It’s for the birds ...

Avenue A is a literary stretch of cracked asphalt, soaring cathedral greenery, and meditative river that ends in a majestic live oak towering over a keyhole cul-de-sac. I’ll go so far as to say that this unadorned quarter-mile, hiding in plain sight in the middle of San Antonio, is Faulkneresque. It’s worthy of a Southern epic — of quiet tragedy, tight drama, and slow redemption. Or, as my companion said while we explored it on a Fiesta Saturday, its solitude a cool, languid contrast to nearby Broadway’s parade crowds, “This place should be voted Best Place to Dump a Body Near Downtown San Antonio.”

That is if you’re facing the river, which flows wide and its signature shade of malachite here on the southern tail of Brackenridge Park. Turn around, and you’re face-to-face with sculpted, curving mounds of dirt: Brackenridge Golf Course, remade and naked, awaiting its sod. A Tonka-Toy fantasy roster of earthmovers sits momentarily idle, and a yellow sign on a chainlink fence posts a warning that area residents fear will become policy: “Golf Course Closed. NO TRESPASSING. Violators Will be Prosecuted.”

This wee bit of park trail, claimed heart and soul by the River Road neigborhood on the far bank, is going to get its epic tale after all. Residents of the funky, mongrel set of roads pocketed between the highway, the park, and the river, are in turns rattled or thrilled by the simultaneous developments on all sides: a new condo tower on the site of the old Brackenridge stables, a golf course restored to its pre-Highway 281 glory, and a hike-and-bike trail through this quiet dead-end that would be funded by the venue-tax extension appearing on the May 10 ballot. `See “Welcome to San Antonio,” March 26-April 1.`

To understand the siege mentality that pervades some of the debate over these impending changes, it’s helpful to picture the little enclave, which relative newcomer Eugene Simor describes as “an eclectic mix of people ... artists, architects, blue-collar jobs, manual-labor jobs.” The population’s variety is reflected in the homes: original ’20s- and ’30s-era bungalows — many fixed up, others in advanced states of entropy — interspersed with the occasional Deco-accented masterpiece and the odd veritable brick shit house. Local art gadfly Gene Elder’s lawn is filled with eclectic sculpture and objects; others are carefully xeriscaped. Neighbors wave at one another as they navigate the blind turns and winding roads, and they seem to be as familiar with each others’ business (“that’s our neighborhood archeologist, there’s our resident beer provider, that guy just redid his house,” etc. goes a tour) as the cast of Andy Griffith’s Mayberry.

“It’s secluded,” says Simor, the Alamo Beer magnate whose house was pointed out by my escort. “You’re usually not back here unless you live here or you’re lost.”

Some residents who spoke with the Current fear that seclusion will be ruined by the proposed hike-and-bike trail, which is part of the San Antonio River Improvements project. When complete, the trail will be part of a 13-mile urban, linear park connecting Brackenridge and what’s known as the Museum Reach to the downtown River Walk, the Eagleland Reach by Blue Star, and the Mission Trail.

For most of the trail’s length, it will run virtually flush with the river, but this segment of the Museum Reach, which links the Pearl Brewery to Brackenridge Park, presents special challenges. The Municipal Golf Association-SA, which will operate the restored Brackenridge golf course, has made it clear that no hikers and bikers will be following the river where it winds through the links. And while urban planners may look at a map and see a natural pathway where Avenue A and the river pair up, opponents see yet another development juggernaut intent on ruining a remnant of wild.

One version of the hike-and-bike proposal calls for a path that would circumvent the golf course with a dogleg to the west around the back nine and up to Craig Street, rejoining the river at Avenue A. Another proposal would allow only foot-bound travelers on that route, while bikes would travel along Avenue B, which runs parallel with Broadway on the east side of the course. A third version of riparian paradise would skirt the river altogether between Josephine street and Brackenridge Park, running both foot and bike traffic all the way up the Avenue B route to Mulberry.

On my recent Saturday visit, a handful of cars were parked at discreet distances along Avenue A. An older gentleman was pulling a fishing pole and gear from his car. A couple strolled slowly, binoculars dangling from their necks. On a small dam traversed by an uneven sidewalk, two men escorted a passel of young kids into the shallow water.

“As long as they don’t turn it into the River Walk ... I can’t be that selfish,” said a hip-looking dad who lives in the neighborhood. “Part of me wants to share it. Life’s hard enough for people, you know.”

Shortly before the kids came giggling around the dam’s automobile barricade, a Yellow-crowned Night-heron was standing downstream next to a small island, dipping in and out of the water. Behind us, a sizable fish splashed the still surface. The man’s comment sums up the dilemma: San Antonians should share in this beauty, but opening it up to more traffic could ruin its elusive tranquility.

“There is a big divide in our neighborhood: Should there be a hike and bike?” says Simor. “My personal feeling is that it’s an amenity ... done right, everything’s in harmony.”

But one group of opponents thinks a significant increase in pedestrian traffic will undermine what they believe is Avenue A’s most important role: a bird sanctuary for local and migratory species.

“It’s a very small place, but it’s very rich in birds,” says Harry Noyes, president of the Bexar Audubon Society, a local chapter of the National Audubon Society, which passed a unanimous board resolution in support of a San Antonio Conservation Society proposal to create a wildlife and bird sanctuary along Avenue A. “In a world of shrinking bird habitats and declining bird populations,” it reads in part, “‘refueling stations’ like Avenue A have become critical to the survival of many migratory species.”

Richard, one half of the binocular-wearing, couple, says he spotted a “somewhat rare” Indigo Bunting the previous day. Recently he watched a group of White-throated Sparrows eating and socializing in the undergrowth along the river’s banks.

“It’ll kill the birds,” says his companion Jean of the proposed trail. “It’ll be beautiful, but it’ll take all the underbrush away, and that’s what the birds need.”

She gestures to the other side of the road: They worry that the golf-course renovations are already driving away some species.

Bird lovers aren’t the only critics of the new golf-course regime. In May 2007, the City transferred management of the San Pedro driving range and two City courses, including historic Brackenridge, to the newly formed MGA-SA, which has promised to turn the deficit-dogged golf division into a civic goldmine (eventually the MGA-SA is set to run all six municipal courses). Subsequently, the MGA-SA, headed by verbal freight train Reid Meyers, began renovations that promise to restore the course’s former luster by rebuilding much of the original design — by famed links designer A.W. Tillinghast — and adding a golf hall of fame to remind visitors of its past glory. A bonus, says Meyers and Deputy City Manager Pat DiGiovanni, is that 100-percent of stormwater runoff will be diverted from the river to the Catalpa drainage ditch that runs parallel to Avenue B, reducing flooding in the River Road neighborhood (a claim that the San Antonio River Authority can’t verify because they haven’t been able to review changes to the original plans).

River Road residents — the non-bird-watchers, anyway — might be excited about some of these developments if it weren’t for the proposed fence, which, depending on whom you ask, will be 7 feet tall, augmented with guards, and/or prevent residents from entering the course to walk their dogs or just sniff the turf-scented air any time of day or night.

Meyers sounds exasperated as he denies the guards rumor (“We’ve told people we’re not going to do that.”). He’s earned the enmity of some residents by adamantly opposing any hike-and-bike path through the course. The MGA will support either the Avenue A or B plans, or both, he says, as long as they don’t traverse the course. “But there is going to be a fence.”

“There’s not going to be open access to everybody in the world,” he said. “It’s not a park, it’s a golf course.” The fence, he added, will look much like the fence that currently runs along parts of Mulberry, and he’s not ruling out after-hours access to the course by area residents. “I’ve lived on golf courses, and it’s nice to go out and take a walk.”

River Road resident and downtown restaurateur Sally Buchanan is concerned that if the Craig-Avenue A trail is built, users will be trapped between two fences, one on the course and one along Highway 281, an aesthetically inferior solution at best, and potentially dangerous. Buchanan, past president of the San Antonio River Foundation and a supporter of the venue-tax extension for the river improvements, taps her head and makes a “crazy-stupid idea” face as we discuss the Craig-Avenue A route in her kitchen.

But in a demonstration of how far this project has to go before resolution, former Mayor Howard Peak, who chairs the Linear Creekways Parks Advisory Board, said he doesn’t expect there to be a fence on the golf-course side of the trail. “We’re not gonna have two fences,” said Peak. “That’s not my understanding of our understanding.”

If Peak is an ally when it comes to double-fence doublespeak, the neighborhood doesn’t fully trust him, in part because he refuses to give up on the possiblity of Avenue A serving as a hike-and-bike trail until, he says, science and facts have their say. The science includes, in part, a traffic study being conducted through June by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to determine how much Avenue A is used now. Traffic is the basis of many opponents’ fear, fueled by the proposed River North mixed-use development, which promises to draw thousands of new residents and visitors to the riverside neighborhood just south of Josephine.

“The general consensus is that if a hiking trail is built in the park area north of Highway 281, that area will become the most popular hiking/biking trail system in Bexar County” wrote Parks and Recreation Board Vice Chairman Charles Bartlett in an email. “It forms a general ‘loop’ or circular pathway within the general Brack Park area, and can be used by downtown tourists, Ft. Sam Houston, Trinity Univ, the residents of the new River North area, all the high-rises and homeowners in the greater Broadway area, UIW students, and Alamo Heights.” Bartlett, who represents District 3 on the Linear Creekways Board, says they forecast 146,000 annual ‘transits’ of Avenue A if it becomes a hiking trail.

Peak, who says that opponents are currently acting on emotions rather than facts, doesn’t think this necessarily spells tragedy. “Birds, bicycles, and walkers aren’t mutually exclusive,” said Peak, who has been committed to having the trail follow the river as much possible since he “cooked up this idea in the ’90s.” The National Audubon Society agrees that, “hike-and-bike trails are usually pretty compatible with bird conservation,” but spokeswoman Delta Willis cautions that trail construction can “fracture existing habitat,” and riparian areas require special care.

Peak acknowledges that Avenue A is a “rare gem.”

“There’s one or two places like this along the river in San Antonio left,” he said, and if the research says that a hike-and-bike trail will be detrimental to the wildlife, he would support making Avenue A a foot-path destination rather than a thoroughfare.

So why all the neighborhood anxiety and mistrust? Maybe because with all of the oversight and involvement by various community and governmental groups, the lines of authority are unclear. It’s true that if Proposition 1 passes on May 10, the Museum Reach hike-and-bike trail will be funded, but even Peak is a little vague on the path’s final resolution. A number of agencies have the potential to weigh in, he said, including SARA, the River Oversight Committee, and the Linear Creekways board, but because it involves City parkland, he thinks that Council will make the final call.

Until then, Avenue A’s green respite awaits you, a beneficiary and victim of decades of benign neglect. My first glowing picture might have been a little misleading. As along much of the river, even the recently facelifted reaches in the park proper, plastic bottles bob in the gentle current here, and bags are snagged in the underbrush. At the road’s terminus by the dam, my dog scares a feral cat out of a pile of debris that includes a door and a smashed sign. A web guide to local birding sites warns visitors not to leave valuables in plain view inside their vehicles. As we drive out, we pass a man who looks like he’s headed in to spend the night.

San Antonio Audubon Society Vice President Barbara Kyse, who notes many times in our conversation that it’s “a complicated situation,” understands the conflicting hopes and needs at play in this small stretch of almost-paradise: “We all would like to see it how it is now, but maybe cleaned up a little.” •