Park push could put the city on a new path

City officials, led by Mayor Phil Hardberger, are charging hard to buy the 311 acres and turn it into one of the city's largest parks. A stroll through Max and Minnie Voelcker's old dairy farm is like a glimpse into San Antonio's past.

Towering heritage oak trees cover the land and form a canopy dripping with ball moss. Salado Creek cuts a deep ravine through one corner of the property. With no undergrowth in the thick forest, it's easy to walk and gawk as a Mexican eagle leaves its perch atop an oak and soars.

The farm is a wild oasis in one of the most heavily developed corridors of the North Side, a rare swath of natural splendor that has developers salivating and city leaders talking about leaving a civic legacy on the level of Brackenridge Park. City officials, led by Mayor Phil Hardberger, are charging hard to buy the 311 acres and turn it into one of the city's largest parks.

Proponents aren't shy about touting the potential benefits of such a find — from increasing property values to improving both the mental and physical well being of residents. Many see it as an opportunity to change the character of the densely populated area and burnish San Antonio's image. The city is negotiating with the Max and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker Fund for the property at a cost estimated between $40 million and $45 million. Even with the high price tag, every member of the City Council heartily endorsed the effort Thursday, liberally throwing around the term "oncein- a-lifetime opportunity." The Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce even offered to help raise private funds for the purchase. "Great cities have great parks," Chamber President Joe Krier said.

Some political observers say this could be a watershed move for San Antonio — the city actively trying to outbid or outmaneuver developers for prime real estate and eschewing any tax gains from high-dollar development in favor of a massive park in the urban core. It's also an important step in a city that ranks below the national average for park space per person and sports one of the highest obesity rates in the country.

The lack of park space is especially glaring in the North Side corridor where the old farm sits, bordered by Lockhill Selma and Blanco roads. In this area the park acreage statistics drop to less than half the national average. It's the result of decades of rampant sprawl development with little effort to save natural space, said Char Miller, director of the urban studies program at Trinity University. He described the consequences of such development in scathing terms, and said that the proposed park could go a long way in remedying the situation. "To think about a public consciousness on the North Side is idiotic, because there is none," he said. "It's gated. It's private. It's bermed. It's shut off and shut out and it is by design repulsive." To obtain the property the city must offer fair market value to the Voelcker Fund, which will use the millions to help charities, including Christus Santa Rosa Health Care and Boysville. The appraisal should be done by Friday, and negotiations should heat up shortly after. A Dallas investor holds the right of first refusal on the property, but city officials have said they would use their power of condemnation, if necessary, to buy the land.

An economic draw

The seeming shift in the city's attitude toward parkland has caught the eye of Henry Flores, a political scientist and dean of graduate studies at St. Mary's University. Flores is waiting to see whether this signifies a one-time deal or a genuine change in the city's political culture and outlook. "We're right on the cusp of being a huge national city, look at all this talk of professional football and baseball and new corporate headquarters," he said.

That's the kind of vision Krier conjured when he endorsed the city's efforts, referring to the quality-of-life issues and amenities that can help urban centers draw major companies. San Antonio isn't alone in this kind of thinking, said Peter Harnik, director of the Trust for Public Land Center for City Park Excellence. He said that economic development is a major force behind park projects throughout the country. As an example, he pointed to Dallas' recent parks projects, which, Harnik said, are a direct result of that city losing to Chicago when the Boeing Co. wanted to relocate its headquarters from Seattle in 2001. Quality of life for employees played a factor in Boeing's decision.

North East Independent School Superintendent Richard Middleton believes the park deal represents a political shift, much of it fueled by the public outcry over the recent clear-cut development in the Stone Oak area. To Middleton, that development along U.S. 281 just north of Loop 1604 was the culmination of a bad trend that has been eating up the North Side since the early 1980s. "I think with the value of the land and the absolute greed, we finally ended up with that obscenity," he said. "I think we were just highly insulted. And I say kudos to the city and the City Council for being sensitive to that."

Welcome greenspace

The city has no definite plans for the Voelcker property yet, although parks director Malcolm Matthews said the park probably would include some athletic fields as well as a natural area. Hardberger has suggested holding a national competition for design of the property if the city acquires it. The proposed park would be in Middleton's district, which is already struggling to keep up with growth. The superintendent said it would be a relief to see the acreage saved from high-density development that would further crowd his schools.

Developers have long sought the land, wooing Minnie Voelcker for years before her death in 2000. Nevertheless, many in the development business are applauding he city's effort. "We hate to lose out on a piece of property, but all in all I think it will be a beautiful park for the city," said Walter Busby, chief operating officer for Galo Properties, which had bid on the land with plans to build a residential community.

The land's beauty, however, presents a problem for developers, said Todd Gold, president of the real estate firm REOC Partners. Unlike many heavily wooded parcels, the Voelckers' land is not grandfathered and therefore must comply with current development codes, he said. This means that anyone building on the property has to abide by the current tree ordinance, a potentially expensive and complicated issue in a property dotted with massive oaks. Like the Voelcker property, Brackenridge Park sits on valuable land that would almost certainly have been developed. But it was created by the good will of San Antonio's leading families — the Brackenridges and the Koehlers — who donated the land about a century ago in the hopes of shaping their community for generations to come. Ironically, George Brackenridge insisted that the city not allow the consumption of alcohol on the parkland he donated in 1899. But when Emma Koehler donated her property to the city in 1915, she made a point of assuring that alcohol would be allowed on the property as a nod to her deceased husband and Pearl Brewery owner Otto Koehler.

Higher property values

In the century since, many of the largest parks in the urban core, such as Olmos Basin Park and McAllister Park, have been developed as flood control projects on land not suitable for development. In this case, if the city turns the Voelcker land into a park, it will forego what could potentially be millions in tax revenue the property would generate if developed. But that wouldn't necessarily translate to a net monetary gain for the city, said John Crompton, a professor in the department of Recreation, Parks and Tourism Sciences at Texas A&M University. "The cost of residential development is often greater than the revenue you receive in property and sales taxes," he said.

"Parks, in fact, create value. They don't cost money." Phil Thompson, a real estate agent who lives and works in the area, expects a boost in property values if the Voelcker property becomes a city park. "This is really going to enhance the area and draw more attention to it," he said. Research supports Thompson and generally shows that parks increase the value of homes within about six blocks. The closer the home is to the park, the greater the property value increase. For instance, one study in Austin found properties in two neighborhoods along the Barton Springs greenway had higher values than similar properties farther away. In one neighborhood, values were 22 percent higher. In the other — which had no park views and limited park access — values were between 7 percent and 8 percent higher. Barbara Tarin, chairwoman of the board for the San Antonio Board of Realtors, isn't sure if the proposed park will drive prices higher here, but she expects it will protect area homeowners from a drop in property values.

Mind-body remedy

Beyond the economics of the deal, proponents tout the health benefits of green space, particularly in a city with many overweight people. Frances Kuo, director of Landscape and Human Health Lab at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, said the link goes beyond speculative. Studies in Japan have shown a positive correlation between access to green space and life expectancy. Others have shown a correlation between green space and good health, she said.

Research has even shown that exposure to nature and green space helps children with attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, she said. Kuo believes that time in nature allows people to relax the part of their mind that helps them concentrate on specific tasks. "Modern life puts a lot of demands on this capacity of ours, and unfortunately, it seems to be subject to fatigue," she said. After a lifetime as an educator and a nature lover, Middleton has no problem buying the explanation. "Common sense tell me that," he said. "When you're in nature you come away with the sense that you are refocused."