It was a day for redemption and revelation at last week’s Quality of Life Committee meeting, where outgoing District 8 Councilwoman Diane Cibrian and District 1’s born-again conservationist Mary Alice Cisneros saved little Healy-Murphy Park by refusing to support La Villita del Rio Development’s sole $350,000 bid.
District 2’s outgoing Councilwoman Sheila McNeil pushed the small Eastside park into a public bidding process this spring despite mounting public opposition from community groups who want the City to revitalize Healy-Murphy, which is named after an Irishwoman who championed San Antonio’s disenfranchised African-American community.
The Salvation Army, which operates a residential facility next to the park, sold the land to the City 30-odd years ago for $10 for public greenspace and joined forces with neighborhood organizations, Friends of the Parks, and the Conservation Society to oppose what increasingly looked like a well-orchestrated plan to deliver the lot to La Villita Dvpmt for a parking lot for its adjacent Comfort Suites. (Although talk of late has been of rooms, a gift shop, etc. and "some" parking, Friends of the Park's Ray Knox and at least one council member were told in the beginning that parking spaces were the goal.)
La Villita first inquired about buying the park in 2007 through City Hall lobbyist Walter Serna — a generous donor to all four of the Quality of Life Committee members, as well as McNeil — and in the end La Villita was the sole bidder, at a price nearly $100,000 less than the park’s most recent appraisal, and less than half of the appraised price first used to tantalize Parks Board members last fall. Although La Villita offered to raise its offer to meet the latter estimate of $430,000, and the City Attorney’s office OK’d the move, Cibrian wasn’t having it.
“I was concerned about the dramatic drop in the appraisal,” said Cibrian. She added that the Salvation Army produced ample evidence that Healy-Murphy is still viable as a park, and that if the Council were to find that it’s non-functional in order to sell it, as state law requires, it could open itself up to a lawsuit. Most importantly, said the unsuccessful mayoral candidate, “Everywhere I went on the East Side, everyone opposed the sale.” (QueBlog note: explaining perhaps McNeil’s 4-percent showing in the mayoral race; she didn’t even win District 2.)
Parks and Rec Director Xavier Urrutia said City staff requested a new appraisal after the bid specifications were developed -- which would require the purchaser to preserve the historic home on the property -- but Cibrian was unmoved: “It didn’t pass the smell test to me.” (QueBlog’s nose twitched a bit, too, and we’re eagerly awaiting our copy of the second appraisal so’s we can compare it to the first.)
Chastened, perhaps, by her public lashing earlier this year over the proposed Market Square sale/lease, Cisneros was also unwilling to bite, making Serna’s combined $2,000 investment in the pair a wash. Jennifer Ramos, on the other hand (documented Serna bucks: $1,000) was interested, but couldn’t get a second because her sole supporter was Chair Delicia Herrera.
Were we discussing any Council member but the indefatigable McNeil, we might call this issue dead, but she’s in office till the June 13 runoff between Ivy Taylor and Byron Miller, which means she still has time to end-run Quality of Life with a Council Consideration Request, according to the City Clerk’s and Attorney’s offices, provided she can get four more members to sign on. (Guess we better do the math on those $500- and $1,000-limit contributions from the Serna/Chaudhry camps for the rest of council, too, just in case.)
The Salvation Army’s Jose Macias isn’t resting easy yet. He was planning to thank the Parks and Rec Board Monday for its opposition to the bid, and to remind them that thwarting the park’s sale to developers is just a first step. “We didn’t sign on just to save it,” Macias said, “but to make it better.”
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