If you were to drive down U.S. 281 right now, past Alamo Stadium, you’d see the construction crews hard at work on a new parking facility for the nearby San Antonio Zoo. And if you've visited the Witte Museum recently, surely you've encountered the development projects happening on that property, too.
Indeed, there's plenty going on around Brackenridge Park, and there will be even more improvements in store for the land. And few wonder why. Brackenridge is one of San Antonio’s largest public parks and one of the most archaeologically significant sites in Texas.
Thousands of years of history
The city officially founded Brackenridge Park exactly 120 years ago, but humans have been gathering there for thousands of years. Researchers have found Native American artifacts around the park area, which was long ago an important gathering place for wildlife and humans on the southern edge of the Texas Hill Country.
Fast-forward to Spanish colonial times, when missionaries actually built a system to transport water through the park from the San Antonio River to aid the growing community. Today, one can easily find remains of the original dam within the zoo, and a pump house built in 1878 still stands in the park. The latter is the oldest known industrial structure in Bexar County.
An unparalleled part of San Antonio
At the turn of the 20th century, San Antonians knew enough of the historical, cultural, and ecological significance of the vast acreage lining the river north of downtown. In the 1800s, George Washington Brackenridge owned property over much of the area. In 1899, he donated 199 acres to the city toward the creation of a public park.
Brackenridge made another significant donation of acreage, as did another renowned resident and property owner, Emma Koehler, who ran the Pearl Brewery following her husband's death in 1914. The city eventually wound up with 343 acres of public park space for everyone to enjoy and appreciate.
Brackenridge Park and the outlying area is home to a number of cultural and recreational destinations: a zoo, Sunken Garden Theater, San Antonio Botanical Garden, Japanese Tea Gardens, Alamo City Golf Trail, The DoSeum, Kiddie Park, Witte Museum, as well as a major city-owned public golf course, and popular softball fields.
“Brackenridge Park is unequalled in its layers of history and culture,” says Lynn Osborne Bobbitt, executive director for the Brackenridge Park Conservancy, a nonprofit created a little more than 10 years ago. “There is not another park in the city like Brackenridge Park with the variety of attractions, recreation, and natural areas located within its boundaries. It is truly a cultural landscape, created by all of us who have used and enjoyed the park during the decades.”
Among those attractions adding to the "cultural landscape" of the park are historic artistic works created by the late artist/architect Dionicio Rodriguez and the University of the Incarnate Word, the University of the Incarnate Word, which is adjacent to San Antonio's only urban nature sanctuary. The sanctuary features the Blue Hole and Little Blue Hole, the storied origins of the river.
A park for the future
Like many green spaces in rapidly growing cities, Brackenridge Park faces some pushback from those who see it as just another big park in an area that needs housing and other aspects of urbanization. To combat this and protect Brackenridge, community members have battled for a master plan that will help guide the park’s future.
That master plan, which calls for reducing traffic, improving parking and restoring the park to a more natural state, has had its share of supporters and critics.
Some people have wondered whether Brackenridge Park has gotten too big for its own good, its recent surge of popularity owed in part to the growth of the surrounding cultural and recreational institutions and to the river’s Museum Reach.
Others point to the park's rich historical and cultural context. It’s mostly this reason why the Brackenridge Park Conservancy was incorporated in 2008 by well-meaning supporters who treasure the park.
The initial board of directors was elected in February 2009, and since then, conservancy staff and board members have worked with local officials and other supporters to raise funds and awareness while helping to care for the park, program events, and act as its advocate with city leaders.
The conservancy is holding its 10th anniversary gala on March 27 with rides on the park’s famed train, a cocktail reception, a seated dinner, and live entertainment. The gala will also honor native San Antonian Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, founder of New York’s Central Park Conservancy.
More than just a party, the gala will be held at the park’s low-water crossing in an effort to raise awareness about infrastructure improvements needed around the park. (Though some upgrades are forthcoming, thanks to the city’s 2017 bond issue.)
For organizers and patrons, the gala is yet another opportunity to show appreciation and support for one of San Antonio’s greatest natural resources. "All parks are important to building a city for the 21st century,” Bobbitt says. “They activate physical activity, improve health, and provide a respite from the hustle and bustle of daily routine as people enjoy nature. Also, they are important economic generators.”