City saves 19 trees in final Brackenridge project design, but for many residents that’s not far enough

A new and final iteration of the Brackenridge Park project design will spare more trees than expected by moving them along the San Antonio River while retaining the historic walls the project seeks to preserve where they are. Still, many locals remain frustrated with the outcome.

The project’s design team – speaking at the Witte Museum on Tuesday evening at the fourth and final public meeting on the subject – said that in reworking the plan, they had taken into consideration everything the public had said during previous meetings. The final design for the first phase, which covers the northernmost part of Brackenridge Park and includes Lambert Beach, now plans to save 19 more heritage and significant trees than the original project plan. This will be achieved by moving trees, including a 44-inch live oak tree, from the shore and replanting them elsewhere.

The design team said they would not be able to move the historic Lambert Beach walls, as some had suggested in a previous meeting, due to floodplain boundaries and other constraints. The river walls were built in 1920 and are in need of repair, which is the origin of the project.

The updated design of the Brackenridge Park project, part of the 2017-22 bond package, comes after months of contention and heated debate. The plan now calls for removing 85 trees in the first phase – including six heritage trees, 37 significant trees and eight invasive or dead trees – and relocating 19 trees. Heritage trees are deemed irreplaceable due to their size and rarity. Significant trees are just as important.

“I think we presented a great compromise,” said Kinder Baumgardner, SWA Group Managing Director and Brackenridge Park design team leader. “What you have to understand with these projects is that it’s progressive. There are often small tweaks here and there that can lead to small changes that can lead to compromises. I think it was important to double the number of trees we can keep.

However, many residents at Tuesday’s meeting were unhappy with the results. Several wore T-shirts with the words “Stop the Chop” and held signs protesting the project. They believe the tree removal will ruin the park and that the public process so far has felt like a “show” rather than a conversation.

During the public question-and-answer period, Ida Ayala read from the National Register of Historic Places that the walls were originally erected to ‘control erosion which threatened the trees along the river bank’ . Given this, she wondered why the walls were now protected above the trees.

Ayala also said she didn’t believe the city when officials said they wanted to protect historic walls. She believes the city’s goal was to build an event venue — not to protect historic structures — and referred to a preliminary design for such a venue in the project area.

“I’m really disappointed with the city of San Antonio. I am disappointed with these encounters,” she said. “This park is the pride of the citizens of San Antonio.”

Ayala started a petition to protect the trees in the park. It has so far obtained nearly 400 signatures online.

Baumgardner said the place of the event has nothing to do with tree removal and is not part of phase one, but phase two. The team will have two public meetings on phase two and the square.

“The [National Register] seems very accurate, but I think what happened is that these walls were built. … At one point, these are historic structures. Now they are protected,” Baumgardner said. “Now this tree that was protected at one point was maybe 18 inches in diameter and is now 44 inches in diameter, so that dynamic has changed.”

Matilde Torres asked the Brackenridge Park team why no indigenous communities were consulted during the planning process. She walked to the front of the room and held up the White Shaman mural – an Indigenous design depicting the four springs of Austin, San Marcos, New Braunfels and the San Antonio Blue Hole. The design reflects an Aboriginal and Yanaguana creation story, which means the San Antonio River to the Payaya people.

“What I would like to see for this project is for this site to be protected, respected and honoured. Those are the only three things that should pass along this river because it’s not just any river,” said Torres, who is a member of the Lipan Apache Band of Texas. “It’s more than a resource. All along this river is more than a resource for our people.

Torres said three tribes wrote letters of opposition to the city and the Texas Historical Commission: the Comanches of Oklahoma, the Lipan Apache Band of Texas, and the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas. Except for a message from the Historical Commission, the tribes never heard from them.

Homer Garcia, the city’s director of parks and recreation, said he never saw any of those letters. He said the reason the tribes had not been consulted before was because phase two involves more native history than phase one.

“If we had first discussed phase two rather than phase one, we wouldn’t be in this situation,” Garcia said. “But maybe that’s something that we very clearly missed because what we’re hearing is that there’s an element that needs to be heard.”

Garcia said the team will work with Marise McDermott, CEO and President of the Witte Museum, on how best to incorporate and respect Indigenous elements into the park project.

David McCary, deputy city manager, said he wanted to bring together a public group to discuss the Indigenous aspect. Although nothing was planned, he said he wanted a space where the tribes felt comfortable telling their stories so the city could learn from them.

There will be two public meetings on phase two and a final meeting on the whole project, although none have been scheduled yet. Torres said she hopes some of the tribes will attend future meetings to speak with the city and the project’s design team.

“It’s part of my son’s future,” she says. “It’s our story.”

Elena Bruess writes for the Express-News through Report for America, a national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms. [email protected]

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