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How to buy a City park, Part II

HOW TO BUY A CITY PARK, PART II

As we warned prospective land barons a few weeks ago, a city park isn’t the sort of purchase you make on a whim: It takes time, connections, lawyers, and, of course, cash. There is also the pesky matter of citizen input. The state allows municipalities of our size to sell off wastrel parks of less than two acres, but it requires local government to jump through several hoops first, including a public hearing and a sealed bid process.
Undaunted by these obstacles, lobbyist Walter Serna has been working to secure long-neglected Healy-Murphy Park for La Villita Development Corp, which would like to add another limited-service hotel to the clutch of soulless hospitality chains hugging the eastern edge of I-37 like so many beige barnacles.

He’s been aided in his quest by the office of District 2 Councilwoman Sheila McNeil, who appears to have initiated the sale after Serna’s office expressed interest last fall. (McNeil told the Current that the idea of selling the small Eastside park -- which at the moment is used mostly by the homeless, who don’t necessarily comport themselves in the tradition of Frederick Law Olmstead – came up much earlier, although we’ve yet to find or receive any documentation to that effect. Serna’s office has not returned numerous phone calls, but McNeil said in December that his client is still very much interested in the purchase).

Maybe I’m trying to make too fine a point here, but I feel like there’s a big difference between:

  • (a)  District 2’s elected rep responding to constituent concern over the state of a park, and building community consensus that it would be better to get rid of it than invest the resources to fix its problems
  • (b)  District 2’s elected rep responding to a developer’s desire to buy a troubled park that she’s made little or no effort to address on behalf of the community

In any event, the sale of Healy-Murphy is well underway, and the only questions remaining are how it will proceed and whether the resistance – which includes the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Assoc., Friends of the Parks, and the Salvation Army – can stop it.

The law (Local Government Code, chapter 253) requires the City to let voters decide at the polls whether to sell the park, unless:
  • the park is no longer usable and functional as a park
  • the proceeds of the sale will be used to acquire land for park purposes
  • a public hearing on the proposed conveyance is held by the governing body ... and that body finds that the property is no longer usable and functional as a park
  • the park is conveyed via an ordinance, unless within 60 days of the public hearing, citizens present the governing body with a petition opposing the sale which contains signatures and other pertinent info of no less than 1,500 registered voters residing within the city limits

The City Attorney’s office says that, the word “acquire” notwithstanding, money from the sale of the park can be used to improve already existing park land, a key point in the PR push; McNeil’s office, inspired perhaps by Serna’s original letter, is promising to spend proceeds from the sale on the nearby Hays Street Bridge project, which is bounded by recently donated acreage.

Let’s say for the moment that that’s true. It still sounds like several different steps, right?

Not in SA.

If I understood my conversations with Asst. City Attorney Stephen Whitworth correctly, the powers that be are interpreting the instructions to mean:
  • Parks & Rec will schedule a public meeting to present the proposed bid request
  • The bid request will be issued, and once bids have been received and opened, Council will adopt an ordinance accepting the highest qualifying offer (assuming there is one), simultaneously finding that Healy-Murphy “is no longer usable and functional as a park”
  • If the opponents don’t present a signed petition within 60 days, the ordinance transferring the property goes into effect.

Following the compressed process above makes it appear that advocates for saving Healy-Murphy are correct: This sale is happening and the public hearing, etc., is just window dressing.

More evidence along those lines: When former Parks & Rec Director Malcolm Matthews was still around, he circulated an email that spelled out the process that needed to be followed in order to sell the park. It was somewhat more detailed than the steps outlined above:
He wrote that the proposed sale:
  1. Will need park board and planning commission approval.
  2. Will need to have a public hearing under chapter 26 rules which means posting at least 30 days prior to the hearing and then special advertising in the newspaper. (three weeks in a row in the newspaper which is published at least six days a week).
  3. City Council will need to make a finding that (1) it is no longer usable and functional as a park and (2) that there is no feasible or prudent alternative to the change in use. Those two standards should be presented to and discussed by the advisory boards in step 2 above.
  4. Finally, will have to wait 60 days after the ordinance to see if there is a petition presented with 1,500 signatures opposing the transfer in which case City Council will either decide to cancel the transfer or decide to hold the regular election.
  5. Will need to do a sealed bid, i.e. advertise in the paper, set a date for opening, etc. just as if you were bidding a construction project.
  6. The transfer can then be completed.

One essential difference is this: Do our City leaders decide that the park can’t be saved and then sell it, or do they decide that it can’t be saved while visions of an actual offer dance in its collective heads. When we’re considering returning a public asset, especially one in a historically disfranchised, under-served community, it seems like more public process would be better. And by public process, I mean big old community meetings like the kind our former pocket councilman, Roger Flores II, liked to call during the Main Plaza makeover rush.

The funny thing about Matthews’ email, which appears to have first been sent on March 19, is that Matthews looks like an advocate for the public process, but in the month that followed, he was having frank discussions with District 2 about how to make the sale happen for Serna’s client, and the Parks & Rec Board openly discussed the developer’s desire to buy the property at a March meeting. Once Matthews departed in the wake of the playground-audit debacle, Serna and La Villita Development pretty much disappeared from the public record, but the early negotiations left an impression so lasting that Interim Parks Director Xavier Urrutia had to remind attendees at an August 2008 Parks & Rec Board meeting that “we cannot sell the property to a specific buyer. It is a closed bid process.”

(Unfortunately, any substantive discussion of “a feasible or prudent alternative to the change in use” also seems to have departed with Matthews.)

Whether or not La Villita is the winning bidder for the property, opponents of the park’s sale have one sure-fire avenue to halting it: Gather those 1,500 signatures. The Salvation Army’s Jose Macias, for one, doesn’t think that will be a problem. If they’re successful, Council would have to either cancel the sale outright or submit it to the voters.

Posted by Elaine Wolff on 1/8/2009 5:31:10 PM
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