As the Spurs tipped off Game Three of the NBA finals last night, most San Antonians were cheering them on in homes or crowded bars. The more than 150 people who gathered at the TV-less Institute of Texan Cultures were able to catch the last half of the game, but spent the first half engaged in conversation about what Hemisfair's Civic Park should look like – and feel like.
The Hemisfair Redevelopment team calls the northwest corner the park's "Front Porch."
The room seemed to be in agreement that Civic Park could and should be a world-class public park for both tourists and locals. The main themes and amenities that emerged: engaging, aggressive public art – preferably something that uses water, lots of shade, and adaptable spaces for diverse programming and activities like concerts, exercise, and quiet spots to just relax.
Approximately 13 acres of land in the northwest corner of Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation (HPARC)'s site has been designated for a Civic Park. Much of this space today is occupied by the Henry B. Gonzales Convention Center, which essentially blocks off existing Hemisfair Park amenities from downtown, said HPARC CEO Andrés Andújar.
"Instead of bringing the city to the park, we're bringing the park to the city," he said. With a Market Street re-alignment plan and the creation of a more pedestrian, complete street design for South Alamo Street, the plan is to create a more relaxed, comfortable feel to the area. "The key is that this is for us ... We can reconnect neighborhoods to each other and to (downtown)."
HPARC's master plan [PDF] includes shifting the convention center east and replacing the original convention center footprint with green space and two mixed-use buildings. (These buildings are indicated on the map below, the northern most areas shaded tan within Civic Park).
"Attachment to communities is important to (successful public parks)," Phil Myrick of the urban planning/design firm MIG, said to the crowd. "We've got some fantastic public destinations ... (Civic Park) can act as a breadcrumb trail to connect them... it's that lynch-pin anchor for that quality of downtown (revitalization) that we're looking for."
Civic Park is not just supposed to provide pretty things to look at while traveling to the Alamo, La Villita, Southtown, Convention Center, the future Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, or the Tower of Americas – the plan is to make the park a destination in itself. That's where community input comes in, at meetings just like this.
"Hemisfair has always been a park for and of the people," District One Councilman Diego Bernal said. "It's not a trough for developers, it's not a trough for hotels ... it's for yourself and your family first."
The City used eminent domain to move residents for the World Fair in 1968, he said, it's our responsibility to make sure it continues to serve the citizens of San Antonio.
State Representative Mike Villarreal, who attended the meeting as a nearby resident and participated in the workshop/discussion sessions after presentations, had more long-term impacts in mind.
"This is an opportunity to create a legacy (for future generations)," he said. "I believe our challenge is to set aside our own (wants) ... Let's make the most of it."
During the workshop, citizens of varying expertise and priorities were divided into about 12 groups, by table, and were given photos of park spaces from around the world to contemplate and come up with features and themes that they most enjoyed.
"I like the things that'll last for 400 years," said Beverly Adams, a local photographer, whose main desire is to create a space that doesn't fall into the trap of passing fads or trends. "Let's not have to tear everything down again in 40 years."
Public art, performance spaces, and sustainable water features/landscaping were on almost every table's list of features and programming. A "cultural, green oasis" was forming.
"If we want a world-class park, then we'll need word class art," said the representative from one table.
"(San Antonians) will celebrate anything," said another. "We'll need space for events."
There was also a common thread of cheap or free programming and amenities throughout the discussions.
"Performances can be a reason for people to go in the first place," said Stephen Cross, development director for the Magik Theater (located within the southern HPARC site designated for a future "Play Escape"). "But there also needs to be reasons to stay and explore."
"(This is us) escaping from consumerism," said on discussion leader, referring to the surrounding attractions and places dominated by the tourism industry like Alamo Plaza, La Villita and the downtown stretch of the River Walk.
Mathieu Muskensturm, who moved to San Antonio in 2009 from France, recently bought a home just east of the Alamodome in a small neighborhood, Historic Gardens. He and his wife are an example of many young professionals and couples moving to the area, he said.
"We're part of that (generational) migration from the suburbs to downtown," he said. "I walk my dog in Hemisfair Park almost every other day ... so I'm definitely interested in how it turns out."
There was mention of a more "European feel" during the discussion, something that he thinks would be difficult for San Antonio to achieve – but not impossible.
"In Europe we have stuff that's 2,000 years old," he said laughing. "That's where a lot of the ('European feel') comes from ... but San Antonio has so much history as well ... we could use that to our advantage."
Much of what the park "feels" like will have a lot to do with what goes on in those northern-most buildings in the park, said local architect Mark Kellmann. There's been talk of "boutique hotels," residential space, restaurants, etc. Nothing final yet.
"These structures are not located in the best of places," he said. "If we want thousands of people to come from the River Walk, through La Villita, and into Hemisfair," the proposed buildings are in the way of that direct path.
At the end of the meeting, some attendees stayed to chat with organizers and friends, some hurried off to catch what they could of the Spurs' domination of the Miami Heat. The large sheets of paper were collected and will be typed up and prepared for entry, along with other data from past and future meetings, into a final request for proposal (RFP) that will go out to the design/construction communities and firms late this summer.
The next public meetings for design input on the southwest corner "Play Escape" will start in the fall. For the most up-to-date information for volunteer and meeting information, sign up for HPARC's mailing list at www.hemisfair.org.