They're no Eden

The City is courting private interests to resurrect the Sunken Garden Theater and Japanese Tea Garden. (Photos by Julie Barnett)
They're no Eden

By Michael Cary

Neglect threatens future of Sunken Garden Theater and the Japanese Tea Garden

Alice in Chains, Bad Company, Guns ' Roses, Iron Butterfly, Santana, Thirteenth Floor Elevators.

It sounds like a diverse selection on the jukebox at the local rock 'n' roll club or the next mega-tour.

Choose none of the above. It's a partial listing of bands that Jack Orbin, owner of Stone City Productions, has booked in Sunken Garden Theater since 1974.

Orbin wants to continue staging acts in the former rock quarry-turned-outdoor amphitheater, but the halcyon days of high-volume Saturdays in Brackenridge Park are about over, unless private investors save the shabby venue and its next-door neighbor, the Japanese Tea Garden.

"The facility has deteriorated," says Orbin, who was married under the magnificent pagoda in the tea garden. "The bathrooms are a disaster. Seats are non-existent. Money paid for renting Sunken Garden goes into the `city's` general fund, and there are no funds to maintain the place ... a major problem."

The concrete stage has numerous cracks in it, and permanent outdoor chairs that were damaged and removed have not been replaced. The venue needs rewiring, updated bathrooms, and a general facelift. At the tea garden, the pagoda's wooden roof is rotting, and the concession stand (operated by the zoo) could stand painting. Yet the main problem is that the rock-lined sides of the ponds leak, forcing the City to transplant the water lilies to the Botanical Gardens and Japanese koi to the zoo until the facility can be repaired.

District 9 Councilman Carroll Schubert says no one is at fault for the faded glory of the theater and tea garden: It's a matter of age and gravity. "We have not kept up with the maintenance of our parks ... it is no conscious effort or reason, but we haven't paid attention to some of these facilities." Schubert also said the parks department is operating programs, such as children's after-school activities, instead of focusing on the parks. "We need to get the parks department concentrating on building and maintaining parks," he says.

The City Parks and Recreation department, which oversees the two venues, has issued a request for proposals to entice an investor to sink a minimum of $2 million into Sunken Garden Theater, with additional lease options for the tea garden and other nearby facilities.

Parks director Malcolm Matthews dropped the news on the City Council in February. "This is somewhat of a fishing expedition for us. It would take $5 million to make it a destination location. The 10-acre area would be a good opportunity for private investment." Another option, Matthews explained, would be to shutter both facilities until funds were allocated to renovate them. "But to mothball `the venues` could be the worse thing to do."

The Japanese Tea Garden and Sunken Garden Theater have an illustrious history. In the 1800s, the City leased the future Tea Garden property to rock cutters who harvested limestone from the quarries. By 1880, the first cement plant west of the Mississippi River was operating, but the Alamo Roman and Portland Cement Co. moved northward in 1908, leaving behind two giant limestone pits. In 1917, Parks Commissioner Ray Lambert brought in prison laborers to build the tea garden from donated materials. In 1926, Kimi Eizo Jingu and his wife, Miyoshi, occupied the park and opened the Bamboo Room to serve tea and light lunches in the beautifully landscaped garden. For the next 30 years, the couple lived in a house on the property and raised their eight children in the garden's vicinity.

The San Antonio Civic Opera Co. prodded the city into developing the adjacent Sunken Garden Theater; the dedication on July 15, 1930 featured a production of The Bohemian Girl. In 1936, the Works Progress Administration provided funding to build dressing rooms, stage support buildings, bathrooms, and seating. The San Antonio Symphony performed at the outdoor theater for several years in the late '30s and early '40s.

The Japanese Tea Garden
The theater hasn't been renovated since 1983, when the City spent $320,000 to upgrade the dressing rooms and add a reception terrace backstage. In the past 20 years, the theater and tea garden have degenerated to the point where Orbin says he cannot bring in stars such as Carlos Santana, who took the stage in Sunken Garden Theater in the mid-1990s.

According to parks and recreation department records, $270,000 from certificates of obligation issued in 2003 is available for improvements to the Sunken Garden Theater. Certificates of obligation are similar to bonds. Cities can issue them to build public projects, pay for construction work, and can issue them directly to a contractor. However, unlike bonds, certificates of obligation do not require a public vote; they are slightly less formal, and usually carry higher interest rates.

An investor would be required to spend $1 million during the first year of the lease to upgrade the stage and theater, then another $1 million for theater operations during the remainder of the two-year lease.

The Japanese Tea Garden is listed as a lease option, which would require a minimum $500,000 investment in addition to $750,000 (from a 2003 bond issue) that is available from the City for upgrades. These improvements would include sealing the sides of the lily ponds.

Another option available to potential investors includes four small rock houses that served as a retail village in the early 20th century. The structures could be renovated for use as a farmer's market, light retail, limited concessions or arts and crafts shops. Parking lots also would be available under options included in the proposal.

Under the proposed packages, the City could reserve the property theater five days annually for public events.

Orbin says he opposes privatization of the theater and the tea garden, adding that the City is responsible for renovating and maintaining public facilities with taxes. "We can't allow Sunken Gardens to just shut down and be grown over with weeds. We need those city facilities to maintain our quality of life. A lot more acts would play there if the facility was renovated and made nicer."

He acknowledges that it would be difficult for a City-owned facility such as Sunken Garden Theater to be self-sustaining without taxpayer support.

The concert business is in upheaval: Tours such as Lollapalooza have been canceled and other acts are falling short of their financial expectations. Bands unable to fill 30,000-seat venues want to return to playing smaller venues, such as Sunken Garden , which Matthews says can hold 6,000 spectators.

Since Stone City Productions is in the concert business, Orbin says his firm has "a vested interested in keeping that place going." Orbin adds that he will decide whether it is financially feasible to submit a proposal for the Sunken Garden Theater, but cautions that "recouping our investment would be next to impossible." •

By Michael Cary

The full RFP can be viewed on the city's website, at

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