By Kayla Padilla | @KaylaPadilla__ | Heron contributor
Not every project in the proposed $1.2 billion, 2022-2027 bond package, which the City Council last Thursday agreed to place before San Antonio voters on May 7, has complete buy-in from the community.
The Brackenridge Park Conservancy, the park’s nonprofit caretaker, is seeking $5 million from the proposed bond to help fund the $62 million renovation of Sunken Garden Theater at Brackenridge Park, which is city-owned. But the conservancy and the nearby River Road neighborhood continue to be at odds over the plan, which some residents say is too large for the 92-year-old venue, and the area.
“What I heard from the community is that there is very strong consensus that Sunken Garden Theater is in need of repair, and that people are supportive of rehabilitating that venue,” District 1 Councilman Mario Bravo said at last week’s City Council meeting. “What I have not heard consensus on is: What should the scope and scale of that project be?”
If the River Road neighbors don’t sign off on the plan, the $5 million in bond dollars—one piece of the $272 million parks segment of the bond—could be thwarted, should city officials or council members determine the plan doesn’t have community consensus. If that were to happen, the $5 million would be funneled toward other Brackenridge Park upgrades, city officials have said in recent weeks. At a meeting of the Midtown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) in early February, city officials said there were $200 million worth of Brackenridge Park upgrades related to ecosystem restoration, the trail system, bridges, pavilions and the creation of new open spaces over the next 10 years.
Bravo said the conservancy has told him that the Sunken Garden Theater plan, which would expand the amphitheater’s capacity from 879 to 7,000 permanent seats, and bring 48-60 acts per year, is a work in progress, and that the group is flexible on the project’s scope.
The renovations would also add a “mass timber-frame roof, grass berm for seating, enclosed stage house, and expanded venue entrance” that would not detract from “the historic integrity of the theater,” the conservancy’s website reads.
Over the years, Sunken Garden Theater, which opened in 1930, has hosted such acts as Bob Dylan and Sheryl Crow, and such large-scale events as the Margarita Pour-Off and the Bob Marley Festival, and A Taste of New Orleans during Fiesta.
Bravo said residents want more opportunity to provide input. Not much ground, if any, has been made since the last public meeting on Jan. 25, it appears.
“We agree that the theater needs to be renovated, while maintaining the historic design and integrity and the impact of the surrounding urban core neighborhoods,” Lucy Wilson, president of the River Road Neighborhood Association, told the council last week.
She continued, “A reduction in size and scope of the proposed theater would be more sustainable. A reduced schedule of concerts could create an opportunity to provide more free and community-based events.”
Brackenridge Park Conservancy board member Suzanne Scott said the conservancy is taking these community concerns seriously.
“We definitely heard that frustration and by establishing a more consistent, open, transparent process, we hope that we can win back the trust of the community and come to a place where all of us are working together to improve Brackenridge Park,” Scott said in an interview with the Heron.
When asked about potentially reducing the venue size or adjusting the number of seats, Scott said that the conservancy is “listening to community concerns,” but needs adequate time for a new analysis.
2022-2027 bond program
» What: $1.2 billion citywide infrastructure upgrade program that requires voter approval
» When: May 7 election
» More info: sanantonio.gov/2022bond
The last town hall
At a virtual town hall meeting held Jan. 25, after members of the Brackenridge Park Conservancy shared plans for Sunken Garden Theater, most community members who tuned in said the plan is far too ambitious for the actual size of Sunken Garden Theater, and also expressed that they felt excluded from the input process up until that meeting.
They supported the idea of renovating Sunken Garden Theater, but expressed concerns over the animals at the San Antonio Zoo, doubted the conservancy’s claim that it would manage to lessen traffic congestion, and showed dissatisfaction over the lack of consultation with neighborhoods in the surrounding area.
Currently, $5 million for Sunken Garden renovations has been allocated in the 2022-2027 bond program, which voters will decide during a municipal election on May 7. Last week, the council also voted to extend the Midtown TIRZ by 10 years, which would provide another $15 million for Sunken Garden Theater, along with $4.5 million for other upgrades at Brackenridge Park, $10 for zoo upgrades (including a revamped entrance and new gorilla habitat), $5 million for the San Antonio Botanical Garden, and $3 million for the Witte Museum. In a TIRZ, the increase in tax revenue is collected and reinvested into the TIRZ boundary in the form of public upgrades.
The remaining $40 million-plus for Sunken Garden Theater would be raised from private donors and grants, city officials said.
According to the Brackenridge Park Conservancy, the renovations would attract “world class acts that are currently passing San Antonio by.” Based on its prediction, the renovations would boost the economy with an impact of $239 million the first 10 years.
The conservancy states that it will provide access to local nonprofits to use the theater free of charge for up to 15 days, if they qualify, with an emphasis on historical events. The venue can be used for city musical performances, health events, expanded Fiesta activities, and farmer’s markets “during peak growing seasons.”
District 2 Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez stated early in the town hall that, “I don’t think anyone here expects things to stay exactly. We don’t expect no development, no renovations to ever happen. But we also don’t expect to be given renderings and just assume that those are the end.”
Brackenridge Park resides in McKee-Rodriguez’s district, while the River Road neighborhood is positioned in Bravo’s.
McKee-Rodriguez said he expects the conservancy to provide a new set of plans showing a reduction in size.
McKee-Rodriguez also said he would like to see a set of dates reserved for continued community engagement. He also wants to make sure the bond passes.
“We want people to feel as though the bond—and something they’re paying into—is going to be benefiting their community,” he said.
The plan’s origins
The Brackenridge Park Conservancy was created in 2009 through a cooperative management agreement with the City of San Antonio to raise money for the park’s development and maintenance.
The conservancy worked with the City of San Antonio to develop a masterplan for the park in 2017, which included the preservation of historical and cultural features.
They also developed a cultural landscape report with the city, which describes a park in decline with uninviting park entrances; damaged or hidden acequias, dams and ditches; and confusing ways of circulating the park, among other areas of improvement.
“In both the masterplan and the cultural landscape report, the Sunken Garden Theater was identified as a very important opportunity to enhance the use and enjoyment of the park’s resources and to restore a very important cultural feature of the park,” Scott said in the town hall.
According to the conservancy’s website, the suggested renovations are an effort repair the amphitheater and bring more entertainment acts to the city.
In a press release in January, the River Road Neighborhood Association accused the park conservancy of engaging a project that does not align with its mission of preserving the park’s history and resources.
As a rebuttal, the conservancy said the proposed project does not contradict its mission because they are “aiming to renovate a historic theater that has fallen into disrepair as opposed to letting it continue to deteriorate or allowing it to be transformed into something outside the realm of its original purpose.”
Why 7,000 seats?
In a press release, the River Road Neighborhood Association stated that the Brackenridge Park Conservancy wants to expand the current theater into a “concert stadium” that will cause traffic congestion and noise disturbances in the area.
Kirk Feldmann, a consultant on the Sunken Garden Theater project who has been in the performing arts venue business for nearly 40 years, first suggested the current seat capacity after reviewing venue sizes across the city. Feldmann has helped develop venues in New Orleans, Houston and New York City.
A 7,000-seat-capacity venue was proposed after examining active venues in the city, from the Alamodome (72,000 seats) and the AT&T Center (18,581) to Trinity University’s Laurie Auditorium (2,700).
“There was a notable gap in the middle,” Feldmann said. “So that was … step No. 1 and coming up with an assessment. The second part was to examine and research the Texas market, because you need the right size venue not only within the market you’re in, but in a broader context, you need the right size venue in the state.”
Feldmann said the 7,000 capacity venue would help attract more artists to San Antonio, and would also provide more “equitable” ticket prices. With more seats available, the ticket prices would be cheaper, Feldmann said.
“You can kind of do the math: If you have a $100,000 artist, and you have 5,000 seats, your tickets are $40 each,” he said. “If you only have 2,000 seats, they’re $80 each. This really strikes a chord in our community as it relates to equity issues.”
Grace Rose Gonzales, a citizen in attendance at the town hall, said that it struck her as unusual that the proposed venue size has hardly garnered support.
“Where are the letters of support? We always had letters of support. I mean, I’m not seeing any support here,” Gonzales said. “I will tell you that there’s a petition of 1,500 people that signed that the Brown Berets put up saying that this is not a good project.”
Scott said the theater must still be economically viable should there be a reduction in seating capacity.
In their presentation, the conservancy included images of singer Billie Eilish and comedian George Lopez as potential acts that could perform at the venue.
River Road residents have been concerned about a steady series of concerts clogging up access to the rest of the park.
The Brackenridge Park Conservancy stated that the “Sunken Garden Theater occupies only three acres of the 349-acre park, ensuring that there is plenty of space to enjoy Brackenridge Park without being impacted by Sunken Garden Theater.”
The conservancy also said that day visitors would not be inconvenienced because the events will be held in the early evening after families have visited the park.
Its traffic plan for concerts includes a “safe and effective traffic flow system” that will prevent congestion through the addition of extra law enforcement and trained staffing for all events.
The River Road neighborhood said “no traffic, parking, or sound impact studies have been shared with the public.”
One community member, Michael Marchbanks, expressed skepticism over the conservancy’s claim that they would manage to eliminate traffic congestion.
“We have seen in Spring Breaks, Easter and everything else, incredible traffic backing up on (U.S.) 281,” Marchbanks said.
Marchbanks pointed to the “Thank You For Being A Friend Day” event that was hosted by the San Antonio Zoo on Jan. 17 as evidence of ongoing traffic congestion in the area. The zoo was offering special deals in honor of the late Betty White’s birthday. White was an animal lover and animal welfare activist.
“Even just this last Martin Luther King (Jr.) Day, when we had the zoo do their little special because Betty White died,” said Marchbanks, who in general supports renovations. “We could not get across to Hildebrand (Avenue) from Mulberry (Street) because it was totally blocked up with people.”
The Brackenridge Park Conservancy’s sound attenuation plan includes reducing sound emissions by having an enclosed stage house and a large roof at the front of the stage that will absorb sound.
“Patched absorption at the rear wall of the facility will minimize slap back echo from this wall and minimize sound escaping from the audience bowl,” the conservancy also states.
Community members at the town hall were reluctant to believe that sound wouldn’t pour over into their neighborhoods with the proposed larger venue.
“We live in Monte Vista, about two miles from the Sunken Garden and when concerts are held there, there is something about the local geology or topography, or something, that makes it an acoustical horn pointed right at our bedroom,” said Rasa Silenas, a Monte Vista resident.
Silenas said that if Sunken Garden becomes a larger venue that hosts 48-60 concerts a year, she would most likely have to move out from the area.
River Road residents, and other attendees, also expressed concern over the welfare of the animals in the adjacent zoo.
Mary Sandoval, a River Road resident, said that the proposal “transcends River Road” and affects the entire city.
“We know there’s alternate venues already in existence that are not located in a delicate ecosystem, 1,500 feet from 3,000 animals and an urban core,” she said.
Tim Morrow, president and CEO of the San Antonio Zoo, said sound emanating from concerts at Sunken Garden Theater cannot be heard at the zoo.
“We can’t hear the (Sunken Garden) concerts at the zoo,” Morrow said in an interview with the Heron. “I’m assuming it’s just the way the quarry is cut. There was an event there this weekend, we just don’t hear it … I was at the zoo the whole time.”
Morrow said the biggest source of outside noise comes from vehicles traveling on U.S. 281.
Community members still expressed that they would feel more comfortable after seeing more evaluations and impact studies.
Who will pay if the venue acts fall short?
Scott said the conservancy has not chosen a developer or operator for Sunken Garden Theater.
“Those decisions have not been made,” Scott said.
The operator could be a source of additional funding, said local attorney Frank Burney, who represents the conservancy.
“We’ll also ask for things like consideration for naming rights if someone wants to name the facility,” Burney said. “And also that we expect the potential operator, whoever that may be, will bring some dollars to the table to help with the cost of construction.”
Community members questioned whether taxpayer dollars would go toward operating and maintenance costs if the venue didn’t make enough money.
“We have not negotiated a deal yet,” said Feldman, the consultant. “So the costs will be borne 100 percent by the operator of the facility. The operating facility will have to show financial wherewithal to be able to support the ongoing operating costs in order to be able to get the contract to run the building.”
Wilson of the River Road neighborhood said at last week’s council meeting that much more public discussion is needed before committing public dollars for a project of “such magnitude and expense” on public land.
“I continue to be proud of the commitment San Antonio has made to its parks,” Wilson said. “As we move forward, we must faithfully ask ourselves, and elected officials: ‘What do we expect of our parks and how to de plan to maintain them?’ ”
Clarification: This article has been updated to clarify under what circumstance the $5 million in park dollars currently set aside for Sunken Garden Theater would go to general Brackenridge Park upgrades.
Heron Editor Ben Olivo contributed to this report.
Kayla Padilla is a freelance journalist in San Antonio. She served as the editor-in-chief of Trinity University’s campus newspaper, the Trinitonian, in 2020 and 2021. Follow her on Twitter at @KaylaPadilla_
Kaylee Greenlee Beal is a freelance photojournalist based in San Antonio. She graduated from Baylor University in May 2020 with a major in journalism and minor in political science. Follow her on Twitter at @kayleegreenlee or on Instagram at @kgreenleephoto.
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