City hopes to turn ranch into park on the heavily developed North Side
City officials want to acquire a new 311-acre park on the North Side, with the $40 million to $45 million purchase price benefiting local medical research, Mayor Phil Hardberger told the San Antonio Express News Editorial Board on Tuesday.
Called a win-win situation by city and civic officials, the deal would add badly needed parkland to the densely populated North Side off Lockhill-Selma Road while adding the Voelcker family name to the city's honor roll of charitable contributors.
Hardberger said the City Council is expected to authorize the staff on Thursday to begin negotiations with trustees of the Maxine and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker Fund to obtain the property, which is also coveted by developers.
"It is the only property of its size in San Antonio left undeveloped that is this close to downtown," Mayor Phil Hardberger told the San Antonio Express-News Editorial Board on Tuesday, "We have to move, and I think we have to move quickly on it. This is the chance of a lifetime, it won't come again."
The $40 million-plus acquisition by the city would halt the complete development of the area between Lockhill-Selma and Blanco roads.
Banks Smith and three other trustees of the fund have been authorized to distribute the proceeds from the land sale to various charities, including Christus Santa Rosa Health Care and Boysville, a nonprofit organization providing residential programs to children in crisis.
Ten percent of the proceeds will go to one or both of those charities; the balance will go to charitable organizations engaged in specific areas of medical research, such as cancer, heart disease, arthritis and muscular dystrophy.
"It is a historic opportunity like nothing I have seen," said Joe Krier, president and CEO of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. "The money goes right back into the community."
Minnie Voelcker, a native San Antonian, and her husband, Max, operated a successful dairy farm on the land until their deaths in 1980 and 2000, respectively.
"The trustees have a very strong relationship with the city of San Antonio," Smith said, adding that although the fund does not stipulate which medical research organizations will benefit, it is highly likely a majority of the money would stay in San Antonio.
The estimated cost is based on the previous sale of 151 acres of land on the ranch to a residential developer. The land is bordered by Lockhill-Selma to the southwest and Blanco to the northeast. City Manager Sheryl Sculley emphasized that officials are having the land appraised, so no figure is solid.
Smith said: "Part of the uniqueness of this land is the fund didn't put a price on it. Instead, it allowed the real estate market to put a price on the land."
The city's plan is to move forward with the purchase of 107 acres bordered by Wurzbach Parkway, Blanco Road and Voelcker Lane, which could cost around $15 million, Sculley said.
The remainmg 204-acre tract would be bought with money from a proposed $550 million. Sculley said it will not require a tax rate increase. Hardberger said the 204-acre tract would be kept off the market pending voter approval of the bond package.
"A park like this will have such instant acceptability," Hardberger said.
The plan reflects city government's reawakened desire for parkland, said Henry Flores, a political scientist and dean of graduate studies at St. Mary's University.
"What we've done in the past is just have a very pro-development posture," Flores said.
The drive for development, he said, started in earnest under former Mayor Walter McAllister and later gained speed under former Mayor Henry Cisneros. Setting aside parkland was not a top priority.
Flores credits former Mayor Ed Garza, an urban planner, with starting the wheels of change.
"It was no longer development for development's sake," Flores said. "It's been more carefully planned."
About Hardberger, he noted: "This seems to fit in with how he thinks about these issues."
A successful acquisition, said Councilman Kevin Wolff, would give his district and the North East Independent School District a collective sigh of relief. More development will mean more traffic and more students for already overburdened schools, he said.
"I can't tell you what sort of things I've seen from developers that don't even own the property yet," Wolff said.
Northside Neighborhoods for Organized Development led by Ken Lawrence, president of the Hunter's Creek Neighborhood Association, is "100 percent absolutely behind this."
"We are absolutely ecstatic about it," Lawrence said, adding that neighborhood leaders have been worried about what kind of development would come once the propelty went on the market in November.
Bonnie Conner, a former councilwoman who also heads up Friends of the Parks, said the Northside Neighborhoods group, once defunct, was so concerned about what would happen to the Voelcker land that the group reformed. She said members are pleased with the proposal.
"We need a big park," she said. "What a prime opportunity."
The purchase of 311 acres of Voelcker ranch would create a park among the city's 10 largest.
Windgate Ranch 1,033
Olmos Basin 1,010
Rancho Diana 640
Iron Horse Canyon 594
Medina River 362
Southside Lions 347
Panther Springs 281