Playland Park, at the intersection of Alamo, Cunningham, and Broadway streets, was a favorite for generations of children from its opening in 1943 until its closing in 1980. The former amusement park site has sat vacant for 35 years but that’s about to change.
According to a story this week in the San Antonio College Ranger, Alamo Colleges will consolidate its various offices and spend $55 million on a four-story, 270,000 sq. ft. operations building at 2222 N. Alamo St.
Currently, the Alamo Colleges administration consists of a collection of refurbished buildings and portables at 201 West Sheridan St. in Southtown, another office at 811 West Houston St. near Downtown, and more offices at 7990 Pat Booker Rd. in Live Oak. Rather than continue to expand in various parts of the city, a citizens advisory committee recommended consolidation as the more efficient solution. The board of trustees agreed and voted in favor of the plan on Tuesday.
The Ranger reported that the deteriorating conditions of exiting facilities contributed to the decision:
“That’s what really this was the emphasis for, the needs that we had. Environmental issues, concerns for employee safety, the aging conditions of the buildings, to avoid continued throwing money at some of these facilities, the overcrowding and having our DSO (District Support Operations) employees so distributed that it affects the productivity,” said Diane Snyder, vice chancellor for finance and administration.
The board’s decision to move has been a long and politically-charged process. In 2008, around the time Alamo Colleges purchased Playland Park, archeologist Barbara Meissner conducted an Archaeological Survey and Historic Background Research of the area. At the time some faculty expressed opposition to the move and any expenditure on a new administrative building.
Five years later, Playland Park was still vacant. In 2013, San Antonio College began encouraging students to park there and ride to campus on shuttle buses. In 2009, Meissner performed another study of the history and archaeology of the New Alamo Community College District Headquarters Tract.
Much of her research of Playland Park was gleaned from two historical studies: The Spanish Acequias of San Antonio, written by I. Waynne Cox, and Just for Fun: Jimmy Johnson’s Playland Park, written by Ed Gaida, a former park employee.
Meissner found remnants of the Acequia Madre de Valero, the Mother Ditch of the irrigation system that led to the Alamo, and recommended that Alamo Colleges preserve this feature. But her notation of another aquatic construction should not be easily passed over.
According to Gaida’s book, Playland Park owner and founder Jimmy Johnson found it necessary to build a dam in 1946 to try to control flood runoff from Fort Sam Houston. He built a concrete retaining wall on a normally dry gully but was never successful in his efforts to stem the flood waters from the east. And flooding is something that Alamo Colleges needs to consider. At one time, Broadway in San Antonio was called Avenue C. When it rained, it flooded, and residents called it “Avenue Sea.”
“Avenue Sea” still flows during heavy rains – but not like it used to. The drainage channel between Avenue B and Brackenridge Park Golf Course keeps most of the once-routine three-foot torrents off Broadway. Steel grates, like the one at the intersection of Broadway and Alamo just outside Playland, carry storm water into the San Antonio River.
Improvements to the Olmos Dam in 1989 prevent upstream floods from entering the area. And the $17 million River Flood Diversion Tunnel, which goes from Josephine Street to Lone Star Blvd., was finished in 1997. But the expenses incurred for these flood control projects will not stop the rain. And when it rains, it often pours. Rain pours off the slopes from the old horse stables area at Fort Sam Houston east of Playland. That part of the post is predominately a pastoral area. Horses still graze in the fields. Pat, the last horse of the U.S. Army Calvary, is buried there off Cunningham Avenue.
If the Army ever builds anything on the hill above the old Playland, water runoff would increase dramatically. And Alamo Colleges would be wise to prepare if their uphill neighbor decides to develop. As it is, heavy rains, such as the storm in May 2013, flood the former Playland to a level of one foot deep. This was evidenced by the debris stuck in the chain link fence along the property line bordering Alamo Street.
As Alamo Colleges makes plans for its new district headquarters, designers should consider increasing the height of Johnson’s Dam or reinventing the ancient acequia to divert flood waters. They would be wise to elevate the foundation as the DoSeum did at 2800 Broadway St. A structure built above a parking garage would accommodate normal flooding as well as the occasional 100-year flood.
The Broadway Reach, near the former Playland Park, continues to boom. C.H. Guenther & Son moved into the old ButterKrust building. The Pearl continues to expand. And new apartments pop up regularly. Alamo Colleges made the right decision to build on the former Playland Park. It will save taxpayers a flood of money. Now they must make sure their plans are not drenched.