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sirkingwilliam Jun 1, 2007 6:41 AM

SA - Witte Museum Set for 40 Million Dollar Expansion
Witte Museum is granted more land

Web Posted: 05/31/2007 10:44 PM CDT

Guillermo X. Garcia

The city extended its lease Thursday with the Witte Museum and agreed to turn over Brackenridge Park acreage that would double the size of the museum's footprint.

By unanimously adopting the proposal, the City Council set the stage for the Witte's planned $40 million expansion, set to begin next year.

Under the agreement, the city will extend the Witte's lease for two 25-year periods once the current lease expires in 2022.

Museum officials said a long-term lease was critical for their fundraising efforts.

The council didn't address an issue that has drawn the ire of the nearby River Road Neighborhood Association — construction of a multi-story parking garage that members of the group said would require cutting down several hundred park trees.

Marise McDermott, the museum's president and CEO, said fewer than 100 trees would be affected.

The new City Council, which begins its two-year term today, plans to take up the issue before the end of the year.

With 210,000 visitors last year, there's little doubt that more than the 99 parking spaces adjoining the facility are needed. Officials expect 300,000 visitors a year when the expansion is completed.

Currently, the facility takes up 4.3 acres of land on the eastern edge of Brackenridge Park, which occupies more than 3,000 acres.

With the council's approval, the museum will receive 4.2 more acres, on which it plans to expand existing exhibit space and the amount of frontage it has on the San Antonio River.

The expansion plan calls for the building of a new entrance to the main building that will include a Great Hall linking the San Antonio River to Broadway via an aqueduct.

Construction also would include a South Texas Heritage Center and a water resource center that would feature the river's plant and animal life, along with a simulation of the Edwards Aquifer.

It would be the most significant expansion to the museum since the 1950s.

The Witte was built in 1923 after the city provided Brackenridge Park land and money was donated by the estate of businessman Alfred G. Witte.

According to the museum's master plan, expanding parking and visitor services will be addressed.

McDermott noted the city would undertake a series of studies and tree analyses before determining where to locate the garage with a minimum of impact.

"Gosh no, we would never remove heritage trees," she said, noting that the studies would identify trees that could be replanted or built around.

McDermott said the structure, which will be south of the museum on Avenue B, would not be solely for museum visitors but also would serve people going to the park.

Opponents, including Larry DeMartino, a River Road Neighborhood Association board member, urged that alternative parking sites be considered. He noted that parking could be expanded across Broadway from the museum, where he said ample parking spaces could be developed without damaging trees.

McDermott said that was not an option.

"Broadway is a major thoroughfare, and it's just too dangerous for wheelchairs, baby strollers and families to cross such a busy, heavy street," she said. "That just would not work."

Although the museum is owned by the city and run by the San Antonio Museum Association, McDermott said the parking garage would be a city project that would be located outside the museum's campus.

At least some of the cost of building the garage would be financed by the $550 million bond issue San Antonio voters approved May 12. McDermott said none of the $40 million being sought for the museum expansion would go toward building the parking lot.

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