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Statements of Texas Historical Commission staff released to Deceleration under a state Public Information Act request don’t jibe with repeated City claims that towering trees must be removed to fix the river wall.
Facts have been slippery things in the struggle over City plans to raze more than 105 trees in Brackenridge Park for a 2017 bond project intended to repair and restore a slew of historic features in the San Antonio River’s headwaters. Though rooted in a 2017 public vote, City staffers sprung an unexpected tree-clearing proposal on residents in January—billed as necessary for both repairing a portion of river wall (among other development goals) and helping drive out an established rookery of migratory birds.
In a quickly antagonistic confrontation with project critics, City staffers and regulatory partners with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, for instance, repeatedly denied the project had any connection to a well-documented plan to force out an established rookery of migratory birds. Last month Deceleration published documents—including internal City emails and bond project language submitted by the City to San Antonio’s Historic and Design Review Committee—demonstrating the significant overlap of the two projects.
But in the fight to protect the birds and trees, it’s not only claims about the birds deserving public skepticism. Many of the repeated claims of City staffers intended to justify the removal of nearly 20 large trees to repair a section of river wall at the heart of the City’s plans—many classified as “heritage” trees and ranging from oaks to pecan to cypress—are also highly dubious.
In fact, a small trove of email communications generated by staffers at the Texas Historical Commission directly contradict numerous statements made by Jamaal Moreno, City of San Antonio landscape architect with the Public Works Department and a manager on the 2017 bond project. The documents were secured by Deceleration under a state Public Information Act request.
Moreno has repeatedly claimed, for instance, that modifications to the project that could save many of the trees were not only impractical but actually prohibited by state or federal regulatory agencies and direction provided to the City. His statements have been supported and amplified by others, including Parks and Recreation Assistant Manager Bill Pennell and Assistant City Manager David McCary on numerous occasions.
On January 26, while testifying for a favorable vote for tree removal from the San Antonio Planning Commission, Moreno said of the THC: “We asked them could we move [the river walls] forward or could we move them back to address some of the proximity issues with some of the large trees that we have. They considered it but basically told us, ‘No if you’re going to rebuild and rehabilitate these walls and these other structures they have to be rehabilitated in place.’ They have to be rehabilitated as close to original condition as possible.”
The statement was repeated in the project application itself, which read in part:
In addition, The Texas Historical Commission (THC) and the Office of Historic Preservation (OHP) have both weighed in on the importance of reconstructing and repairing all the cultural resources to their original condition and in their original location and configuration in order to preserve the historical significance of each particular cultural resource. For instance, in the case of the Lambert Beach walls and the Upper Labor Acequia walls, we would not be allowed to move walls forward or backward or adjust any configurations (i.e., lines, curves, angles, etc.) to avoid, or otherwise distance the walls from, any of the existing trees.
Though many residents turned out to the meeting to challenge the City’s narrative, Planning members in January approved the tree-removal request. From there, City staff still needed agreement from San Antonio’s Historic and Design Review Commission.
During a February 12 site tour, five days after THC’s Executive Director wrote the Public Works Department to say that the agency would not approve any tree removals based upon the information submitted to date, Moreno said that “we’ve got multiple governmental entities telling us that we cannot remove [the walls].”
Speaking before the Historic and Design Review Commission on February 16, at what could have been the last local hurdle to removing the trees, Moreno said that the Texas Historical Commission “indicated that something like this [moving the wall to protect the trees] would not be possible.”
Then, on a February 21 broadcast of Texas Public Radio’s ‘The Source,’ Moreno said that City staff are prevented by National Register of Historic Places protections over Brackenridge Park from modifying the wall. “When we’re rehabilitating them [historic structures], we can not adjust them or rehabilitate them to our liking. They typically have to be put in their original condition and in their original place.”
Some of the Brackenridge trees slated for removal
Images: Greg Harman via Flickr
However, based upon a review of dozens of internal THC email communications and at least one formal letter to the City of San Antonio’s Public Works Department, it appears that many of these statements are not accurate. In several messages relayed internally within the THC and one email shared with an employee of the SA Conservation Society Foundation, THC staff lamented what they described as Moreno’s mischaracterizations of the Commission’s position. More broadly, several emails complained that City staff was rushing through permits in San Antonio for the Sunken Gardens Theatre and the proposed tree removal at Lambert Beach while failing to first secure the necessary clearance from the THC.
“The THC is currently reviewing the City’s proposed tree removal project and has not made any determinations—formal or informal—pertaining to the proposed plans, including the fate of any heritage trees,” wrote Ashley Salie, the historic preservation project reviewer over Bexar County within THC’s Division of Architecture, in one of dozens of emails and related documents released to Deceleration under a state public-information request.
“I personally have not make any claims about tree removal or retention to Mr. Moreno, and I am unaware of my predecessor, or any of my other THC colleagues, making similar statements regarding heritage trees,” Salie wrote.
In this case she was responding in this case to a query from Beth Standifird, staff librarian for the San Antonio Conservation Society Foundation.
Bess Graham, director of the THC’s Division of Architecture, reviewed Salie’s email, responding: “Thanks, Ashley. Good response to Ms. Standifird.” Graham then suggested that Salie reach out to Moreno directly to discuss what the team believed were mischaracterizations of fact.
“Regardless of what they claim in the press,” Graham wrote, “we will proceed with the Antiquities Permit review.”
Here’s another similar statement from the bunch:
After the City’s plans to remove the trees came to light in January, a growing number of residents publicly challenged the City’s logic. City staff, including Moreno, rejected all calls from the community to reimagine the project to save the largest heritage trees slated for destruction.
Moreno and Pennell asserted regularly, with the support of Assistant City Manager David McCary and others, that modifying or moving the river wall in a way that may save the trees was a non-starter. They insinuated on multiple occasions that regulators at the the US Army Corps of Engineers and the THC have specifically prohibited such actions.
“The US Army Corps is no joke,” McCary told members of the HDRC in a hard press for an affirmative vote. The majority of HDRC members, much like the director of the THC back in February, we are now learning, opposed the tree proposal due to the City’s failure to prepare and submit a project plan. In spite of the fact the tree-removal proposal has received consideration by local community committees, the actual project the tree clearing is intended to serve has yet to develop beyond vague concept drawings highlighting the “story of water” in the City.
At the time that McCary was talking up his team’s transparency and the very serious nature of the US Army Corps, additionally, the feds had long since advised the City that the Army Corps was not stepping in on the matter of the trees. In an email to THC staff released as part of Deceleration’s record request, USACE Fort Worth District’s archeologist and project manager James Barrera wrote:
“The January 20, 2022, site visit was in large part to help USACE determine if we would have a federal action for the proposed tree removal activities and after discussions with all the City of San Antonio staff (and review of the design/plans) we determined that no discharge into waters would occur as a result of the tree removal activities,” Barrera wrote to THC staffers. “So no USACE permit would be required to complete these activities.”
The USACE, in other words, would likely be overseeing future construction work at the site, if it advanced, but were not stepping on on the tree removal plans.
Formed in 1953, the Texas Historical Commission’s mission is to “protect and preserve the state’s historic and prehistoric resources for the use, education, enjoyment, and economic benefit of present and future generations.” It has regulatory oversight under the National Preservation Act when projects impacting historical sites have federal involvement. Section 106 of the NHPA will likely be triggered in the drive to renovate Sunken Gardens because of past federal investment, but likely not on the Brackenridge tree removal, according to internal THC communications.
COSA’s dependence on the THC is due to Brackenridge Park’s listing in the National Register of Historic Places and designation as a State Antiquities Landmark. That landmark designation triggers THC review for any proposed work beyond what can be classified as “routine maintenance.”
In preparing on February meeting with City staff on the project, Salie wrote she was expecting “pushback” from City staffers since “not everyone involved in the project is a preservationist.” It was also clear that the authority of the agency to assert protections for the trees may be challenged, she wrote at the time. “It’s possible some of the preservationists will ask if the trees are truly in our purview as they are not part of the built environment per se; however, the landscape is a signifiant aspect of the park and is emphasized in the NR [National Register] listing,” Salie wrote.
A week later, on February 18, Salie wrote to one of her team’s media liaisons about what she saw as the mischaracterization of regulatory positions on the proposed mass tree removal:
“I wanted to add one more note of clarification as a follow up to our conversation this morning. COSA has been quoted as stating (in so many words) that the THC and USACE have said the raceway walls at the Lambert Beach area of Brackenridge Park need to remain, and therefore the adjacent trees must go. Again, to my knowledge, no one from THC or USACE has made any such comment. Beyond that, THC has not reviewed or approved the tree removal project as a whole, which I know we discussed in-depth this morning.”
Paul Berry, a spokesperson for the Public Works department, said that Moreno “stands by his previous comments.” He added that no one from THC had at any time reached out in an attempt to correct Moreno either. Staff at THC were not available for comment on Friday. But the difference between the public statements of City staff and the private emails of state regulators couldn’t be more stark.
Days after the Planning Commission approved the City’s request to take out the trees, Salie wrote Graham, director of the THC’s Division of Architecture, and a fellow THC program coordinator.
“Jamaal Moreno with the city, who was present at the Brackenridge meeting I attended on January 20, is quoted in this article saying something to the effect that the THC won’t let heritage trees remain in the Lambert Beach area because they are damaging the cultural resources (historic walls and other above-ground structures). There has not been a formal review by the THC on this project giving any sort of indication like this. I also did not say anything that would give that impression during the site visit on January 20.
“Based on this article, and the fact that COSA is presenting the project in front of the HDRC,” she continued, “I am sensing either a misunderstanding of state review protocol on COSA’s end, or a misunderstanding of city review protocol on my end. Something does not seem to be adding up to me.”
Days later, Salie wrote to a member of THC’s communications team: “THC has not completed its formal State Antiquities Landmark and Section 106 review of the project, so there is a disconnect between COSA and THC as far as the project’s approval status and overall progress.”
Although approved by voters in 2017, City staff did not ramp up on the bond project until January of this year. The request for tree removal—paired with a preexisting campaign to forcefully evict an established rookery of migratory birds—caught the attention of many community members and sparked a surge in grassroots resistance. That seemed to crest at February’s HDRC hearing with two hours of public testimony almost universally opposing the project. Now with a new City bond vote approaching in May, again with Brackenridge funding on the line, and birds returning to their roost, staff were advancing with full urgency.
They just weren’t advancing fully prepared. And it showed.
The City advanced its tree-removal agenda without a plan for local commissions to review and without a complete permit application on file with the THC. While Deceleration first reported the lack of a permit application at the state weeks ago, these new emails show the City was rushing for approvals based on partial maps with promises of revisions to come.
On January 13, for instance, Jennifer DiCocco of COSA’s Public Works department filed what she called an “interim plan set” for the proposed tree removal with the THC, saying that staff were still actively mapping trees and further changes would be coming. Yet even as she submitted inadequate paperwork she also alerted the regulatory agency that the City planned to start the tree removals two weeks later.
“Changes could be to which trees are going to be removed or which ones require monitoring of aboveground resources and to the notes provided in the plans—both current in the set and ones to be added,” DiCocco wrote. “A final and complete set will be provided to both the THC and USACE as soon as possible after today, but before the work is planned to begin on 1/26/2022.”
Emily Dylia, the archeologist with the THC on the receiving end of that email, did not seem impressed.
“We understand and appreciate the tight timeline on this project,” Dylia replied. “As such, we will do our best to provide a timely response. However, I do want to point out that the THC has a 30-day review period, and at best you are asking us to review in half of that time.”
In a letter on behalf of THC Director Mark Wolf sent almost a month later, Salie reminded Miranda Garrison, project manager at San Antonio’s Public Works Department, that THC still did not have a suitable application from the City. “The review staff is unable to complete a formal SAL [State Antiquities Landmark] permit review at this time due to inconsistent and insufficient documentation provided in the application materials,” she wrote.
In detailing COSA’s faulty work, Salie continued:
“THC will not approve demolition of a tree within an SAL without first reviewing evidence that clearly demonstrates why the tree negatively affects another historic resource, nor will it approve demolition of trees for the purpose of accommodating and implementing the new construction of an unapproved design. Sufficient documentation for demolition rationale includes approved plans, photographs, and narratives.”
A week after HDRC granted the City a week to develop a plan to submit for consideration, San Antonio City Manager Erik Walsh announced on February 22 that the project would be pushed into 2023, ostensibly to allow for more public dialogue.
Based upon the materials from the THC, however, it now appears the delay was not only a recognition of rising community protest. The THC communications show the City’s hand being forced by state regulators who refused to act on faulty, incomplete, or nonexistent development plans.
“No one wants to remove heritage trees, especially from a historic City park,” Walsh was quoted in the City’s press release, “but if the removal ultimately remains necessary to protect the public and historic structures at Brackenridge, I want the community to understand the full context of the project.
“I have directed staff to pause consideration by the HDRC, which has dominated the conversation and distracted from the broader benefits of the restoration work, while we complete the design and work with our partners and stakeholders.”
With that HDRC ‘distraction’ out of the way, the City is preparing to sell their vision afresh at the first of three public hearings scheduled for March 22 at the Witte Museum.