Mayor Touts Parkland Purchase

Mayor Phil Hardberger pitched the purchase of the 311-acre North Side property for a new city park.

Mayor Phil Hardberger played to the cameras Tuesday, hugging an oak tree on the Voelcker Ranch as he pitched the purchase of the 311-acre North Side property for a new city park.

The City Council will decide Thursday whether to spend $47.8 million to acquire the ranch's three remaining tracts. Bordered by Northwest Military Highway to the west and Blanco Road to the east, the property is considered one of the biggest undeveloped expanses near the city's center.

"To think it's an untouched property in the middle of San Antonio — some developer must have been asleep," Hardberger said.

Not entirely. Los Angeles-based KB Homes already bought a 151-acre chunk of the ranch.

During a tour of the property for five council members, staffers and the media, Hardberger stood rhapsodizing in front of a 300-year-old live oak. Then, with a gaggle of TV cameramen and photographers in tow, he threw his arms partly around its massive trunk and joked about being branded a tree-hugger.

If the council gives its go-ahead, the city is expected to close on the sale of two tracts totaling 107 acres for $16.5 million next month, financing the deal with certificates of obligation, City Manager Sheryl Sculley said.

The remaining 204 acres, carrying a price tag of $31.3 million, would be included in a $550 million bond package expected to go to voters next year.

Hardberger said adding the Voelcker land acquisition to the bond package — with the lion's share expected for streets, sidewalks and drainage — would enhance its chances at the polls.

"Streets are very popular," he said. "But the conventional wisdom is that everybody loves parks."

City officials had estimated the property's cost at up to $45 million, but the price is nearly $3 million more than the estimate's high-end.

Max and Minnie Voelcker ran a dairy farm on the land until their deaths in 1980 and 2000, respectively. Minnie Voelcker's brown Pontiac Bonneville, streaked with dust and grime, is still parked next to a weather-beaten shed and a thicket of cactus.

The Voelcker Fund is charged with selling the land and donating the proceeds to organizations that conduct medical research, as well as Christus Santa Rosa Health Care and Boysville.

The trustees have had no shortage of interest; developers have coveted the property for years.

Indeed, an arm of the Addison-based Folsom Cos. has held the right of first refusal on the ranch since 1981, meaning it could match the city's offer. However, city officials have said the local government's right to condemn property for publicly beneficial projects trumps the developer's claims.

A Folsom official did not respond to an interview request Tuesday.

Richard Perez, one of the council members on the tour, said he favors the city's acquisition of the land.

"It would be eaten up by developers — there's no doubt about that," Perez said. "It's not that development is bad, but we need a balance."

The ranch is a throwback in the midst of the heavily developed North Side, where San Antonio's parkland shortage is especially acute.

The property, Perez said, could become the next Brackenridge Park, which is near downtown and is considered a magnet for residents across the city.

The difference between the two is that broad swaths of the Voelcker land are dense with live oaks, mesquite, Mexican persimmon and cedar elms.

Walking along one of the ranch's narrow paths, Councilman Art Hall said he'd want the park developed with hike and bike trails and a couple of areas for picnicking — but not much else.

"I'd prefer to keep it as natural as possible," Hall said. "I don't want to see a lot of football fields."

Banks Smith, a trustee of the Voelcker Fund, said Minnie Voelcker wanted the property left as untouched as possible.

"I think Minnie Voelcker would've looked on the city's acquisition and preservation of the property as a fortuitous event," he said.