National Land Use Experts Present Plan for Hemisfair’s Tower Park

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An independent panel of land use experts envisioned plans that could connect Hemisfair to surrounding neighborhoods as Tower Park continues the design process.

Courtesy / ULI - R. Nishimura

An independent panel of land use experts envisioned plans that could connect Hemisfair to surrounding neighborhoods as the design process for Tower Park continues.

Renowned land use experts who spent the past week looking at how to make Hemisfair’s final phase of redevelopment a “great public place” envision a new urban neighborhood that serves a demand for inner-city housing while paying homage to the residential history of the land before the world’s fair of 1968.

The independent panel, which presented its findings and advice Friday at a meeting of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) of San Antonio, recommends retaining some of the historically significant structures, redeveloping others, and creating green spaces and pedestrian connectivity both within the park and with the surrounding neighborhoods.

“San Antonio is continuing to grow, and that means people, that means households, and that means Hemisfair has a capture opportunity to create a foundation for that great place,” said Alex Rose, senior vice president, Development Continental Development Corp., who chaired the national ULI panel.

ULI’s advisory services panel is composed of land use, real estate, urban planning, and parks experts who represent ULI and provide multidisciplinary advice on complex land use and real estate issues such as Hemisfair. Since 1947, the advisory panels have studied more than 700 projects with the goal to offer creative, practical solutions for land use projects, such as downtown redevelopment, land management, and parks.

The panel of six men and three women studied the final phase of the Hemisfair master plan, referred to as Tower Park and the Eastern Zone, between April 28 and May 3. The vision for Hemisfair is an active urban district that will foster community cohesion and advance the area as a critical connector between neighborhoods to the south and east of Hemisfair.

“ULI’s engagement on this process means Hemisfair is on the map nationally,” said Andres Andujar, Hemisfair CEO. “We’re pleased the panel agrees that development led by housing is how the world’s best public places get built.

“Their recommendations ratified the framework in place, supported reestablishing the neighborhood surrounding parks, and gave us additional encouragement about Hemisfair’s location and market timing,” Andujar said.

Known as Tower Park, the 5.5 acres surrounding the Tower of the Americas includes historic and nonhistoric buildings that have remained empty for years, save for temporary event space. It is the third phase of a master-planned project established in 2011 to convert the grounds of the former world’s fair into a vibrant public space.

Tower Park construction is slated to begin in 2022, with a park opening in 2024. But if the progress of Civic Park, the second phase in Hemisfair’s northwest section, is any indication, those dates could change. That section is now expected to open in 2022, but initial estimates were 2020.

The first phase, Yanaguana Garden, is a playscape with food and drink options that opened in 2015. A multifamily development known as The ’68 is under construction there as well.

For Tower Park, some of the panel’s suggestions included:

  • Converting the John Wood Federal Courthouse building into a covered amphitheater that mimics the current footprint of the building.
  • Adapting and reusing the GSA Building as affordable senior housing.
  • Developing green spaces, plazas of varying sizes, and a dog park, as well as a pedestrian axis that runs east to west.
  • Renovating the Women’s Pavilion to serve as indoor event space.
  • Removing the water fountain at the base of the Tower of the Americas that currently blocks free-flowing access and redevelop other smaller water features.
  • Creating an Exploratorium experience similar to the one in San Francisco.
  • Installing a solar array on the roof of the Henry B. González Convention Center.
  • Redeveloping César Chávez Boulevard.

    The Woman’s Pavilion in Hemisfair Park.

    Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

    The Women’s Pavilion could become an indoor event space at Hemisfair.

The overall plan is organized into areas that are more public on one side, nearer the convention center, and more private on the other.

“The more private axis connects predominantly the residential buildings and spaces,” said panelist Riki Nishimura, director of urban strategies at the architecture firm Gensler. “These residential buildings consist of multiple scales and densities … that gradually become higher in height to the east. This creates a new residential neighborhood that strengthens what was lost back in ’68 while retaining some features from the world’s fair that provided San Antonio the global identity and presence.”

The advisory panel emphasized that the financial viability of the plan depends on private development within the boundaries of Hemisfair as well as south of César Chávez.

Much of that should come in the form of high-density, multifamily residential development within the zone, they said. Such development is not only a critical element of their vision, but with a mix of housing type and affordability, it also would activate the area, ensure socioeconomic diversity and mitigate gentrification.

The strategy the panelists suggested puts 1,360 multifamily rental units, 200 affordable senior housing units, and 36 townhome units in the Eastern Zone. Some 11,000 square feet of small neighborhood retail and nine civic buildings are also in the plan.

The ULI vision framework for Tower Park at Hemisfair.

Courtesy / ULI

The ULI vision framework for Tower Park depicts a new urban neighborhood at Hemisfair.

The key to turning the vision into reality is public-private partnerships (P3). “We have to get more creative in a world where we don’t finance things ourselves,” said panelist Tyrone Rachal, principal, Red Rock Global Capital Partners, and a leader in developing the BeltLine Park in Atlanta. “We can’t go to the cities to pay for all this. We’re going to have to think about ways to grow value, unlock it, distribute it to the things we want so we’re all successful and can accomplish our goals.”

As part of the panel’s presentation, Rachal outlined a number of financial tools the Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corp. can employ to cover park infrastructure costs. Those include developer notes, tax credit programs, opportunity zone equity, non-City grants, philanthropic gifts, and corporate sponsorships.

Panelist Allen Folks, a principal and director of design and planning at Ascent Environmental, told ULI members attending the presentation that he hoped they recognize how important Hemisfair is to the rest of the city as they go about planning for it.

“We heard from a number of people when we did the interviews [who said] this is the most important piece of real estate in the city,” Folks said. “At the end of the day, it really is about this park piece and what we get out of it. Because what you’re going to remember from this in the future is going to be these important public spaces that help set the frame for where these P3 development sites go.

“So the parks and open spaces lead, the P3 sites follow. It’s not the other way around.”

22 thoughts on “National Land Use Experts Present Plan for Hemisfair’s Tower Park

  1. I see only one arrow representing a flow of people between the convention center and the park. I hope this is an oversight. One of the reasons that Hemisfair Park has stagnated over the years is that the convention center has had its back to the park causing anyone there to have to walk all the way around the building to go into the park. (No one did, because they didn’t even know the park was back there.) It is critical that the thousands of people who are at the convention center almost every week will know the park is there and will be able to just easily exit into the park and reenter the center.

  2. ^ agreed. sometimes the doors are open on the backside of the convention center but sometimes they are not. Have you ever walked around that building in August on the east side. Until those trees grow up, I dare you.

  3. There were many good ideas presented, however, I’m hesitant about the Exploratorium. We’d said we were looking for a place for teens to be teens and this was the answer. It replicates the DoSeum and would be costly for low income families. We were thinking more of a skate park, or just open space where teens could hang out and not be loitering.

    • i second that… something more available to all. not another pay to go in attraction. Something like the Yanguana childrens park but with more older aged activities.

      • Right. And let me add that “replicate” is the wrong word. I know it’d be different from the DoSeum, and perhaps build upon the DoSeum, but I think it’d waste valuable urban park space that should be left available to all, rather than an expensive attraction.

        Perhaps an Exploratorium type investment in the area where the DoSeum already is would cement that area as a museum destination and leave HemisFair as an urban park.

        But mostly importantly, we need to ask teens what they want.

        • If an Exploratorium type space (there were actually many teens at it when I visited it in San Fran, and even more adults) were created, it needs to go in the building where the Institute of Texan Cultures is since they will most likely be relocating. The structured, covered parking should be built underground to create more green space. This city had a weak attempt at a music festival last year and it was weak due to the location…Fiesta Texas. So the music festival became a day at an amusement park with music on the side (in limited capacity staging areas). Based on the designs up, if the covered parking is placed underground, I see the potential for a park that can handle 5 to 7 stages.

  4. If we can find a way to put a land bridge at Hardberger Park I think we can find a way to put a land bridge connecting Hemisfair to the east side and help invigorate that area.

    • There’s a bridge/pathway under the highway that connects to the Alamodome. The problem is, even with that path, the Alamodome + I37 feel like barriers.

  5. As former Planning Director(1997-2007), I had the opportunity at a past “public input” meeting on what to do with connecting Hemisphere Park with the surrounding community and came up with a similar plan. However, at that time the new addition to the convention was not constructed. I had proposed creating a open restaurant row between the old convention center and the new addition. This would connect the park to Market Street, therefore connecting with the urban fabric of downtown. The idea was from my visit to Europe- Venice, Florence, etc

  6. The one thing I would TOTALLY REMOVE from this recommendation is government buildings.

    It is going to keep them off the tax rolls and just make the whole process more expensive.

    Think commercially, taxable property.

    • If you are referring to the current Federal Courthouse and judicial training center and other Federal Gov’t usages, I believe those are already in the process of leaving the site and those buildings/parcels will be reintegrated into the fabric of the park and the Lavaca neighborhood.

  7. “Converting the John Wood Federal Courthouse building into a covered amphitheater that mimics the current footprint of the building.” Am I misreading this statement or are they saying this building is so memorable we should raze it and erect a canopy that will remind us of what we’ve lost?

    • No, they wouldn’t be razing it. They’d keep the roof and a lot of the exterior walls (most likely for the back stage area). The interior would go though.

  8. Will the powers at be
    Please consider converting the John Wood Federal Court House into City Council Chamber and the Federal Building into City Hall. Why? A civic park should house institutions that promote civic engagement.

  9. I cringe every time someone wants to make a new fountain or ‘water feature’ in San Antonio. I’m cringe again when I read of the plans to “…redevelop other smaller water features.”

    The last time I visited the fountain at the base of the tower, one pool was full of suds; another was bone dry. At one time, Hemisfair was crisscrossed with canals and waterways that carried boats of people from one attraction to another; it’s hard to find any vestige of that now. A fountain designed by Bill Bristow depicted birds in flight outside the U.S. Pavilion; it was dismantled about 30 years ago. There was a huge fountain outside the Institute of Texan Cultures; the only time it sees water nowadays is when it rains. Evelyn Fiedler Streng had created a ball-shaped fountain for the 1968 fair; I wonder where it is now. Another spherical fountain by an unknown artist has disappeared as well. When was the last time water flowed in the acequia near Yanaguana Park? Old-timers may recall other fountains and waterways that have bit the dust.

    Hemisfair, more than any other area in town, has become a graveyard for fountains. I love water and there is nothing more tranquil than a gurgling pool. But water is a scarcity in this town during dry spells and many fountains seem to be designed as an evaporation system. Until technology can figure out a way to keep a fountain flowing (what, with lime deposits and all), I would like to see a moratorium on future water features.

    • Very interesting, never thought of that but that raises a great point. Something more interactive like the ones at the pearl or in millennium park in Chicago would be nice here.

    • The river (walk) is already extended to reach one end of the convention center. Why not extend it further into the center of the park and turn it back towards the tower and freeway where it could end. Then have private developers install housing and along one end of the river (closest to the end near the freeway), add parks along the center of this river extension between housing, and then restaurants and other attractions in between, Yes, some would ask why put in more river front. The answer is simple — everyone is drawn to it: tourists who want to experience hotels and shops, and locals who want to live on the water (as in what is occurring along the museum reach. The federal building should be revamped as an indoor auditorium, with an aggressive exterior remodel applied. Add in a lot of trees; forego fountains.

  10. I’d urge folks to read the full report once it’s posted online. Just about every concern addressed in prior comments is addressed in the plan, and align with the commentators preferred treatment of the concern; i.e., long rear wall of the convention center blocking access to the park, stagnant and costly existing water features being swapped for features more in keeping with our climate and drought conditions, etc. As well, the suggestion (as these are all suggestions/reccomendations), re the John Wood Fed Courthouse is to keep the bones/structure but open up the interior to create a covered “theatre in the round” for use by local groups, etc. Overall I thought the results really helped to frame a lot of the issues around meshing the three phases of the park. All for much continued public input and discussion. The panelists, all doing this on a pro-bono/volounteer basis, went the extra mile beyond just addressing a lot of the concerns/issues that are obvious to many of us. Believe the report is supposed to be posted within the next week or so.

  11. Just remembered, ULI San Antonio also live-streamed the presentation so it’s available on their FB page for whoever wants to hear/see the presentation first hand. Having said that, nice job on the article Shari.

  12. I visited the park in Madrid Spain El Retiro Park a few years back and loved it. It had a little bit of everything. Flower gardens, open green spaces for picnics, tennis courts, basketball courts, paved areas for bikes, skateboarders, rollerbladers, small ponds, trails, beautiful looking building. It was really a place I could have spent all day at and a place worth visiting again. Park was packed with people too. Some people lazily hanging out in the green spaces and some people more active on rollerblades/bikes or on the basketball/tennis courts. Looked like a mix of locals and tourist. It would be great if Hemisfair could be a hang out place like that.

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