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Warning of a deepening rift with the community, several San Antonio Councilmembers sought three-week delay to mediate on a bond-funded project requiring bird and tree removals on lands held as sacred by many.
“There’s a lot more to Brackenridge that you want to do and you cannot leave this unrepaired.”—Phyllis Viagran, D3 San Antonio City Council
As residents of San Antonio entered their second month of near-daily triple-digit temperatures being fueled by industrially-driven global warming, half of San Antonio’s City Council joined Mayor Ron Nirenberg to approve the removal of nearly 50 trees in the headwaters area of Brackenridge Park.
While the first phase of this bond-funded redevelopment project has been debated in multiple regulatory settings for more than a year, last Thursday was the first chance many on Council had to publicly consider the project.
In spite of Councilmember warnings of a widening rift with the community over the project, admonishments by Native American residents that the impacted area is a sacred site, and proffered alternative approaches that could save more of the trees—trees critical to offsetting punishing inner-city heat island impacts—an effort to delay the vote was defeated. That was thanks, in part, to D9 Councilmember John Courage.
“I’ve heard a lot about what not to do but I haven’t heard what should be done, other than the presentation that staff has made, except to give it more time,” Courage said.
Yet when a fellow Councilmember stepped forward to try to answer just that question by inviting a River Road Neighborhood resident to the mic, Mayor Ron Nirenberg threatened to shut down the meeting rather than allow additional testimony from the public.
Let’s not bury the lede here.
Though chided by D8 Councilmember Manny Pelaez as disrespectful and conspiratorial, the worst thing about last Thursday’s City Council meeting wasn’t the community members who lined up one more time to speak against the project as conceived. We joined them because, the reality is that those who have challenged this project’s design and rationale for a year and a half are the reason the project has improved as much as it has, perhaps already sparing dozens of trees originally slated for the ax.
Nor was it the well-heeled project boosters called repeatedly to the mic to voice support for the project, even as alternative views were ignored.
The worst thing about the meeting was Mayor Ron Nirenberg interrupting and silencing two women—one of them D3 Councilmember Phyllis Viagran—when they attempted to provide information other Councilmembers seemed to be requesting.
Viagran’s comments here are worth hearing in full, as she warns against the City entrenching antagonisms that, if left unaddressed, will almost certainly continue damaging the project well into the future. We fear her take to be prophetic.
“We have been here all morning,” Viagran said. “We have two distinct sides. … My thing is we need to repair that. So that is why I’m asking for a delay for three weeks. Because I believe that if they can have a conversation where [residents] feel that they build up enough trust that there aren’t these rumors that there’s going to be a private venue or a cafe, maybe we can have a resolution.”
“Because there’s a lot more to Brackenridge that you want to do and you cannot leave this unrepaired,” Viagran said.
When Viagran attempted to offer the mic to Susan Strawn, who serves as an advisor to the Brackenridge Park Conservancy for the nearby River Road neighborhood, Nirenberg interrupted: “Councilmember Viagran, we’re discussing the delay as Council, so we’re going to move forward.”
The exchange came during Council discussion after the public comment period had closed.
Viagran then asked Strawn to speak to the proposed delay of the vote.
“We’re not allowing further comment from the public,” Nirenberg shot. “We’re moving on with Council discussion, Councilmember Viagran. Are you through with your time, Councilmember Viagran?”
Then speaking over Strawn, who had approached the mic: “Ma’am, there is no more public comment.”
Viagran pressed further. “Susan, do you think a delay would be helpful in helping the relationship between you and the Brackenridge Conservancy?”
“I do,” Strawn managed to get in. “What I’ve heard from the Council is that you do not have the information about the alternatives that we’ve proposed. I would be happy to provide you with more information, Mr. Courage. We would be happy to have you speak to our volunteer engineers and our arborists.”
Nirenberg, interrupting again: “Thank you, Ms. Strawn.”
Strawn: “I would also like to speak to the 106 process, which I believe is…”
Nirenberg then interrupted again. “Ma’am, the public comment period is open, is over. The question is on the delay. I’m going to recess the meeting unless we get this back under order.”
City code tasks the mayor to “preserve order and decorum” and “confine members’ remarks to the question under discussion.” However, it’s unusual for the mayor to shut down discussion in this way, allowing some Council members and City staff to solicit testimony from outside sources multiple times (the Brackenridge Conservancy in this case) while barring other Council members from seeking alternative views.
Here’s the full exchange:
Strawn told Deceleration after the meeting that the remaining project approvals will likely take longer than City staff have suggested. Others have begun to murmur about lawsuits.
Curiously, while Courage did not express concern about the loss of trees (many were simply growing where they should not, he said) he did express concern about the potential impact of the project on birds—birds that were so recently violently driven out of the park by City teams.
“Are there a number of nests in the trees that we see that will be gone?” Courage asked.
Parks Director Homer Garcia answered honestly: “Currently there are no nests in the project area.”
Courage said that this was the answer he wanted.
Garcia could have elaborated on why there are no nests in the project area, of course. It’s because this area of San Antonio’s most celebrated park has only been newly cleansed of a migratory bird rookery that had previously numbered in the hundreds, if not thousands. It was a major operation.
Over many months, and behind chainlink and black funerary-like fabric that ran through the center of the park, City staff and contractors, armed with a federal USDA permit excluding them from the requirements of the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act, targeted the birds by banging clapping boards, shooting lasers, exploding pyrotechnics, and severing accommodating tree limbs to drive out the rookery of migratory cattle egrets that they blamed for fouling the park and river waters. (Deceleration has another thought about urban rookeries, mainly along the lines of leave them alone already.)
The normally federally protected birds posed an obvious obstacle to the multi-million dollar redevelopment project intended to link the gentrifying affluence of downtown’s Pearl District with some of San Antonio’s most high-income ZIP Codes to the north in Olmos and Alamo Heights.
The bird eviction, ongoing and contested for years but dramatically accelerated in late 2022 through the spring of 2023, has been a disturbing echo of the destruction of Bird Island at Elmendorf Lake Park on San Antonio’s Westside, ostensibly on behalf of the US Air Force over concerns of collisions at Kelly Air Field. (Four collisions out of roughly 500 wildlife strikes documented by the US Air Force at the air field over nine years of record-keeping were linked to cattle egrets).
So the birds of Brackenridge Park are now gone. And attention turns to the trees.
Images: Greg Harman
Roughly 50 trees—six of a size qualifying as “heritage” trees—will be removed from the park pending final clearance by state and federal regulators under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. City staff say that removing many that are growing within and over the river wall will allow them to make needed repairs to the wall, as well as restore the Pump House, build an outdoor performance area, and install new, history-celebrating park amenities intended to “tell the story of water in San Antonio.”
Members of the City’s parks and public works departments gave an extensive tour of the project to a sizable (and already skeptical) crowd early last year (See: “Video: Full Brackenridge Park Tree Tour”). Many complained that the 2017 bond description didn’t mention removing more than 100 trees (or a rookery for that matter). The bond language merely offered: “General park improvements and rehabilitation which may include historic river wall, restroom, trails, and historic structures.”
Tree Removals: 2022 vs 2023
Deceleration counts 47 trees being removed in the current plans (2023 PDF), four of which are listed as dead and four as invasive. Additionally, we note 22 trees marked as being relocated. No trees were to be relocated on the original plans (2022 PDF). We can’t compare total numbers for 2022 and 2023 because the project area was dramatically limited in 2023 to a first phase only, delimited below by a dark dashed line. Most trees being relocated are fairly small trees. The largest, “Tree 101,” is expected to require most of the funds Council transferred from the City’s Tree Mitigation Fund, or roughly $500,000, to move it a dozen feet or so away from the river.
The first public comment of the day came from Gary Perez, perhaps best known for his research into the White Shaman rock art near Seminole Canyon State Park. Perez spoke of the sacredness of the project location to Native Americans across the continent and the project’s potential to “rip this culture apart at the seams.”
“A lot of folks come through this region and you don’t see them—and they don’t announce themselves. They come though here wanting to touch this water and these springs, to experience that particular tenet in their ceremonies live in front of you like it’s a theater,” Perez said.
“We stand in support against the Brackenridge Park Tree Removal and understand the damage of the sacred trees and migratory birds,” wrote Martina Minthorn, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Comanche Nation, in a letter to Mayor Nirenberg.
While one Conservancy member told Council that the trees “were not here when the Indigenous people were here,” Perez and Matilde Torres served to remind Council members and others present that the Indigenous relationship with the lands and waters here is an unbroken one spanning tens of thousands of years and into this present moment.
In an interview with the San Antonio Express-News, Brackenridge Park Conservancy Board Chairman Nick Hollis pointed to the evidence of that relationship. “Every time you put a spade in anywhere around the park, you’re going to find some artifacts,” he said. Which is precisely another reason many with Indigenous ancestry prefer a more limited project.
The City Manager’s Office placed the project on a slow roll in 2022 by request of D2 Councilmember Jalen McKee-Rodriguez. This additional time was sought in the hopes of ironing out differences, which deepened after City staff were caught (and subsequently offered a partial apology for) repeated misstatements about key aspects of the project.
McKee-Rodriguez lamented last week that little had changed in terms of community relations.
“The issue here is that neither the City nor the [Brackenridge] Conservancy was able to achieve real buy-in from residents that value and use the park,” said McKee-Rodriguez.
Further, had it not been for an assertive community, the City and Conservancy would have taken out the full number of trees proposed at the start and celebrated it as a victory, he said. “That gives me great pause. … No one, not the City or the Conservancy, thought to question the need for the removal of so many trees.”
These concerns still linger even with two dozen trees now being relocated rather than removed.
“Is it advisable to remove so many trees, disrupting the canopy and water, and adding so much additional concrete to a public park?” McKee-Rodrigue asked. “These are things I believe are worthy of additional exploration.”
McKee-Rodriguez joined D3’s Viagran, D5 Councilmember Terri Castillo, and D6 Councilmember Melissa Cabello Havrda in a push for a three-week delay to try to mediate the conflict. The three newest Council additions, D1’s Sukh Kaur, D7’s Marina Alderete Gavito, and D10’s Marc Whyte sided with the mayor, Courage, and Pelaez. D4’s Adriana Rocha Garcia was not in attendance.
Voting to advance the project without delay, newcomer Gavito offered weakly that all future meetings on Brackenridge should reserve “half the meeting time” for “residents feedback and asking questions.”
Just not on this day.
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