People Want a Park: San Antonio’s Passion for Hemisfair

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View from above: Separated by several hundred feet, each of these buildings read as isolated objects within a deserted suburban landscape. Photos/renderings courtesy of Brantley Hightower/HiWorks Architecture.

View from above: Separated by several hundred feet, each of these buildings read as isolated objects within a deserted suburban landscape. Photos/renderings courtesy of Brantley Hightower/HiWorks Architecture.

People can sense the possibility that someday soon San Antonio could have what is now missing from the center city: a great public park with green spaces alive with locals and visitors.

At the same time, a clear majority of our readers see the future quality of Hemisfair Park tied to the city's ability to balance expansion of convention hotels with its stated goal of increasing downtown residential density, and elevating Alamo Plaza and Travis Park into public spaces that appeal to locals and are free of vagrants and the homeless.

More than a few raise the fear that a new hotel tower built atop the historic Joske's building will add more rooms to the city's inventory than can be filled, and that longer-term trends could send the convention industry  into decline as companies economize and use new technology to convene workers virtually.

Option Two rendering courtesy of Overland Partners.

Option Two rendering courtesy of Overland Partners.

What a redeveloped Hemisfair Park means to people depends on whose imagination is at play – if the comments to our widely-read story, Hemisfair Park: Time for Bold Steps, is an accurate reflection of how people feel. But one thing is clear: There is shared passion for a real downtown park where many people can gather and for more room to live, shop and recreate downtown.

"One concern that I have is the lack of focus on green spaces," wrote Jaime Solis, a former state legislative director and Southtown resident. "I feel we have a great opportunity to create large amounts of open spaces where people can picnic, play sports (i.e. downtown kickball) and exercise. Instead the talk surrounds hotels and apartments. Ask yourself: when you think of a park do you think of hotels or apartments? I think of green grass and trees."

Much of the discussion is spurred by a bill now awaiting Gov. Rick Perry's signature that was introduced by Rep. Mike Villarreal on behalf of the City of San Antonio. The bill makes it possible to reconfigure Hemisfair Park land and expand open spaces without a popular vote.

A rendering of Hemisfair's possible future. Image courtesy of Hemisfair Park/City of San Antonio.

A rendering of Hemisfair's possible future. Areas shaded green indicate open park space. Image courtesy of Hemisfair Park/City of San Antonio.

Villarreal's original version of the bill stipulated that no hotels could be built within Hemisfair Park, but protests from developers and others in the economic development community led to a compromise that allowed a hotel development limited to 20% of the newly opened spaces within the park.

Redeveloping Hemisfair Park was first raised during the then-Mayor Phil Hardberger's second term, and it has become the centerpiece of Mayor Julián Castro's campaign to make this the Decade of Downtown.

Readers share Castro's priority to create more park space quickly and comments suggest there can't be enough green space to hold everyone and all the activities they envision taking place there.

A place to throw a frisbee. A dog park. A public sculpture garden, complemented, perhaps, by the sound and spray of fountains. A quiet shaded park bench to read a book on lunch break. Free outdoor movies. Live music events. Cafe seating, with a local beer garden, coffee shop, a good, affordable place to eat, drinking fountains. Lots of bike racks and B-cycle stations.

In other words, a park very much like the one envisioned in the master plan produced by the Hemisfair Park Redevelopment Corp., its CEO Andres Andujar, the board of trustees, and a lot of grass-roots public input.


"As the co-founder of Downtown Kickball League, which plays at Hemisfair Park on that little patch of grass on South Alamo Street beside Magik Theater, I can tell you without a doubt the league would not be the same if we played elsewhere," wrote Ryan Bigley, the general manager of Plastic Supply of San Antonio. "Playing and congregating in the shadow of the Tower adds something special.

"Andujar has done a masterful job so far, "Bigley added. "However, I do disagree with the amount of field space in his design, there is not enough field space. If San Antonio wants to emphasize becoming a fit city it should start at the core. More field space to encourage a pick-up soccer match, a fitness session or simply to throw a frisbee should be more of a priority. Look to Central Park in New York or Zilker Park in Austin, at the core park there should be a place to run around and break a sweat!"

Others worry that even with the Haven For Hope, one of the nation's most ambitious homeless services and shelter complexes, that the city will be unable to prevent Hemisfair Park from going the way of Travis Park or other public spaces occupied by transients.

"Let’s be honest, the downtown Main Plaza is a mecca for homeless and wayward folks during the day," wrote a reader identified only as L.D. "The usage by downtown residents and business persons has trailed off. Hemisfair Park would likely be a huge playground for the homeless and downtrodden. Unless Mayor Castro has some plan to continue to find shelter for such individuals, this can ruin the park. Sad, but true."

A quiet day in Travis Park. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Transients congregate on the benches at Travis Park. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Reader Carol Wood expressed concerns that the city is not taking the necessary steps to implement plans already on the drawing board for other public spaces. Noting that the hotel tower atop Joske's might be perceived as a negative influence on Alamo Plaza by World Heritage Site judges, she also noted that the plaza itself remains unimproved.

"Despite the fact that Project for Public Spaces laid out ideas and recommendations based on public meetings for improving the experience of Alamo Plaza for tourists and locals – and a $1 million bond was approved to begin the task, nothing has yet been done in the past year," Wood wrote. "Nothing. Any new construction or major changes in the Alamo Plaza core should be delayed until the World Heritage designation is decided and until major planning for Alamo Plaza is complete. Then would be the time to decide if more hotels need to be there."

Better Block seating and shade

Seating, shade, and things to do at the Alamo Plaza Better Block in August 2012. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Others just want a park that creates an experience otherwise missing in the downtown for much of the year.

"People want to be around other people," one reader wrote. That point is echoed by many in San Antonio.

"Shouldn’t we be considering a park in which the city can host more music festivals and the like?" asked Eliza Bowers, a former U.S. Marine and now college student. "Houston has the Buffalo Bayou Park now in which you can kayak, and a festival called the Free Press – similar to our Current-Summer Fest FPSF – that has been held each summer for the past 4-5 years. They’ve had everyone from The Flaming Lips, Snoop, Weezer, Girl Talk, Beirut, Big Boi, Major Lazer(?) …  Anywho, I think this is an important topic be taken into consideration. Music, folklife, film, art, book, festivals as a whole generate a lot of revenue..."

It's a generalization, but most people involved in economic development in the city favor a scaled-down version of the hotel tower atop the Joske's building, while the average person seems more concerned with seeing Castro focus on building a better downtown for residents, as envisioned in the SA2020 initiative.

Downtown seen from the Steel House Lofts' roof. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

View from the Steel House Lofts' roof. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

"Large conventions are so five years ago," wrote Sam Reid. "Why isn’t anyone screaming about the huge amount being spent on that dinosaur?"

Once Perry signs the bill -- if he signs the bill - Castro and the City Council can begin to work with staff and Andujar's team to lay out a timeline for completing Phase One of the master plan.

In that same time period, the hotel tower will come back for reconsideration, presumably with changes and more detail as requested by City Manager Sheryl Sculley. That will give readers a fresh look at the project and the opportunity to be heard, again.


Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.


Related Stories:

Hemisfair Park: Time for Bold Steps

A Contemporary Look at the Alamodome

Great Cities Have Great Gathering Places

Why San Antonio’s Future is Bright

Thinking Big and Brutal: An Architect Examines Hemisfair Redesign

23 thoughts on “People Want a Park: San Antonio’s Passion for Hemisfair

  1. More hotels simply make downtown a dead zone for locals, and think of all those additional toilets flushing down Aquifer water, think of the asphalt and parking lots. A park would be brilliant, but we all know how much money talks….

  2. Think sustainability. Our COSA can’t control a little space like Travis Park. It can’t amicably redevelope a little space like La Villita and Market Square. It’s hands are tied about cleaning up the circus around the Alamo…and the list goes on.
    What makes anyone think COSA can successfully long term manage a huge complex like HemisFair. It’s taken 50 years, for crying out loud. And recently the plan still almost fell apart in the lege. The off the record consensus with the downtown business people I talk to
    is COSA can’t manage “squat”. Never has. Never will.
    Shortly Mayor Castro will be moving onward and upward. Another Mayor will come in and have her/his own agenda & eventual legacy. They never want to just inherit a previous one. That smacks of copy cattism. So whatever old business is in the works gets pushed to the back burner. Their new agenda gets the lions share of the tax coffer’s funding.
    So my concern is that although the dream of a Central Park in downtown is wonderful. It’s not real. We have a bunch of parks in downtown that are underutilized for what they were intended and expensive to maintain now. Let’s do a better job with them & then I’d have more confidence that COSA could handle the HemisFair Park biggie.
    Right now I vote “no confidence”.

  3. Is that really an honest assessment of sentiment? I read all the comments through Saturday I think. Not much enthusiasm for the hotel from my reading. Hmmmm. I am still ambivalent about it, don’t think hotel occupancy rates support it and hate the thought of gutting yet another historic building in some creepy Potemkin Trend developing here:/. At least bring back the windows and the corner entrance. The hotel will happen. There’s already too much force behind it at city. Just be more respectful of the original building. Surely architects are clever enough to keep all the old iron columns AND hold up our SALVATION (snark).

  4. I have no problem with construction on top if Joske’s. Maybe I don’t understand the significance of the building but the main argument against it has been that it would take away from the alamo. I find this to be a very poorly constructed argument. If I had any concerns about the hotel, it would be that continues the mindset that downtown is for tourists rather than locals. Hopefully once this is passed, we can continue to focus on downtown housing, hopefully surrounding Hemisfair and Travis.

  5. I’d like to ask a silly question. Who is going to foot the bill to maintain all of this leafy green space in the future HemisFair Park?
    San Antonio is in a semi-arid climate with times of serious water shortages. I can only water my yard one day a week now.
    The two little tiny fountains in La Villita have been shut down for several years. The city horticulturist told me that in last years drought we lost 300 trees in the downtown area. One large beautiful red oak by the main entrance of Hemisfair succumbed to the drought.
    So if COSA redevelops all of this wonderful leafy green space for kick ball and all that, are they prepared to keep it green at all costs? Or in times of severe drought (think climate change) will they have to resort to water restrictions? Will this result in significant grass die off and the kick ball games will be on a dirt field. Will the landscaping be little more than the weedy zeriscape plantings like across the street in La Villita? All if this sounds like a dreamy plan but what are the facts mam? Just give me the facts. How much is it going to cost the tax payers to maintain kick ball fields in downtown San Antonio?
    Again, how much is this all going to cost to maintain? Not to install but what’s the annual maintenance cost? It’s a big park. Do they have the staff to maintain it? Does anyone have a clue? Kick ball field maintenance as opposed to fixing the wash board roads running havoc on the front end of my car along the streets I have to traverse to and from my work. Dream on and pay for your own kick ball fields. Play at your local school or church yard.

  6. For what its worth: Idk about other parks, but Hemisfair is a tourist attraction. I was a 30 year tourist of SA prior to moving here a year ago. I’ve visited hemisfair many times as a tourist. But not once as a resident of SA.

  7. I have yet so see a park in SA reflect this city’s growth, nor have I seen an event held at any downtown park which lives up to even a modicum of this city’s potential, well at least for those of us locals who would like more urban places to congregate.

  8. Well, Hemisfair is already there, so it’s not like the city is starting from scratch. Of all the downtown parks, it has the greatest potential and overall appeal, so I say throw all possible resources toward the project. I don’t see the need for hotels within Hemisfair, though. The space is surrounded on three sides by multiple hotels, so that seems like a political deal.

  9. I am fundamentally opposed to developing/privatizing HemisFair Park with hotels and expensive apartments without a vote by citizens.

  10. If our Mayor could perhaps see past the convention center and hotel money, and realize that a robust and lush parks system will be able to bring not only the traditional tourists; but the tourists who fly half-way across the country to see their favorite bands playing a huge festival in another state (guilty), locals, and even nearby out-of-town visitors alike. One need only drive a few hours away, to our fellow prospering Texas cities, to witness what types of events and functions a great parks system can host.

    I agree that the other parks are underutilized, but that’s why if this issue of Hemisphere is going to be addressed, we should try and get a nice amalgam of an integrated and intertwined parks system. Given the almost year-round beautiful weather of our city and all of the various park locations downtown, there could be simultaneously occurring events just about any weekday or weekend of the year, with Hemisphere serving at the central location, thus recouping cost & fees and in many cases to include a surplus once you factor in entrance fees, vendor fees, etc..

    San Antonio is a unique city in that we do our own thing, in our own time, and that’s just fine with us; and although much of urban redevelopment in major cities began about a decade ago, I’m happy that us locals in SA are finally starting to demand a community presence in our city. Now, the only one’s doing things in their own time and slowing us down are our elected officials, out of tune with what the majority of their constituents seem to want.

  11. Our 22 year old college student attended an event at Hemisfair just recently and said it was “cool” (tuesday brewsday) Good music, food trucks, outdoor activities, bike racks, free parking etc. I think that qualifies for getting locals to congregate; as I read about the event, i would consider it to be more than a modicum of this cities potential… It’s a step in the right direction anyway…

  12. so your post seems to have taken quite a few excerpts out of mine in which to address round-aboutly; i’ll take the bait. 😉 while i’m not old by any means, ‘tuesday brewsday’ sound very ordinary, & along the lines of most events in SA, no? the kind of redundant: music, food, alcohol events usually held in our parks with more high profile events throughout the year, therefore not living up to it’s potential. a better reflection of our growth could be art in the park, or poetry in the park, plays in the park…on a tuesday. while i agree it’s gotten better, our parks usage and development still seems to be limited in scope, and geared to drinking, eating and jamming out. sure more is happening, but just because you’re dying of thirst doesn’t mean you have to drink the first pond water you come across, the city could and should do more. how about some variety and culture in the parks & not just drinking events, for us congregate…in the urbans and such.

  13. Mention was made of “a great public park with green spaces alive with locals and visitors.” Hello, we have that. Brackenridge Park contains an urban forest, a world class zoo, an amphitheater for concerts, hike and bike trails, and much more. So why do we need to ‘re-imagine’ HemisFair Plaza? If we seriously want balance the tourist industry with the city’s needs, citizens should start using the Convention Center as Party Central for our various festivals.
    I visited the ITC yesterday and asked the front desk if they had any leaks in the ceiling with all the rain Saturday. “Nope,” he said, “not a drop.” So I asked him if the basement got flooded from rising water. Again, the answer was no. So why do we need to tear down the ITC? It seems to be a perfectly good building. The institute serves as the attic of Texas. It is a collection of artifacts from cultures across the state. We should not destroy this treasure just so the tourists can have more convention center space.
    I know tourism is important to San Antonio but so is the ITC! Do locals get to visit the convention center? Not often! But locals use the ‘Back 40’ of the ITC during Folklife Festival and all of HemisFair Plaza during Luminaria. Please do NOT fill up our Plaza with tourist and convention space.

  14. From what I have read – Central Park in NYC is managed by a conservancy. If the city finds a qualified group that can manage the park effectively then hopefully city resources won’t be affected.

    Maybe the Rivard Report should run a few community events to really get public opinion and move things forward.

  15. Well, I have to say that while it may SEEM predictable and mediocre… I have met, been entertained by, been enlightened by; world class musicians, poets, actors, artists, scholars, writers, athletes, you name it; all while drinking, jamming and eating… Never once thinking I was being deprived culturally… to each his own..

  16. The Alamo and the other missions are nominated to be a World Heritage site. There have been economic impact studies that show the positive effect of such a designation would bring, which would be far more than any hotel on top of Joske’s.
    To even consider starting construction on a massive project next to Alamo Plaza at a time when such an important designation hangs in the balance and when World Heritage evaluators will be coming is shocking. Irresponsible, in fact, to take any chances with negatively impacting the possibility of our missions receiving a World Heritage designation.
    Somehow, all the blather about the tower has not yet managed to discuss something that is vital to the future economic and historic importance to our city.

    • The last time i saw figures, Mission San Jose was visited by more than 1.2 million people annually, designation as a World Heritage site can only increase those numbers, by how much is arguable, but these new visitors will most certainly be travelers to San Antonio, looking for a place to stay, and development of a hotel over Joskes does not distract from the experience of the Alamo, it enhances it by increasing hotel competition in SA, which means lower rates, introduction of more amenities, etc…, Another commenter used this turn of phrase, the argument of proximity to the Alamo is poorly constructed, if i am in a “world class city” i expect to see evidence of its prosperity, a gleaming skyscraper, modest as 30 plus stories is by skyscraper standards is at least a step in the right direction. The City Manager, I’m sure with the Mayor’s consent, has conditionally approved the project, the rest of you need to grow a set and stop thinking that the City has any control over the types of business’s that operate around the Alamo, the market dictates that, and if people want to spend their hard earned $$$’s on nonsense, that’s their right, and if you disagree, you’re welcome to open a alternative business and drive Ripley’s and the others out through competition.

  17. It’s wonderful that you and your son are satisfied with the current state of affairs of our parks system & don’t feel culturally deprived; I, and many other constituents, are unfortunately not and feel more should be done. Simple as that. I don’t understand the concern for my mediocre opinion of the parks system. If you like the parks as they are, then good for you; don’t ask for more and accept whatever there already is; conversely, I won’t.

  18. Bring back the gondola and the waffles. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. This was a very successful economic generator, enjoyed by locals and tourists during Hemisfair. Its an historic destination with an ample and fascinating selection of adaptible architecture of different styles, uses and periods of our history. Instead of a hotel, lease these structues as a variety of concessions, that, like the Tower of the Americas and its restaurant, would make the whole campus, a destination site. Link them all together with hike/bike/rickshaw/etc trails and surround them with beautiful gardens, shade trees, fountains and open space. These concessions could be part of a conservancy to help with the maintenaince of the park. The park could also be the continuation of La Villita across the street, which, like the park, was originally a neighborhood, desplaced by tourists, and progress.

  19. Sad that there is no mention of San Antonio’s existing and historic central park – San Pedro Park – and that members of the public photographed actually using
    San Antonio’s public parks are cast as ‘transients’ and ‘vagrants’ by the photographer and author.

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