San Antonio Parks and Recreation staff recently landed this unique opportunity, and along with it, an even rarer chance to host a national design competition for the master planning of the park that served as a dairy farm for more than 60 years.
"This project, from acquisition to development, is the single highest-profile project we are currently completing. Its importance to the community long-term is what has created so much citizen and political interest," says San Antonio Parks and Recreation Director Malcolm Matthews.
In early 2006, trustees for the Voelcker Estate were finalizing a purchase contract that would have given commercial developers the go-ahead to rip out trees and disrupt wildlife to make room for an array of strip centers, apartment complexes and assorted businesses on the last parcel of the farm not yet built upon," Fortunately, San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardherger had a very different vision for the property - the creation of a world-class urban park that would be enjoyed by San Antonians for generations.
"The Voelcker property was operated as a dairy farm by Max and Minnie Voelcker since the 1940s and as the city of San Antonio grew, the farm was surrounded by dozens of single-family neighborhoods and apartment complexes," Park Projects Manager Scott Stover explains. "Since the Voelckers had no children, after their deaths, the property was placed in a trust, with the millions of dollars being generated by its systematic sale being donated to local youth and health-related charities."
The mayor's commitment to Phil Hardberger Park began in 2006 when he spearheaded City Council support to allocate $16 million in city funds to purchase the first 107 acres of the property. The property was purchased in June 2006 amid the threat of lawsuits from the competing developer. Mayor Hardberger spent his own campaign funds on ads promoting a bond election that would generate the money to purchase the remaining 204 acres for more than $30 million and set aside funds for a master plan and first phase development of the park. San Antonio voters showed their support of the purchase when they approved the May 2007 Parks Bond Election.
"To develop this new world-class park Mayor Hardberger wanted the Parks and Recreation Department to utilize a method of consultant procurement not utilized by the City of San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department before and not common for many government agencies to undertake," Stover says.
The city moved forward with a national design competition for the master planning of the park in January 2007. Staff began the process by hiring the design competition consulting firm Jones/Kroloff, out of New Orleans, to head a national search that began by looking at more than 35 landscape architecture/planning firms across the country. Jones/Kroloff presented work from the various firms for review by a selection committee appointed by the mayor. The selection committee included Matthews, Stover and Eric Reyna, architect assistant. Stover and Reyna served as the project managers for the design competition.
The various firms' work ranged from the traditional to the eclectic, giving the selection committee a wide range of talents, concepts and ideas from which to choose. That pool was then narrowed to 15 firms that were asked to submit more detailed information in an informal request for qualifications.
Further presentations on each firm and firm team were presented by Jones/Kroloff and the teams were ranked by the selection committee members. After much discussion and review of the presentations, four firms were selected to compete in the design competition in April 2007.
The selected firms included Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, Ltd of Seattle, Olin Partnership from Philadelphia, Overland Partners Architects from San Antonio, and Stephen Stimson Associates in partnership with D.I.R.T. Studio of Falmouth, Massachusetts.
The four firms began six weeks of intensive design work with a two-day visit to San Antonio in late April. This allowed the team members to visit with the mayor, City Council members and Parks and Recreation Department staff. A tour and hike of the property was included, culminating in an evening citizen stakeholder meeting, where city staff and the design teams heard various visions for the park.
"Over 100 citizens participated in the meeting to share their passion for the park and their needs in the surrounding community for public park land and recreational facilities. It was evident at the meeting that the variety of interests for the property would make the design concepts challenging to develop," Stover says.
"The two seemingly disparate stakeholder groups included those who want to see the property left in an undeveloped and natural state and those who want the opportunity to build more sports fields for youth, which are sorely lacking in this part of the city. Other suggestions included swimming facilities, skate parks, dog parks, hiking and biking trails, a library and education facility, a nature center, interpretive features, pavilions, playgrounds and sport courts," he says.
With only six weeks to receive the design concepts from the four teams, Stover and Reyna began planning for a public presentation of the schemes and for the official jury selection of the winner. A meeting site was located, adjacent to the park at the Jewish Community Center, to house the team's design concepts for a public viewing and a presentation and comment meeting. Notices of the public exhibition were sent to all those who attended the first meeting, as well as all media outlets, City Council offices, surrounding neighborhood associations, park issue stakeholders, etc. A Web site was also developed to keep the public up to date on activities on the project.
The four design concepts were delivered on June 13, reviewed by Stover and Reyna to ensure the submissions matched the design competition rules, and the presentations were prepared for the public exhibition the next day. Citizens of all ages came to view the designs, offer comments and rate the various concepts. The four design teams made public presentations on June 14 and fielded questions from the community about their proposals.
The following day, the four design teams made presentations to the mayor-appointed 11-member jury, which included elected officials, local park advocates, design experts and city staff. The jury selected the design team of Stephen Stimson Associates/D.I.R.T. Studio. With the selection of the design competition winner, the services of Jones/Kroloff came to an end, but the process for city staff and the winner of the competition was just beginning.
"Having the competition managed by the firm of Jones/Kroloff helped ensure our competition's success," Reyna explains. "Their reputation and experience level not only gave us confidence in the competition process but also guaranteed participation by the best and the brightest in landscape architecture."
All four design teams brought a variety of creative ideas to the table, including numerous recreational uses along the major roadway portions of the park and cultural and educational uses for the original Voelcker farm buildings near the adjacent Salado Creek. Presenters also offered a variety of ideas for providing trails and access to the heavily wooded areas of the park and all agreed that the two separate tracts of land currently divided by Wurzbach Parkway must be reconnected with a nature-friendly bridge that even wildlife can cross. Concepts that stood out included an educational area that would offer families the opportunity to see firsthand how a dairy farm is operated, active recreation areas and green building facilities.
The competition was held not to determine a final design, but rather to choose a partner who will collaborate on the creation of the park. The next step for the city is to negotiate a contract with the Stimson team for City Council approval and then begin the master planning effort for the park, expected to be completed in early 2008. Once a master plan is completed, a first phase of construction documents will be developed. There are anticipated to be many phases of the project as funding becomes available from the city, by corporate donations and by grants. So the relationship between the Stimson team and the city is a long-term one.
"All the teams brought great strengths to the table," Mayor Hardberger says. "This team approached the land with an eye toward preserving what makes the terrain special, drawing out its natural beauty and taking advantage of the features that make it useful as a park."
The winning design team members will be led by Stephen Stimson, a Falmouth, Massachusetts-based landscape architect whose past projects include the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, the Harvard Allston Campus and the Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden. Included in the winning design team is Julie Bargmann, of Charlottesville, Virginia based D.I.R.T. Studio, who is recognized for her innovative work restoring natural conditions to former industrial sites.
"This new park will raise the quality of life for our own community and it will distinguish San Antonio as one of the great livable cities of North America. The world will know that this is a place that values its open spaces and that this is a community that invests in the things that make our lives fuller and more joyous. Our own lives are short, paltry things. But in Voelcker, we build for the centuries," Mayor Hardberger said.