Three Epic Park Projects That Could Transform SA 

click to enlarge A conceptual design for Confluence Park - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo
  • A conceptual design for Confluence Park

Pearsall Park, deep in the heart of the South Side, is a surreal place. As it is now, a quick turn off Old Pearsall Road pulls you from a busy strip of tire shops and taquerias into a vast expanse of grassland, like a wormhole to pre-civilization San Antonio. The 231 acres do contain a small dog park, the source of the only signs of life during a recent Sunday visit. Beyond that, the vacant fields stretch on and on and the few man-made structures are a chain-link fence, the occasional rusted trashcan and a disc golf course. With some imagination, the rolling hills could be grass-covered dunes and the far-off sounds of street and air traffic could be the gentle waves of a sea just beyond view. Cresting the tallest hill via a gravel path gives 360-degree views of the city, which seems far off in the distance. It’s spectacularly empty.

While Pearsall is a hauntingly serene urban retreat right now, the site has a bigger destiny in store. Much bigger. With a recent land purchase, it doubled in size this spring, making Pearsall one of the largest park in the city, roomy enough to accommodate some $7.5 million worth of park improvements approved in the last bond cycle.

HemisFair, with its flashy plans and downtown address, tends to get all the press these days, but it’s projects like Pearsall and others on the South and West Sides that could truly transform SA where citizens actually live, and which should open around the same time. By 2017, formerly blighted areas like a municipal dump, an old CPS laydown yard and trash-strewn creek beds should be new homes for some of San Antonio’s most innovative public spaces.

In the past five years alone, San Antonio has made noticeable strides in providing green spaces, though they’ve been mainly limited to wealthier areas on the North Side (the shade-dappled Hardberger Park for instance) or quickly gentrifying downtown (the River expansion projects Museum Reach and Mission Reach.) Even the Salado and Leon creek greenways tend to have access points clustered in the more middle class neighborhoods they pass through, with a few notable exceptions located along both creeks’ southernmost reaches.

Yet despite these improvements, San Antonio’s total commitment to parks and public green space is fair to middling according to the latest City Parks Facts Report produced by the Trust for Public Land. The annual report analyzes parks data from the 100 largest cities in the U.S. Based on information from Fiscal Year 2011, San Antonio had 23,369 acres of parkland. For comparison, San Diego, a city with roughly the same population at the time, had more than double that acreage devoted to public parks. While no Texas city particularly stood out, San Antonio fell behind its state peers like Dallas, Houston and Austin in nearly every metric, which includes acres of parkland as a percentage of city area and acres of parkland per 1,000 residents. We’re objectively awful in spending on parks ($54 per resident in FY 2011, among the bottom 20 cities on that list), walkable park access (we ranked 36th out of 40 cities ranked), and number of playgrounds per 10,000 residents, which was a dismal 1.3.

Sandy Jenkins, the parks project manager for the City of San Antonio, said she’s actively working with the Trust for Public Land to improve San Antonio’s rankings on the next City Parks report. “We’ve made tremendous strides,” she said during a phone conversation last week, “we’ve still got some work to do. There’s definite room for improvement.” The $87.15 million approved for various park, recreation and open space projects in the last bond cycle should help. That some of the biggest projects will occur in the city’s poorer and denser districts will objectively raise some of those reported numbers, and could provide lasting impact on a host of other socioeconomic factors.

Public health researchers increasingly point to the availability of easily accessible recreational resources, like public parks and trails, as a factor that positively influences people’s physical behavior. Salud America!, a research network focusing on Latino children and obesity headquartered at the University of Texas Health Science Center, recently released a report showing that Latino kids in disadvantaged neighborhoods have less access to active spaces than other children and, in a related study also released by Salud, experience less active play. The National Recreation and Parks Association also cites several economic studies that found that proximity to a park or green space raised property values, increased neighborhood appeal for potential buyers and helped to create jobs. In some specific instances, cities like Los Angeles and Kansas City saw a reduction in crime that correlated with increased park programming or improvements.

Imagine then, what a park could do for District 4 residents who live along Old Pearsall road. Imagine that the park, all 512 acres of it, would become one of the largest in San Antonio. Imagine that many residents remember the site by its former nickname: “Mount Trashmore.” You’re imagining the plans for Pearsall Park.

“It’s one of the most compelling stories going on,” says District 4 Councilman Rey Saldaña, who is not exactly paid to say that, but who certainly has a vested interest in the park, since a) it was his idea to devote $7.5 million to the project and b) it’s essentially in his field office’s backyard.

However, Saldaña does have a point. From 1967-82, much of the current Pearsall Park site housed a municipal landfill and Kelly Salvage (the old Kelly Air Force Base site is nearby). And it is in a lower-income area of Saldaña’s district that, by his own admission, “hasn’t gotten a lot of attention.”

According to data from the 2010 U.S. Census, the median household income for families in Pearsall Park’s zip code was $33,883. Comparatively, the median household income for families in Hardberger Park’s zip was $81,745.

“It used to be a dump and it’s going to be a destination when we’re done with it,” said Saldaña. Shortly after the Stanford grad (and South San grad, for that matter) was elected in 2011, he began evaluating his district for 2012 bond projects. Typically, to create citizen buy-in, bond money is doled out in small sums across several projects, but Saldaña had a different idea. “What if we did something really big for one of the biggest parks we have?” he recalls wondering. So he pushed to allocate a huge chunk of the bond money District 4 parks were estimated to receive to improve just Pearsall.

After its approval by voters last year, park planners were able to revive Pearsall’s original master plan, created in 1999 but forgotten after funding failed to materialize. The City also recently acquired an additional 268 acres for Pearsall to reach 512 total acres.

Thanks to the extra acreage, the portion of the park located directly on top of the former landfill can remain largely undeveloped, and monitored for dangerous gasses by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality—to be used for hiking and biking trails, scenic overlooks, and BMX bike courses.

The idea isn’t as noxious as it sounds: in 2011 the Center for City Park Excellence estimated that there may be as many as 4,500 landfill parks in major U.S. cities alone. Green hubs like Portland, Ore., and Berkley, Calif., even have their own examples. As for any lingering smells: could have fooled us.

The Current visited the park before learning its history, and would have never guessed that peaceful climb to the overlook was made up hundreds of feet of trash.

As for the non-dump land, that’s where the ideas get really interesting. Saldaña, parks project manager Jenkins and local landscape design firm Bender Wells Clark envision two full acres of playscapes, including a splash pad. Fitness fanatics can choose between planned 5K and 10K trails and a

Crossfit-style adult exercise station. A skate park will complement the hippie-centric disc golf course, and there’s even talk of connecting some of the bigger hills with a zip line. A large lot is planned to attract food trucks and farmer’s markets, echoing the flea markets that used to dot Old Pearsall road years ago. The entire park will connect with the southern entrance to the Leon Creek Greenway, currently located less than half a mile away from Pearsall.

“I actually grew up not far from Pearsall Park,” said Jenkins “so I really am excited for the opportunities coming forth.” Saldaña hopes the ambitious park plans will “prove to that community that we are trying to invest in a way that hasn’t happened in the last two decades.”

It’s hard not to wonder if $7.5 million will actually cover all these big plans. Again, for comparison’s sake, Hardberger Park (311 acres) fundraisers are seeking an additional $20 million just to finish their projects, according to an April 3, 2013 article in the Express-News.

To put Pearsall’s budget in another perspective, compare it to the $10 million the San Antonio River Foundation is seeking for the suddenly small-sounding 3.4 acres for their Confluence Park.

While the acreage isn’t even one percent of Pearsall’s, SARF executive director Estela Avery has a similar zeal when discussing the proposed park’s purpose. This space, too, was once an unsightly city-funded spot in the middle of a residential neighborhood. Until the Mission Reach expansion occurred, Confluence’s Mitchell Street address had been a CPS laydown yard and then a vacant lot. The river expansion required Bexar County purchase part of the yard for right-of-way, and SARF purchased the rest with the aim of turning it into an education-focused pocket of the greater Mission Reach.

“This is not your typical park,” Avery said from her office within the San Antonio River Authority headquarters, “no swing sets, no grilling, no birthday parties.” Like Confluence, Avery is petite and matter-of-fact. The ideas for Confluence, so named because it’s located where San Pedro creek and the San Antonio River converge, came about from asking the River Authority’s existing educational outreach coordinators what they needed to get more kids to the river for field trips and lessons.

Some of the requirements were rudimentary: a parking lot that could accommodate school busses; a place to store equipment and educational materials; a pavilion where field trippers could gather and eat lunch or attend an outdoor class.

The Foundation soon went beyond basic, envisioning an interactive learning destination to compensate for the very little outdoor-oriented education most public school children receive. They recruited big name firm Ball-Nogues out of Los Angeles, Calif., to design the park, including a solar-powered pavilion, community gardens, rainwater catchment, and interactive learning stations based on the area’s biodiversity. Local artist and former SARF board member Stuart Allen is the project manager.

SARF is already in talks with local universities to implement something like a residency program for graduate students in relevant fields, which would provide nearby housing in exchange for research conducted along the San Antonio river and possibly some caretaker-type work.

While education is the privately funded Confluence’s primary focus, Avery says the Foundation plans to make the park available to the public as well. “We want it to be used all the time,” she said. The current eye-catching design, still very much in the conceptual phase, is a deliberate play to get the attention of likeminded communities and organizations, so that they too might consider a sustainable outdoor education facility a neighborhood necessity.

Not every green space project needs to have top-dollar design and King Ranch-sized sites to be transformative, however. The River Authority is involved in another joint effort that hopes to bring the success of the river expansions and the Leon and Salado creek greenways to much smaller streams.

A frayed knot of channelized creeks—Alazán, Apache, Martínez and San Pedro—currently define San Antonio’s West Side. From Martínez Creek near Hildebrand Avenue down to the Apache and San Pedro creeks which eventually converge with the San Antonio River near Confluence Park’s site on the South Side, these waterways were last touched by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for flood control purposes in the 1950s-70s, creating effective, but ugly and ultimately neglected, areas of negative space throughout several residential zones.

Some of the creek beds, like Martinez, are coated in overgrown weeds and grasses as high as five feet tall running from the stream itself right up to what few crumbling sidewalks border the creek. Others have feeble “No Dumping” signs amid banks covered in broken glass, plastic bags and, in one case, a television set that had tumbled down the bank, leaving bits of wire, screen and casing in its wake. In each area, the creek causes streets to dead end and splits neighborhoods into pieces.

But these creeks also display their own lush ecosystems filled with native plants and birds. Peering down the banks, one can easily envision sidewalks and trails. Before channelization, which created steep trapezoidal banks of grass or concrete, residents of the adjacent neighborhoods used the creeks for swimming, fishing and foraging, according to community input workshops held in 2009. With a little landscaping and environmental stewardship plus some thought put into lighting and rest areas, these natural greenways could again become pleasant gathering spots and pedestrian-friendly connections for the inner West Side.

That’s been the aim of the Westside Creeks Restoration joint project, an effort between SARA, Bexar County, the City of San Antonio and USACE formally started in 2008. If completed as currently planned, the restoration project would bring just over 14 miles of trails between Hildebrand Avenue and the San Antonio River, connecting significant sites like Woodlawn Lake Park, Our Lady of the Lake University and the Little Flower Basilica.

“One of our goals here … [is] trying to bring people back to the rivers and creeks so that they have an appreciation of the resources there,” said SARA’s Russell Persyn, watershed manager, earlier this summer. Through a series of community input meetings in 2009 and 2010, residents indicated they wanted hike and bike trails along the creeks, more park and public art opportunities and some connection to area attractions.

“When the creeks were channelized it severed neighborhoods,” said Rudy Farias, a member of the West Side Creeks Restoration Oversight Committee since 2008. “Through this restoration, [residents] see reconnecting.”

In a conceptual plan released in 2011, the Westside Creeks Restoration Oversight Committee proposes plazas at the dead-end streets abutting the creeks, low-water pedestrian crossings, and 11 “gateways” for residents to easily access the trails from their neighborhoods. Specific projects include expanding existing parks like Mario Farias park on Alazán and Martínez creeks to creating community gardens and public art along Apache creek near the Guadalupe Cultural Arts district. San Pedro Creek, part of which traverses downtown between South Flores and I-35, is part of the plans as well, although its flavor is decidedly more tourist- and economic development-oriented than its tributaries to the west.

“These creeks won’t mimic the San Antonio river expansions,” said Jenkins, the City’s parks project manager, “but they will have some similar components like the presence of native plants, benches and artwork. [They] will have their own flavor because obviously the West Side has its own cultural heritage.”

Residents in general seem supportive of the plans. “I feel that the West Side creeks project can be a very good development … and will spur economic development in the area,” wrote Prospect Hill Neighborhood Association President Jason Mata in an email. However, Mata expressed some hesitation about how the needed right-of-ways would be acquired, worrying about eminent domain in particular. “We prefer that the project find other ways [than eminent domain] to make the project a reality.”

In 2011, the proposed total for the first phase recommendations along all four creeks was just shy of $300 million, in the range of the San Antonio River Improvements budget. While that sum seems eye-popping compared to either Pearsall or Confluence’s budget, the total area and populations impacted are bigger than either due to the creeks’ linear nature through a dense urban environment. San Antonio voters already opted to reauthorize a 1/8 cent sales tax to fund the projects, and the restoration’s practical application as a needed flood control update could help secure USACE and state money.

Just funding the creation of these spaces alone isn’t enough to revitalize these South and West Side neighborhoods, though. Many San Antonio parks, particularly those in low-income areas, already suffer from subpar maintenance and security. For instance, Jason Mata in Prospect Hill pointed out that Elmendorf Lake Park, the largest and most accessible park in his neighborhood, needs more policing and lighting, a concern echoed continually in various neighborhood association and community group meetings throughout the city. During the community input phase of Confluence Park, enough residents raised concerns about noise and loitering to convince the River Foundation to gate the park and lock it up at night.

“One of the aspects of my job is to plan these improvements out,” said Jenkins when asked about continued funding to Pearsall and the West Side creeks projects. “It’s always a balancing act to make sure the parks department is funded,” she continued. “It is a struggle, I won’t lie about that, but it is something that we plan for.”

If these plans do get off the ground, completed and maintained, the payoff could be huge. Since each of these projects connect to a larger, existing green space—Pearsall to the Leon Creek greenway, Confluence Park to Mission Reach, and the West Side creeks to Confluence, Elmendorf and Woodlawn lakes, and the River Walk—each has the potential to not only help residents enjoy their own neighborhood more, but help any San Antonio outdoor enthusiast, from bikers and hikers to kayakers and zip liners, discover a neighborhood they may have never explored before. That’s the kind of civic connectivity often wished for but rarely realized, and it just might happen here in the next five years. Jenkins summed up her department’s expectations, stating simply “It’s just a very exciting time.”

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