As we warned prospective land barons a few weeks ago, a city park isn't the sort of purchase you make on a whim: It takes time, connections, lawyers, and, of course, cash. There is also the pesky matter of citizen input. The state allows municipalities of our size to sell off wastrel parks of less than two acres, but it requires local government to jump through several hoops first, including a public hearing and a sealed bid process.
Undaunted by these obstacles, lobbyist Walter Serna has been working to secure long-neglected Healy-Murphy Park for La Villita Development Corp, which would like to add another limited-service hotel to the clutch of soulless hospitality chains hugging the eastern edge of I-37 like so many beige barnacles.
He's been aided in his quest by the office of District 2 Councilwoman Sheila McNeil, who appears to have initiated the sale after Serna's office expressed interest last fall. (McNeil told the Current that the idea of selling the small Eastside park -- which at the moment is used mostly by the homeless, who don't necessarily comport themselves in the tradition of Frederick Law Olmstead — came up much earlier, although we've yet to find or receive any documentation to that effect. Serna's office has not returned numerous phone calls, but McNeil said in December that his client is still very much interested in the purchase).
Maybe I'm trying to make too fine a point here, but I feel like there's a big difference between:
In any event, the sale of Healy-Murphy is well underway, and the only questions remaining are how it will proceed and whether the resistance — which includes the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Assoc., Friends of the Parks, and the Salvation Army — can stop it.
The law (Local Government Code, chapter 253) requires the City to let voters decide at the polls whether to sell the park, unless:
The City Attorney's office says that, the word “acquire” notwithstanding, money from the sale of the park can be used to improve already existing park land, a key point in the PR push; McNeil's office, inspired perhaps by Serna's original letter, is promising to spend proceeds from the sale on the nearby Hays Street Bridge project, which is bounded by recently donated acreage.
Let's say for the moment that that's true. It still sounds like several different steps, right?
Not in SA.
If I understood my conversations with Asst. City Attorney Stephen Whitworth correctly, the powers that be are interpreting the instructions to mean:
Following the compressed process above makes it appear that advocates for saving Healy-Murphy are correct: This sale is happening and the public hearing, etc., is just window dressing.
More evidence along those lines: When former Parks & Rec Director Malcolm Matthews was still around, he circulated an email that spelled out the process that needed to be followed in order to sell the park. It was somewhat more detailed than the steps outlined above:
He wrote that the proposed sale:
One essential difference is this: Do our City leaders decide that the park can't be saved and then sell it, or do they decide that it can't be saved while visions of an actual offer dance in its collective heads. When we're considering returning a public asset, especially one in a historically disfranchised, under-served community, it seems like more public process would be better. And by public process, I mean big old community meetings like the kind our former pocket councilman, Roger Flores II, liked to call during the Main Plaza makeover rush.
The funny thing about Matthews' email, which appears to have first been sent on March 19, is that Matthews looks like an advocate for the public process, but in the month that followed, he was having frank discussions with District 2 about how to make the sale happen for Serna's client, and the Parks & Rec Board openly discussed the developer's desire to buy the property at a March meeting. Once Matthews departed in the wake of the playground-audit debacle, Serna and La Villita Development pretty much disappeared from the public record, but the early negotiations left an impression so lasting that Interim Parks Director Xavier Urrutia had to remind attendees at an August 2008 Parks & Rec Board meeting that “we cannot sell the property to a specific buyer. It is a closed bid process.”
(Unfortunately, any substantive discussion of “a feasible or prudent alternative to the change in use” also seems to have departed with Matthews.)
Whether or not La Villita is the winning bidder for the property, opponents of the park's sale have one sure-fire avenue to halting it: Gather those 1,500 signatures. The Salvation Army's Jose Macias, for one, doesn't think that will be a problem. If they're successful, Council would have to either cancel the sale outright or submit it to the voters.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.