One of the first challenges the City's new Tricentennial Director will face is the possibility that Hemisfair's Civic Park will not be completed in time for San Antonio's 300th anniversary celebrations in May 2018. The new director won't be alone in worrying the problem: senior City leaders and elected officials already are wrestling with the design, construction and financing challenges that must be overcome to meet the deadline.
Expansion of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center on the eastern side of Hemisfair and demolition of the older portion of the Convention Center on the western side is supposed to be completed by early 2016. Civic Park is due to be finished in time for the start of the Tricentennial celebrations on May 1, 2018.
Andrés Andujar, CEO of the Hemisfair Area Redevelopment Corporation (HPARC), confirmed that timeline in a published interview with the Rivard Report in February 2014. Asked back then if the completion dates were realistic, Andujar said, "The project will be built in stages. ... 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."
Unless key elements of the project are accelerated, Andujar and Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) both acknowledged this week, Civic Park will not be ready.
"The design/build contract for the Convention Center expansion and demolition includes installation of the six-acre Great Lawn by the end of 2016, and that will get done," said Andujar. "We are selecting a private sector partner in early to mid-2016 to develop the areas fronting East Market Street and South Alamo Street. We are still working on that selection, and that selection is a major factor in the Civic Park timeline."
The corner of East Market and South Alamo Street is downtown's most trafficked pedestrian space and the removal of the older side of the Convention Center will allow for an expanded green space, what Andujar and others call the city's "front porch."
The five acres of park perimeter fronting the two streets is considered the most desirable property for development at Hemisfair.
Hemisfair staff estimate that the land can host about 500,000-750,000 sq. ft. of development that could cost in the range of $150-$250 million.
Any housing built on Hemisfair must provide between 10-50% of workforce housing for renters earning 50-110% of the city’s annual median income.
Selection of the private sector design and build team is a critical element. The submission deadline was in April 2015. Hemisfair and City officials have offered no insights on the continuing selection process or how many competing bids are being considered.
The renderings of Civic Park showing development along Market and South Alamo Streets, Treviño pointed out, are "placeholders." What actually will be built along the park's north and west perimeters remains to be determined.
"The Great Lawn will be ready, it's all the other elements that are at issue," Treviño said. "What are we putting in along Market and South Alamo Streets? Conceptually, we are there in terms of what has been proposed, but there is a much finer line of detail that needs to be explored. Thinking as an architect, I believe completion of this project is possible if everyone works collaboratively. It's doable, but it's big public project.
"Thinking as a council person, I say we need to trust in our local talent," Treviño added. "I want to push for use of local talent as much as possible, not just to support local economic development, but to make a statement. The know-how and talent is here in San Antonio and people are ready to go. There's also no reason why a project of this size can't be a hybrid mix of local and outside talent. Let's make a selection and get this done."
Once HPARC and City Council confirm the selection of a private sector design/build team, the design phase will involve all the parties. Anyone who has watched the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project knows a public project of this magnitude will generate significant community interest and feedback.
Financing Civic Park could be an even bigger challenge.
"We have a schematic design for Civic Park that we presented to City Council and got approved in December, "Andujar said. "The actual delivery of a finished Civic Park depends a lot on the financing. The question of whether Civic Park is ready on time is ultimately a question of funding. We are asking for $53 million in the 2017 bond. We also are pursing private funding, including philanthropic naming rights."
“The City will meet its commitment of having a Civic Park for the NCAA Final Four and the Tricentennial, but the park will continue to evolve over time," said Assistant City Manager Lori Houston. "The northwest quadrant of Hemisfair will eventually include housing and commercial/retail, and the timing of any 2017 Bond Program funding for the civic park will align with the timing of the residential and commercial development of the park. The funding for the development of the Civic Park will come from both public and private sources. Certainly, philanthropic funding raised by HPARC would accelerate the timeline and enhance the park."
That means the construction funding that becomes available in 2017 will trail the selection of the design/build team in 2016 unless alternative funding is found that allows Hemisfair and the City to advance the timeline. A significant philanthropic gift and/or the purchase of naming rights to Civic Park is one way that could happen.
The City could raise the money sooner by issuing certificates of obligation, which would not require a public vote. Tax notes were used in 2006 when then-Mayor Phil Hardberger led the successful effort to purchase the 311-acre Voelcker Ranch, at the time the largest parcel of undeveloped land left inside the city limits over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone. The City had to act quickly to prevent developers from acquiring the property for residential subdivisions. $16.5 million in tax notes were used to purchase the land, and then the 2007 bond included $31.3 million for additional land purchase and improvements the property is the highly popular Hardberger Park.
"We couldn't wait for the 2007 bond. If we had not acted and found the funding there would be thousands of houses built there now, and San Antonio would not be the city it is today," Hardberger said this week. " I hope we bring the same spirit to Civic Park. It's a great downtown project."
The initial redevelopment work at Hemisfair was accomplished by allocating $2 million funds from the 2007 and $30 million from 2012 bond. That first phase of the 2012 bond program included the October completion of Yanaguana Garden, the four-acre playscape located on Hemisfair's southwest corner.
Attendance at the playscape has exceeded the most optimistic expectations. Andujar and others expect the same outcome for the Great Lawn and Civic Park once construction is completed, transforming a public space that has been all but dead for 50 years into a major downtown attraction for locals and visitors.
Hemisfair and the City also are preparing to issue a call for a new P3, or public-private partnership, to develop a parcel adjacent to Yanaguana Garden that is expected to become a multi-story residential and office building with ground floor retail and parking.
With Tricentennial planning now underway and a new director expected to be named in December, the focus will turn to the space available to stage those celebrations. At the very least, the Great Lawn will be ready. How much of the adjacent development will be underway or completed remains to be seen. It's hard to imagine five acres of mixed use development yet to be designed somehow completed by May 2018.
"There is the possibility that we might have to come to a stop in Civic Park for a period of what could be several months of celebrations in 2018," Andujar said. "We might have to do that and then resume the project afterwards."
"If we can get a funding mechanism in place for Civic Park we can accelerate things," Treviño said. "We don't want a major construction project underway in the middle of our Tricentennial celebrations. We are working on ways we can get everything done in time."
*Top Image: Rendering of Hemisfair's Civic Park courtesy of design firm Gustafson Guthrie Nichol.