ActivePaper Archive Park’s neighbors protest plans - San Antonio Express, 2/10/2022

Park’s neighbors protest plans

Sunken Garden Theater upgrades spark worry over access, historic character

William Luther / Staff photographer

San Antonio officials are considering renovations to the historic, city-owned Sunken Garden Theater in Brackenridge Park and may use 2022 bond dollars to help pay for the project. Renderings show a larger venue that would host national musical acts.

Photos by William Luther / Staff photographer

The River Road neighborhood has been public about its concerns over a proposed renovation of Sunken Garden Theater in Brackenridge Park. They say they want a plan that better respects the history of the theater.


The Brackenridge Park Conservancy suggested a face-lift years ago. The plans are just a starting point, board members say.

Blanquita Sullivan grew up in the River Road neighborhood she still calls home — next to Brackenridge Park just north of downtown and off Broadway. Living next to the park has given her the chance to chat with birdwatchers and observe Easter holiday celebrations, car shows and Sunday fishing.

But she’s worried it’s at risk.

San Antonio officials are considering renovations to the historic, city-owned Sunken Garden Theater in Brackenridge Park and may use 2022 bond dollars to help pay for the project. Renderings show a larger, more amphitheater-like venue that would host national musical acts and other events with capacity for around 7,000 people.

City Council will vote Thursday on a final list of projects to include in the $1.2 billion bond election scheduled for May.

Sullivan and her River Road neighbors have been public about their concerns for the Sunken Garden Theater plans. They worry about access to their homes during a large show, the noise and what they call a lack of transparency about the project.

“That needs to be really protected for the city,” Sullivan said. “Access for people to enjoy the park — that’s really important for everybody in San Antonio.”

Still, the neighbors want to see upgrades at Sunken Garden Theater to protect its historic integrity.

They said it’s fallen into disrepair over the years. But they don’t believe the plans they’ve seen fit with the character of the theater, and they question whether it would benefit everyone in the city.

“It ought to be rehabilitated. It ought to be fixed,” said Carlos Rodriguez-Vidal, a River Road resident. “It ought to be brought into the 21st century. That doesn’t mean necessarily that it should be brought to the level of a theme park.”

The neoclassical Sunken Garden Theater has brought live music and outdoor performances to Brackenridge Park for more than 90 years. In its heyday, it hosted major concerts by the likes of Bob Dylan and Carlos Santana.

It was built in 1930 near the Japanese Tea Garden in an abandoned Alamo Cement quarry, which also became the location of the nearby San Antonio Zoo.

The Brackenridge Park Conservancy, the nonprofit that manages and raises funds for the park under an agreement with the city, suggested a face-lift after a master plan input process years ago. The city also agreed in 2019 the conservancy has exclusive rights to redevelop the Sunken Garden Theater.

But the proposed renovation is just a concept, said board member Suzanne Scott. Officials aren’t committing it to look exactly as it does in renderings.

The conservancy asked for a feasibility study and renderings to give the community an idea of what an upgraded Sunken Garden Theater could look like, Scott said. It’s meant to be a starting point.

“We are listening. We definitely see and appreciate the feedback we’ve received,” Scott said. “And we want to take it through the process to get to the point where everyone is excited about the potential of the Sunken Garden Theater.”

City officials initially proposed spending $20 million on the Sunken Garden Theater, but they later revised it to $10 million after City Council concerns.

A citizen committee whittled that down to $5 million after hearing from River Road neighbors and others.

Council members representing parts of Brackenridge Park have also said the plan for Sunken Garden Theater will change from what neighbors have seen.

“The project is going to change,” said District 2 Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez, who represents a portion of the park but not the River Road neighborhood. “It’s not going to be what is proposed right now. I feel confident in saying that.”

Neighbors overwhelmed

Lucy Wilson, chair of the River Road Neighborhood Association, said the Brackenridge Park Conservancy first reached out to the group in August about Sunken Garden Theater. She said they quickly had questions and tried to get more information but struggled to do so.

The neighbors have since called for studies about congestion, traffic, environmental impacts and effects on zoo animals. The park conservancy later added a page to its website in response.

“We were a little overwhelmed just seeing it,” Wilson said.

There’s no question to Wilson and others the theater needs attention.

But they’re particularly worried about thousands of cars and people coming together in a tight urban area close to downtown.

There are only two ways in and out of the River Road neighborhood, Rodriguez-Vidal said. If those areas are blocked off, it could grow difficult to come and go from their homes.

Raleigh Wood, another neighbor, said they work with police when there are large events over Easter and spring break in Brackenridge Park. It helps, but it takes a lot of planning and rerouting cars. He can’t imagine the same effort for more regular concerts at the park.

If there’s a lot of congestion, Wood also is concerned emergency response vehicles may face a challenge getting into the neighborhood. It’s not just their small community, Sullivan said — if traffic backs up on U.S. 281, it could affect Monte Vista and Trinity University.

Scott, with the conservancy, said the idea to renovate Sunken Garden Theater stemmed from a master plan for Brackenridge Park approved by City Council in 2017.

That plan came out of an engagement process and was well publicized at the time, Scott said. It suggested a renovation that could make use of the theater year-round and generate more funds for the entire park.

Ensuring a reimagined Sunken Garden Theater can sustain itself economically is important to the conservancy, Scott said.

Kirk Feldmann, president of KBF & Associates, worked on the feasibility study to answer the question of viability and what’s possible at the site.

“The goal is to make a state-of-the-art outdoor performance venue designed with a business model that would pay for its own operations and long-term maintenance,” Feldmann said.

To do that, Feldmann examined where Sunken Garden could fit in with other venues across Texas and the country.

He found a lack of theaters with capacity for 7,000 people — some places can fit as many as 72,000, and smaller locations have space for about 2,000 people.

Filling that gap would fit well with the touring industry, Feldmann said.

“We do want to embrace the history of Sunken Garden Theater. But we also need to understand that in order for it to be a viable venue, it also has to meet the standards of the industry,” Scott said. “We have to balance both.”

Moving forward with city funding would give the conservancy a chance to produce better parking studies and look at other impacts, Scott said.

A renovation could also mitigate any sound issues for nearby neighbors by adding certain sound-absorptive materials into the design and constructing other sound barriers.

Seeking other city funds

District 1 Councilman Mario Bravo, who represents the River Road neighborhood and a portion of Brackenridge Park, organized a town hall about the Sunken Garden Theater late last month to gather more input.

Wilson, with the neighborhood association, said the event went well and neighbors felt heard.

Bravo still has questions about the project, and if park officials can’t reach some harmony with the community, he’s not sure the renovation will get any city funds.

The park conservancy also is seeking $15 million from the Midtown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone, but the city delayed a funding agreement for those dollars after officials realized the level of community concern.

Another town hall is likely. City Council also voted to add at least one resident of River Road to the board of the Midtown TIRZ after Bravo and McKee-Rodriguez asked for more community representation.

Bravo recalled Sunken Garden Theater as a special place where he saw his first concert with his parents.

“I want to make sure we take care of it, and we take care of all the neighbors who live by it,” Bravo said.