond and the old Spanish dam
- Restore the Lambert Beach walls
🌳 YOU CAN REVIEW THE MOST RECENT PLANS HERE 🌳
What Comes Next?
So when could parkgoers see these changes? That answer has yet to be determined.
The plans still have to get city, state, and federal approval.
“Now, Phase One where we’re at right now is finishing the detailed design for that. And then we would move forward through the permitting process, beginning with the Texas Historical Commission and, of course, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” says Garcia.
The price tag for this renovation project is also unclear. Until the plans are approved, bids for construction cannot begin.
As mentioned above, $9.15M has been allocated to the project, but $2.5M more is expected to come with the 2022 bond.
There are also plans for a second round of renovations, plans not yet seen by the public eye.
“We know that in the spring we would get into the detailed design for Phase Two based on again, the public engagement process and those plan concepts based on that public input,” says Garcia.
But there are other costs to balance as well.
“Managing the temperature, managing pollution, the environmental benefits, the recent studies on mental health in relation to being in green spaces,” says Nyiri.
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