The Rivard Report publishes occasional conversations with community leaders, newsmakers, artists and other individuals whose work is of special public interest. Recent conversations include Russ Bookbinder, CEO of the San Antonio Sports Foundation, and Bruce Miller, CEO of Port San Antonio. If there is someone you would like to see interviewed, please post a Comment.
Today’s Conversation is with Andrés Andujar, engineer and CEO of the Hemisfair Area Redevelopment Corporation.
Rivard Report: Andrés, watching Hemisfair Park evolve, 2013 was a year of planning and 2014 will be a year of doing. There is a lot happening on the ground right now in the way of construction for the Convention Center expansion.
Andrés Andujar: An immense amount of planning and preparation must go into a project of this magnitude before construction can begin. The past year was dedicated to design, public outreach, infrastructure planning, and financial modeling to set the stage for a successful, sustainable series of parks and built environment.
We achieved legislative authority to expand and improve dedicated parkland, designed the southwest corner improvements with the help of the community, secured operational dollars from both the City and private sources, completed conditions assessments of the Magik Theatre and 10 other historic buildings, began design of the interior park streets, and developed an art master plan in conjunction with Public Art San Antonio.
We also continue to coordinate with the Convention Center expansion project, as you have noticed construction has begun for the realignment of Market and Bowie streets to create space for the new structure.
The community will soon see exciting work at Hemisfair, as we break ground on the southwest corner play environment this summer. Stabilization and restoration of the historic homes in this area will start around the same time; and then the transformation of Hemisfair streets such as S. Alamo, Goliad, and Water Street into “complete streets” to surround the southwest corner will begin in the fall.
RR: The most contentious issue of 2013 relating to the park was the debate over legislation that made it possible to develop a boutique hotel on the park grounds. Are you in talks with interested developers now?
AA: There will not be any hotels or new mixed-use developments built on designated parkland. The reason to pursue the legislative action was to allow legal clarity about what is parkland and where we can place buildings that are designed to activate and populate the park, that provide built-in park security, and that create revenue streams from leases that are dedicated to park maintenance, operations and programming.
The legislation that passed allows us to expand and improve the quality of public open space at Hemisfair. Recently, City Council increased dedicated parkland at Hemisfair from 6.5 useable acres to 18.5 acres.
As for a hotel, the City restricted its size to a total of no more than 200 rooms and 400,000 square feet. We do not currently have a site selected and it is premature to talk with hotel developers. If and when we enter into an agreement to develop a boutique-type hotel, it would be designed to integrate tastefully into the mix of activities at Hemisfair, attract locals to frequent its common spaces, and a portion of its revenues would contribute towards operating and maintaining the park. New buildings, including a possible hotel, help ensure financial sustainability of the public spaces.
RR: Opponents to the legislation argued that San Antonio has paid too much attention to hotel development at the expense of building residential density in the urban core. Even as that changes, we don’t see anyone living on the park perimeter. Do you foresee any residential towers being developed on the park?
AA: While Hemisfair now has more park space dedicated than before, there are also opportunities to build mixed-use structures, including multi-family and mixed-income residential adjacent to the park areas.
We plan to turn Hemisfair back into a neighborhood accessible to the entire community by building residential, shops, restaurants and other neighborhood serving amenities. Low to high-rise developments are allowed in this area, and they will be appropriately urban in nature, at one of our greatest urban sites in San Antonio.
Hemisfair is for the people of San Antonio, and the heart of the park will be nourished by people living next to it – hopefully in the next three years.
RR: What can we expect to see happen this year?
AA: In addition to breaking ground on the play environment, Complete Streets, and restoration of historic homes all within the southwest corner, you will also see progress with the construction of the Convention Center expansion.
Additionally we will begin the design of the northwest corner civic park, and I hope you will help us inform the community about public input opportunities similar to the efforts for the master plan, the Play Escape and the complete streets. We will also begin the public process to select the first developers for vertical projects.
RR: The Convention Center expansion involves demolition of the building near the corner of East Market and South Alamo Streets and the construction of a new space on the west edge of Hemisfair. What will people be looking at when the project is completed?
AA: The Convention Center expansion eastward toward IH37 and the removal of the west building to expand the park toward the Torch of Friendship is what changed our job from “bringing the people to the park” to “bringing the park to the people.” Once the expansion is completed in mid-2016, the west building deconstruction will make way for an expansive civic park at Market and S. Alamo Streets. The designers of the civic park, to be announced in March, will begin their work to develop what the community has programmed as bustling plazas, calming green lawns, and diverse programming, embraced by an urban skyline—to become the Front Porch of San Antonio.
RR: Are there realistic completion dates?
AA: The project will be built in stages so that the first phase Play Escape will be completed in spring 2015. Improvements will continue around the area, but at that time you will be able to swing or climb in the play structures, play a game of chess or enjoy food and beverage at several historic courtyards. The second phase is the civic park. The Convention Center expansion will be completed early in 2016, followed by construction of the northwest corner civic park. The civic park will be completed in 2018, in time for San Antonio’s Tricentennial celebration. The third phase is the park at the base of the Tower of the Americas, to be completed by 2020. Complete streets, historic restoration, and vertical developments will be woven into the life of the project.
RR: How about plans to restore some of the street grid that existed before HemisFair ’68. For those of us who were not in San Antonio back then, or weren’t even born, what are we restoring?
AA: The Hemisfair site used to be a part of the Lavaca neighborhood prior to 1968. We are reestablishing some of the historic street grid to better connect the parks to surrounding neighborhoods. Reflecting the historic street grid also creates the opportunity for street-fronted shops and restaurants, and on-street parking – all of which adds to the vibrancy of an urban district.
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The streets will be park streets, which means we will prioritize pedestrians, bicyclists and others on wheels such as wheelchairs, while allowing vehicular circulation, and feature wide-sidewalks, shade, seating areas, and landscaping.
One of our greatest opportunities is to weave the multiple histories on this site, including telling the story before the arrival of the Spaniards; the early 1700’s development impacts of the Spanish planning, military and technical abilities such as the engineering and construction of the Acequia system; the influence of the native and immigrants that made this neighborhood their home, which included people of every race and faith; the transformation brought on by HemisFair ’68; and the disappointing conversion of the Fair site into a place for the community’s enjoyment – until now.
And while we honor our past, we are restoring the opportunity to create new memories and to establish traditions for future generations that will use Hemisfair.
RR: Will these streets serve as internal park avenues, or will they connect to the downtown to the north and Lavaca to the south?
AA: Both, and also connect us east to west from Dignowity and other east side neighborhoods through Montana, to La Villita to the Riverwalk on Nueva and Villita Streets. But these streets certainly won’t be “short-cuts” for vehicles.
RR: What kind of public-private partnerships around the Play Escape are you negotiating? Will park-goers find amenities like cafes and a beer garden?
AA: We will go through a selection process before we begin negotiations with any private company. We will reuse the historic homes as park-serving amenities like cafes, restaurants, shops or galleries with access to outdoor spaces that are shaded and have water features. My colleagues Omar Gonzalez (director of planning, operations and development) and Rachel Holland (communications coordinator) really like the idea of a beer and wine garden, and I think they are on to something. We will also be looking for private partners to build mixed-use projects on the site, including parking and for-rent multifamily mixed-income residential.
RR: The most pedestrian trafficked corner in San Antonio is the northwest corner of the park at East Market and South Alamo streets. What’s in store for that part of the park this year?
AA: This area of the park will serve as the civic space for large gatherings and celebration. We will be announcing the civic park design firm publicly in March when the contract goes before City Council. The exciting news is that we are getting one of the best park designers in the world, partnered with local design and engineering luminaries. We will incorporate public workshops and community outreach efforts throughout the design process as usual, so please let your readers know about opportunities to participate as we announce them.
RR: Tres Centurias, a private group of arts and civic leaders, hopes to raise funds for a sculpture garden in the northwest corner green space. Do you see that as a realistic possibility?
AA: We’d love to integrate public art and Tres Centurias into our future fundraising efforts since we share a goal to make Hemisfair a hub for art and culture for the city’s 300th birthday. Things like location, selection, and type of sculpture will be defined as design progresses. We have engaged with this impressive and passionate group of art connoisseurs and fundraisers, and we are excited to have their interest in making Hemisfair and our community better through public art and sculpture.
RR: A decade ago, few locals ventured into the park. Now we have Luminaria and other events drawing large crowds, and weekday nights it’s common to see kickball games and outdoor filmfests drawing nice crowds of locals. Will the expanded park space become a place for more organized local recreation?
AA: Large occasional events will continue to be a part of Hemisfair’s future, but we will measure our success by our ability to attract locals on a daily basis. There will be more connected open space, and Hemisfair will be equipped with lighting, sound, and electrical infrastructure so that both spontaneous recreation and planned events are easier to accommodate.
Right now, Hemisfair is not designed for regular activations. Kickball wanes after dark because there is no lighting where the teams play. Event producers spend thousands of dollars setting up stages, lighting, and power before events and pay for hourly security the whole time. When these features are all built into the park environment, Hemisfair will be much more attractive for events both large and small.
Imagine the multiplier effect of people living in the area and our overall community attending events and park activities. There will constantly be locals recreating in the park spaces because it will literally be their backyard.
RR: Some Millennial readers of the RR want me to ask you if there will ever be enough green space to have a serious Frisbee game?
AA: Yes! Much more than exists today.
RR: How long before we see East Market and S. Alamo turned into complete streets, with bike and pedestrian lanes and shade trees added to the streetscape?
AA: East Market will be completed this fall. South Alamo will await conclusion of East Market to provide vehicular alternate circulation routes during construction. South Alamo will be completed in 2016.
RR: Transforming an urban space the size of Hemisfair is not an opportunity that comes along very often. As an architectural engineer who once worked in San Antonio and then left the city, did you return for this project or did you undertake the work after deciding to come back to the city?
AA: San Antonio is my home. I have lived here for more than 30 years and raised three daughters here. In 2010, I left San Antonio to work on a fascinating and enormous project in Denver, a city I enjoyed immensely, where I lived in a downtown high-rise with access to pedestrian destinations. When the CEO position became available, I applied for the Hemisfair assignment as I recognized that this urban redevelopment on our city’s most iconic site was a once-in-a-lifetime project set to transform our downtown and affect the city in wonderful ways that many can’t yet imagine. I couldn’t imagine a better fit of my past professional experiences and passion for creating successful urban locations. I have a fun and challenging job, and joke that “my job is a walk in the park.”
RR: How do you see the rebirth of Hemisfair Park fitting in to Mayor Julián Castro’s Decade of Downtown vision?
AA: We are fortunate to have our Mayor’s leadership and commitment to improve downtown. Hemisfair is the Mayor’s largest built initiative that our community will appreciate for generations. The Decade of Downtown goals translated into the community’s vision espoused by SA2020, which include specific and measurable goals such as growing our downtown neighborhood and expanding office offerings.
I see Hemisfair’s redevelopment as the catalyst of Downtown’s renaissance. When Hemisfair is revitalized, new businesses will open, empty store fronts will be leased, and downtown will be a vibrant and walkable place to live. Hemisfair will become a place for all San Antonians to gather and will be recognized as one of the world’s great public spaces.