If you could design a 15-acre park in the center of San Antonio, where would you put a water feature? How would you connect the park to the surrounding landscape and neighborhoods? Where's the best place for a plaza with tables and chairs? How visible should a "world class" park be from the street?
Sunset Station was buzzing last night for more than two hours with talk of fountains, passageways, zócalos, gardens, and lawns as more than 200 citizens, business and community leaders, educators, and city staff came together to see renderings and design options for Hemisfair's Civic Park from Seattle-based landscape architecture firm Gustafson Guthrie Nichol. With the adjacent Yanaguana Garden playscape (phase one) approved, the attention now turns to Civic Park (phase two), intended to be a more dynamic, open space.
"It's about making a place for San Antonians, a place that feels comfortable to them," said GGN Principal Kathryn Gustafson before the workshop began. "What we're hoping for tonight is for people to really look at the options and talk about what they feel will work in their everyday lives. ... If (residents) don't speak up, we have no way to measure if we've hit the right nerve."
Hemisfair has informally dubbed Civic Park – a working title until a name is either chosen or awarded to a donor – as the "front porch of San Antonio." But surrounded by hotels and commercial tourist attractions like La Villita Historic Arts Village, the Rivercenter Mall, and The Alamo, it's hard to visually apply the cozy, local connotation of "front porch" to Hemisfair Park as it lays today. The prospect of nearby residential projects and on-site, mixed-use buildings with more local commercial shops could turn that around.
Public meetings about Civic Park started more than a year ago and Tuesday night's workshop was designed to gather critical comments from locals on park layout.
If you missed last night's meeting, Hemisfair will soon launch an online survey to gather additional community input. Watch its Facebook page and website for details. More than 5,000 people completed the Yanaguana Park survey, said Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation (HPARC) CEO Andres Andujar. Even more are expected to weigh in on Civic Park.
Participants were given handouts that included maps of three different layout scenarios: Central, River, and Cross. An appointed facilitator took notes on what the group had to say about different features and likes and dislikes.
As participants sat and listened to Gustafson talk about her team's research into San Antonio's culture and the design process that involves obsession over the historic, architectural, and geologic form of the community, I began to appreciate "landscape architecture" as a true art form. There is a high level of psychology and craft brought to the design table that's goes far beyond aesthetics.
After researching the city, her team landed on three main elements or themes that were prioritized in the designs: connections, water, and layering.
"You are pretty much a party town ... your weather allows you to be outside a lot," she said to the crowd, laughing and remembering her first official Fiesta experience earlier this year. Partying aside, what that really means, she said, is San Antonio is a city that likes to go outside and connect.
"The first thing we want to do is reconnect" the community, Gustafson said. The Alamo to Southtown to the San Antonio River to the Eastside. It's an area that has been chopped up by one ways and highways. Hemisfair hopes to become an inviting bridge.
Respect of water is an obvious choice of theme. San Antonio is a city formed around the river – from ancient times to modern-day development along the Museum and Mission Reaches. Drought is never far from our minds in Texas, and Gustafson said any design moving forward could never include wasting water.
"The way you reuse and conserve water, it's a part of your story – it seems to be part of your DNA," she said.
The layered theme comes straight from the River Walk and the structures it has created downtown. "River level, street level, (and) balcony level," she observed. "The park needs to be part of that – make sure that the street level is alive."
There is also an element of gradient in the initial designs – sloping hills or steppe-like seating so that users can sit and people watch.
Citizen input gleaned from previous workshops told designers that people want "open spaces that accommodate multiple uses, water and shade that create a cool and comfortable oasis, (and) interactive and flexible spaces for events both large and small."
From this, the basic elements were formed: the zócalo (a kind of entrance plaza), a large lawn, courtyards, passageways, promenade, garden, and groves. Each scenario has its pros and cons, as each eight-person group found, but they each have a large lawn space in the middle and compensate for the mixed-use residential buildings that take up about 4.8 acres of the almost 15-acre park.
"It is great vision to get the landscape (park design) in first rather than have developer driven design," Gustafson said. Instead of the park complimenting the buildings, the buildings will have to work around the park.
During his opening remarks, Andujar likened the redevelopment project, which is funded by a Hotel Occupancy Tax, to "a district with multiple parks" rather than the collective "Hemisfair Park."
The table I joined had two city employees, two local representatives of Silver Eagle Distributors, an architectural grad student from the University of Notre Dame, and two young residents of the Eastside and Southtown whom I know personally.
"You should be able to see something you can walk across," said Katie Reynolds of Silver Eagle. "Something that draws you through. Being able to see the park from the street is key."
Local architect Mark Kellmann, seated at another table, said the location of the buildings will be critical to park visibility. A clear line of sight into the park should line up with the main entrance of La Villita, intersections, and any other high-traffic pedestrian areas, he said.
Reynolds was joined by her colleague Ben Garcia, who said Silver Eagle has a very clear interest in downtown parks as both an event space as the fabric of the downtown community.
"We've had to find new places for some events, but we're looking forward to the new space," Garcia said.
Accessibility, safety, bike parking, programming and more specific design features of the park and its buildings will be discussed during future design meetings, but it was hard at times for some tables, including ours, to limit the scope to general element layouts.
Regularly scheduled day and nighttime programming is important, said Ryan Beltrán of Elequa. "If done well, it could be awesome. I just hope it's not touristy – the shops should flow and fit with the park."
The table was in agreement: No chain restaurants or cheesy tourist shops, please.
As far as the aesthetic of the park, the table also was in agreement that there would be little room for modern or futuristic architecture. "The materials have to match the city," said intern architect Rene Salas.
"That would clash with the character of (South Alamo) and the surrounding buildings," said Garcia. "We don't need a spaceship."
So what is GGN and Hemisfair going to do with the reports gathered from each table?
"We'll analyze them to find the common denominators – what are the pieces that everyone is concerned about or liked," Gustafson said. "And then we'll rework a fourth design ... integrating the comments."
They will put community feedback to use in the final design, Andujar said. "This is for you (San Antonians), after all."
The table agreed again that they're all looking forward to seeing the Hemisfair project come to completion, which should be by 2020.
*Featured/top image: Work groups discuss Hemisfair's Civic Park layout renderings at Sunset Station. Photo by Iris Dimmick.