Healy-Murphy Park, little more than an acre of asphalt and dirt squeezed between Highway 37 and the Salvation Army’s Dave Coy residential facility on the city’s near East Side, is no urban paradise. It looks shabby and neglected, and much of the time it’s occupied by our city’s less-fortunate residents, who are accused of anti-social behavior ranging from pissing and shitting in public to groping young women enrolled at the adjacent (privately operated) Healy-Murphy school for at-risk youth.
The City spends an inordinate amount of time and resources cleaning and policing the park, says District 2 Councilwoman Sheila McNeil’s office (six calls in one 60-day period this fall, the PD reported). And still, it’s no place you’d go to catch some fresh air and sunshine in downtown’s asphalt jungle. McNeil says that’s why she’s proposing selling the park to the highest bidder before she leaves office this spring.
But documents obtained by the Current in an open-records request suggest a baser motivation.
In Fall 2007, lobbyist Walter Serna contacted McNeil’s office on behalf of La Villita Development, who he said was interested in purchasing the park in order to develop (yet another) limited-service hotel. (La Villita also owns the land under the Comfort Suites catty-corner to the park.) Serna is no slouch when it comes to political donations, even under SA’s strict campaign-finance limits. He and a La Villita representative have given McNeil $3,250 since she first came to office in 2005. But he did his homework: “Pursuant to a meeting I had with the City Attorney’s office and the Parks Department, the City of San Antonio is allowed to sell park land that is under two (2) acres and not being used for that purpose.” He even suggested a PR solution: “… the proceeds from the sale could be used to help develop the newly acquired Hays Street Park property located in your district.” (He might have added: the same law that says you can sell the park land without a public referendum requires you to “acquire land for park purposes” with the “proceeds of the sale” – no final word yet on whether “acquire” also includes development of existing parks, but the City Attorney’s office think so.
In March 2008, the Parks & Rec board discussed the proposal, and according to the minutes, was interested in “ensuring that the developer was serious about its purchase.” A month later, McNeil’s office contacted former Parks & Rec Director Malcolm Matthews to get the sale under way.
“Our office recently spoke with Mr. Serna regarding the process for Healy Murphy and we need direction on how to further proceed with this project,” wrote District 2’s Jarvis Soileu to Matthews on April 21.
“In order to proceed, I suggest that Walter Serna send D2 a letter confirming his client’s interest, provide a status on their project, and a schedule,” Matthews replied.
Only one hitch: Some time later, someone re-read the law’s fine print and realized that the City can only sell the property through a sealed-bid process, not directly to an interested private party. So, last summer, the effort to make the park’s sale appear like an organic uprising of community concern and City Council initiative began in earnest.
To hear McNeil’s office tell it, the park’s been in decline almost since the Salvation Army sold it to the City for $10 in 1978. And as Healy-Murphy Center Director Douglas Watson will confirm, it’s in a pretty sorry state. “The park needs to be cleaned up,” Watson said. “It’s a hazard to us: We have a very vulnerable population.”
Last spring, the Salvation Army briefly expressed interest in reacquiring the park, or at least fencing it off. But Director of Development Jose Macias has since aligned the organization with a coalition of residents, including the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association and Friends of the Parks, who are opposed to the sale. Opponents say the City is giving up Healy-Murphy for easy money (as much as $800,000 according to an official appraisal) just when the neighborhood’s fortunes are turning around, and the on-site CentroMed clinic, which serves the homeless population, is scheduled to move to the Westside Haven for Hope.
And, as the law implicitly acknowledges, a park has a value that transcends mere economics. Before it can approve a sale, Council must conclude that Healy-Murphy “is no longer usable and functional as a park,” a finding that depends in part on whom you consider a constituent, or at an even more basic level, a citizen. Yes, Healy-Murphy is in a poor part of town, closer to industrial lots and railroad tracks than manicured lawns and kid-hauling suburbans. Its nearest neighbors aren’t homes, but facilities that serve some of our neediest residents. But on two recent Sunday afternoons, men played hoops on the court — the sort of sight that could become more common if, as a resident suggested, the old clinic building became a substation for Park and regular police. A safe and well-maintained park is arguably a greater benefit to Healy-Murphy Center and the Salvation Army residents than a limited-service hotel. Not to mention more in keeping with the park’s namesake, the Irish immigrant who founded her own religious order to serve the city’s disfranchised African-American community.
It is true that the Hays Street Bridge land isn’t far from the Healy-Murphy site, and could use the money. Maybe a good leader would take a developer’s offer as an opportunity to improve one public property while getting rid of a troublesome lot. But a great leader might say that this district and this community — a community that recently committed more than $50 million to a Northside park — deserve both. •