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News More green will need more green



Funding, management determines the state of the City's parks

Bright red feathers contrast with the shadowy canopy of trees as a cardinal flits across El Camino trail. The pathway, 6-feet-wide and wheelchair accessible, winds from the park headquarters, still under construction, and angles gently downhill, past a cultivated section of spring wildflowers to a family-reunion-size pavilion. It then leads toward the Medina River, which is flanked by a thicket of pecan, hackberry, sycamore, and cypress trees. This is more than just a trailhead for the 2.6 miles of hike-and-bike trails that circulate the City's recently opened park: It is part of the old Camino Real Highway that accommodated travelers during the Spanish colonial presence in México and South Texas.

Andre Myart casts a line into the Medina River. He and two friends were spending an afternoon fishing at Medina River Park in far south San Antonio. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

The Medina River Park Natural Area is the City's latest addition to its park system, whichhas grown from 7,575 acres in 1999 to its present holdings of 15,838 acres, including golf courses and municipal lakes. If it weren't for the efforts of former District 8 Councilwoman Bonnie Conner and like-minded "Friends of the Medina River," voter/activists who twice defeated the proposed Applewhite Reservoir, these 364 acres near Toyota Manufacturing Co. would be under water.

Conner visited the property when she served on the City Parks and Recreation Advisory Board and says she was "stunned by the beauty of the river corridor. It was like a wonderland, with all kinds of animals, and different trees. I couldn't believe we would not do something with this. A variety of people thought I was odd for doing something way south. It's ironic now. There the park is, right on the map with Toyota and all the proposed growth. I'm very pleased this happened."

But Conner and other citizens concerned about the state of San Antonio's parks have little time to count past accomplishments. There still is much to be done in a city that has jumped from 6.7 acres of parkland for every 1,000 residents to a ratio of 12 acres per 1,000 residents.

According to Inside City Parks, a publication of the Trust for Public Lands, San Antonio, classified as an intermediate low-density city, has 17.6 acres per 1,000 residents when state, county, and federal parks and preserves are included. By comparison with other intermediate low-density cities, Tampa has 16.7, Austin 35.4, and Atlanta 7.4.

Scott Stover, capital projects coordinator for the parks department, declined to talk to the Current about the state of the public parks, referring any comments to his higher-ups. But Stover does appear on a short segment of Park Bench, a locally produced gov-fo-tainment program on Channel 21. In the video, Stover speaks about the department's strategic plan, and acknowledges that San Antonio needs "good, realistic projects that would be funded next." Stover mentions master plans, including skateboard parks, dog parks, sports complexes, and other improvements. Those plans include the River Walk, which is considered a linear park and is the city's first greenway. Its shifting walls and sidewalks need to be repaired.

"Nobody wants to live in pavement and buildings," says Stover to Park Bench host Jody Garcia. "There is an ancestral (primordial) need to find green space, and get back to nature." He says the City's five-year plan will evolve into a 10-year plan to be revised every two years. The plan will be used as a guideline for City Council during future budget sessions.

Money for parks

The Parks and Recreation Department's recent update on a five-year plan for parks and open space counts 83 projects funded from the 1994 park bond program.

Another 63 projects have been funded at $24.2 million from a 1999 bond program.

Authorized by a May 2000 1/8-cent sales tax increase approved by voters, about 6,500 acres of open space were acquired over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone and along the Salado and Leon creeks for $65 million.

On May 7, voters approved an 1/8-cent sales tax increase for acquisition of property over the Recharge Zone in addition to purchase of linear creek property. That increase could generate $135 million over nine years.

But the City is not out of the woods when it comes to providing the citizens of San Antonio the parks they have demanded. Although new park properties will be purchased, the parks department is struggling with the fate of municipal golf courses, which are losing money. The department also suffered a setback when it received no viable response to a request for proposals it issued last year to bring private investment into the Japanese Tea Garden and the adjacent Sunken Garden Theater.

Friends of the Parks President Conner and the San Antonio Parks Foundation, headed by former Mayor Lila Cockrell, have picked up the challenge to restore the tea garden to its former glory, but it will take time, and a lot of money.

"This is millions of dollars we will have to raise," says Conner. "The tea garden and the theater are connected; they are very important to each other. We don't even know the cost right now."

The trouble with the tea garden, aside from midnight raids by locals to steal freshly planted landscape plants, is that the concrete bottom of the garden no longer holds water, which means the lily pads, Koi fish, and other aquatic life can't survive in the pond.

Anyone wondering how the City has spent Proposition 3 funds from the 2000 vote should visit Crownridge Canyon Natural Area when it opens later this year. This new property abuts subdivisions that feature high-dollar custom homes perched on ridge tops just north of I-10 and Loop 1604.

The park preserves more than 200 acres of the sensitive Recharge Zone and wildlife habitat. It includes a trailhead and gathering area, with bathrooms, water, and parking. The park also includes a series of hiking trails and "striking natural landscapes," revealing views of nearby subdivisions.

With the recent voter approval of increased sales tax revenues to purchase more aquifer-sensitive property and linear park lands, San Antonio could be on the way to increasing its holdings of park properties to a level that citizens have indicated they want for their community.

The parks department plan calls for promotion of community input and planning for "equitable access to a diversified and balanced city-wide system of park and recreation facilities."

That should, as Stover says on public access TV, help San Antonio residents return to their primordial roots.

By Michael Cary

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