Piles of rubble and dirt, what's left of the western wing of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, will soon be cleared from the construction site on the corner of South Alamo and Market streets to make way for the transformative Hemisfair project in downtown San Antonio.
Demolition began in early April, about three months after the convention center's new eastern wing and entrance opened. Mixed-income housing, commercial space, a boutique hotel, a plaza, a park entrance to the convention center, and the centerpiece eight-acre Civic Park green space will be built in overlapping phases. The Civic Park will open in time for the city's Tricentennial Celebration May 2018, while some of the new development surrounding it is not expected to be completed by that date.
The Hemisfair district encompass 36 acres, not including federal properties, the Institute of Texan Cultures, or the expanded Convention Center. There will be 18.47 acres of dedicated parkland within the new district when the project is completed, including the four-acre Yanaguana Garden, which opened in October and already has attracted more 225,000 visitors to its innovative playscape.
"(The demolition) is not the final piece, but it is a huge piece," said Hemisfair CEO Andres Andujar on Thursday. The critical intersection, which Andujar has described as "the city's front porch" as it is envisioned, is literally and symbolically "opened up" to the rest of the city.
"We're moving from (the idea of) bringing the city to the park to bringing the park to the city," Andujar said. "It will completely change our perception of that corner."
The intersection is one of the busiest in the city with multiple hotels, the Alamo, Tower of the Americas, Alamodome, and other visitor attractions close by.
For decades, investment in San Antonio's downtown has catered to tourists and conventioneers, but Hemisfair represents a "shift in concentration to the local's experience," Andujar said. "This marks the beginning of a visible public investment in our core to attract locals back to enjoy our urban center and its amenities. It's not an abandonment of investment in the visitor industry, but it strengthens both."
The Yanaguana Garden playscape in Hemisfair has been successful beyond expectations since opening in October last year. The park hosts thousands of locals and visitors every day and serves as an example of how amenities can bolster both economies and quality of life.
A string of urban core housing, public park developments, hotels, and other mixed-use projects have followed the so-called "decade of downtown" mantra in recent years.
To sustain park operations, programming, and maintenance, Hemisfair has developed its own unique leasing program with the commercial interests that inhabit the park to take advantage of an increasingly competitive downtown real estate market. Many residents are disappointed that private development takes up any of the Hemisfair district, but the hotel, apartments, shops, and restaurants on site will be giving money directly back into the park.
"We think (this funding structure) will become a true national model for how to sustain a project of this size longterm," Andujar said.
A key challenge will be to win sufficient funding in the 2017 bond to continue improvements on schedule. Yanaguana Garden cost $2 million an acre to build, funds that were included in the 2012 bond. The eight-acre Civic Park will cost much more per acre in order to properly engineer flood control and water purification systems and to safely bury the utilities. The water circulating in park fountains now is not purified or filtered and often carries a putrid smell and has bacteria levels that make it unsafe for children and others tempted to play in the fountains.
Top image: Rubble from a section of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center is piled high on April 20, 2016. Photo by Scott Ball.