Rich plaza, poor park

Although I was impressed by the City Manager’s swift response to last week’s Express-News story that the Cortez family of Mi Tierra fame had expressed interest in buying El Mercado through a land swap — it’s “dead” she announced not 24 hours later — I have to wonder: What would it take to get Our Lady of Main Plaza to kill another proposed transfer of public property to private hands?

I’m talking about Healy-Murphy Park, of course, and I’m sorry to have to bring it up again `see the MashUp, January 7`. I thought for sure we’d be on to another topic by now, the City being made well aware of the opposition of almost every conceivable constituency: Friends of the Parks, the Conservation Society, the Salvation Army, and most importantly, the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association and assorted other neighbors of the small, impoverished Eastside park. Even its lone vocal critic at last week’s public meeting — Doug Watson of the adjacent and unaffiliated Healy-Murphy academy for at-risk students — agreed that he’d be happy to see it remain a park if our leaders would only invest in fixing it up and policing the less-family-friendly elements.

It’s true that in its current state, the park isn’t wildly attractive, but that wide swath of gray and tacky between Mi Tierra and the Museo Alameda is just as depressing: filled mostly with cheap tourist tchotchkes and those ubiquitous Peruvian flautists. Surely, if it’s worth saving as part of our heritage, so is a park named after a woman who devoted her life and fortune to providing educational opportunities for San Antonio’s African-American population.

The disparity in the official reaction to these two proposals to sell public assets is even more puzzling when you compare their would-be new owners. In the case of El Mercado, the Cortezes have invested in downtown developments that are theoretically nice for locals as well as tourists, making substantial donations to the Mayor’s Main Plaza makeover and the Museo Alameda. The developer whose letter of interest put the Healy-Murphy Park sale into motion simply wants to build another limited-service hotel on the near East Side, or if Ray Knox of the Friends of the Parks is correct, a parking lot.

Jaime Castillo’s February 16 revelation that the Cortezes say Deputy City Manager Pat DiGiovanni encouraged them to consider buying the park deepens the mystery. Part of the Mercado proposal, according to Castillo, was that proceeds from the sale of any related land would go into a fund for the perennially cash-strapped Museo — the creation of Henry Muñoz, fundraiser for the Mayor’s Luminaria, and major political player. (The Alameda, interestingly, was the beneficiary of a 2007 arts-funding runaround supposedly engineered by Mercado-gate scapegoat Mary Alice Cisneros.) If that’s true, Sculley’s quick reaction was pure CYA.

But it also makes me wonder about the origins of the October 2007 letter from developer lobbyist Walter Serna to District 2 Councilwoman Sheila McNeil instigating the Healy-Murphy sale. (Serna failed to return multiple calls for comment, and the paper trail begins with his letter.), which also proposed a land and cash swap: The profit — as much as $800,000, according to an official appraisal — would be used to improve donated land adjacent to the nearby Hays Street Bridge restoration project that currently lacks funding for improvements and amenities. Just one small hitch: Neither the Councilwoman nor City staff — who knew as early as last March — bothered to consult the Hays Street Bridge committee about the proposal to sell one Eastside park to fund another.

Nettie Hinton, a major mover behind the bridge’s restoration and a member of the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association, has told anyone who will listen that they’re not interested in getting money at Healy-Murphy’s expense. Nonetheless, at last week’s public meeting to outline the request for bids to buy the park, Parks & Rec Director Xavier Urrutia actually began the slide show with an artist’s rendering of proposed improvements to the Hays Street Bridge parkland, forcing Hinton to spend part of her public speaking time telling the audience that the Hays Street Bridge group had not been a part of that pretty picture. “That’s the first time I’ve seen that rendering,” she said.

In case the implication was lost on any of the many audience members who also spoke against the park’s sale, the Salvation Army’s Major Alberto Villafuerte spelled it out: The purpose of tonight’s meeting isn’t to find out whether you support selling the park, he warned the assembled crowd. “The purpose is to say we held the meeting. They’re basically informing us, this is what’s happening.”

The Mercado proposal, in other words, isn’t an isolated incident, and it isn’t a problem that can be solved simply with public meetings. It’s part of a pattern of behavior by a City staff that has little regard for citizens, for which public land is just another asset that might be put to political use — and a City Council that is either too dumb or too craven to openly oppose them. If the public outcry over Market Square is really about the priniciple of the thing, and not just a sentimental sop to a locally neglected landmark, we need to oppose the Healy-Murphy sale as vehemently as the now “dead” Mercado deal. Only sustained and vocal watchdogging across the city, in communities rich and poor — “a united front” as Villfuerte suggested last week — will remind the City Manager that though her salary beats the San Antonio median household income by a factor of 10, she and her staff still work for us.

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