Rivard: Hemisfair ’18 Key to Transforming Downtown

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Rendering of Hemisfair's Civic Park courtesy of design firm Gustafson Guthrie Nichol.

Rendering of Hemisfair's Civic Park courtesy of design firm Gustafson Guthrie Nichol.

Cities that build great downtowns for locals become great cities for visitors, too, because smart travelers want to experience new destinations “like a local.” Some will come from other countries, some from other states, and more will drive in from the city’s own suburbs if we make it worth their while.

That’s why getting San Antonio’s urban core redevelopment right will do more than just give locals a better place to live, work and play. It will draw more creative and talented people to live and work here, which means more culinary, arts and entertainment choices, greater demand for better public transportation choices, and a growing tax base to fund better inner city schools.

HemisFair ’68 changed the city nearly a half century ago and led to the development of San Antonio’s robust convention and visitor industry. The city leadership’s obsession with that new economy took the most colorful and historic downtown in Texas and stripped it of many local businesses, residents and much of its cultural authenticity.

Since the administration of Mayor Phil Hardberger (2005-2009) there has been a commitment to building a better urban core for the people who live here. That commitment deepened under the administration of Mayor Julián Castro (2009-2014) with his Decade of Downtown vision. Now, under the administration of Mayor Ivy Taylor, it is critically important to reaffirm that vision and make sure the SA Tomorrow plan and the 2017 bond both lead to building a better downtown.

Hemisfair is once again our best opportunity to redefine the city, a process that started with the $384 million improvements to the San Antonio River. Yet very little bond money has been invested in downtown. One exception: $8 million from the 2012 bond helped create Yanaguana Garden, now the most widely visited pocket park in the city. That park is for kids. Now it’s the adults’ turn.

The eight-acre Civic Park, the intended centerpiece of Hemisfair 2018, will eventually be surrounded by hundreds of new residential units, shops, offices, a boutique hotel, restaurants, cafes and more. Building a national-class park and the invisible infrastructure to make it sustainable will require a more substantial investment, perhaps $50-60 million. It’s an investment that will spur a far greater amount of private investment and thus pay for itself over time.

Two developments make this a good time for an open community conversation about the redevelopment of Hemisfair’s southern reaches. The first development came in December when Congress appropriated $135 million for San Antonio’s new federal courthouse complex, which will be located on a vacant, city-owned square block on West Nueva Street along San Pedro Creek. The city and U.S. General Services Administration will undertake a property swap that will give the GSA that city property and deed the federal office building and courthouse at Hemisfair and its surface parking to the City.

Brutalist buildings can be hard to love. UTSA's Institute of Texan Culture.

Brutalist buildings can be hard to love. UTSA’s Institute of Texan Culture. Photo courtesy of Brantley Hightower.

The second development came on May 11 when the University of Texas System, on behalf of UTSA and the Institute of Texan Cultures, issued a Request for Qualifications for redevelopment of the 14.7-acre UTSA Hemisfair Campus on the park’s southeast corner, which includes the former world’s fair-era Texas Pavilion building where the Institute of Texan Cultures (ITC) is housed.

Interested developers are offered three choices: develop the 12-plus acres around the legacy building that is home to the ITC; develop the land and expand the existing building, leaving room for the ITC to stay there; or propose a complete redevelopment of the property, including the costs of relocating the ITC to a new home. Relocating doesn’t just mean “moving.” It means paying to house the state museum in quarters worthy of its educational, historical, and cultural mission.

The Express-News published a page one story last week that cited unnamed sources who said Centro San Antonio and Mayor Taylor were viewing the site as possible home to a Triple A baseball stadium. Centro CEO Pat DiGiovanni refuted the story in a Friday interview with the Rivard Report. His organization has not received a consultant’s report on possible sites, he said, without commenting on whether the UTSA property might be one of them. An earlier effort by some city officials to consider the future Civic Park as a potential stadium site was quickly shut down.

In this latest instance, the UT System is offering to lease rather than sell its Hemisfair property, and knowledgable downtown development contacts say the cost of moving ITC to new quarters and redeveloping the property for baseball would probably double the publicly stated cost of $60-80 million for a Triple A park. In other words, it’s a non-starter.

There also is the issue of the Texas Pavilion’s likely designation as a historically significant landmark that could not be razed. The building and surrounding acreage also are home to the Texas Folklife Festival and the Asian Festival, among other annual cultural traditions with devoted followings.

Just as location of the stadium on the land designated as the future Civic Park would have killed the Zachry Hospitality/NRP Group‘s planned $165 million mixed-use development around the Civic Park, any serious talk of locating a stadium on the university property – even it were affordable – would trigger serious community opposition.

I love baseball, but I find the backroom talk about a city-funded stadium a distraction from much greater opportunity to affect genuine urban transformation. Some say taxpayers would only be on the hook for half the cost, but show me who is paying for the other half and I’ll believe it.

A more sensible vision for the southern reaches of Hemisfair would be a mixed-use approach that physically and psychologically connects the park and downtown with Lavaca and Southtown, creating a transition zone from urban residential to activated center city park.

Such an approach would defines the south side of Hemisfair as “local,” just as the park on its north side, with the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, the adjacent hotels, Rivercenter Mall, and Alamo Plaza define it as “not local.” It’s the purview of conventioneers and tourists.

The opening of the Agave apartments and H-E-B’s South Flores Market has helped considerably to connect downtown with King William and South Flores. Sensitive redevelopment of Hemisfair’s southern acreage will do the same, and check me on this one year from now, it won’t include a baseball stadium.

Why Downtown Matters for All of San Antonio

It needs to be said that a huge percentage of locals find life more suitable in the suburbs for many good reasons. Proximity to workplace, good schools, great neighborhoods for safely raising children, affordable new housing, more green space, infinite shopping choices – are among the many good reasons so many people live outside the urban core.

There is a responsibility, however, for city planners to make developers share the costs of expanding suburban communities. Not doing so in the past has led to a disproportionate percentage of public bond funds spent alleviating sprawl, traffic congestion and the other consequences of poor planning.

With billions of dollars of unmet infrastructure needs on its books – basics like streets without sidewalks or bike lanes – the City of San Antonio finds itself in a difficult position: It can’t meet the needs of its citizens, yet it’s spending to annex more neighborhoods and corridors and laying out hundreds of millions of dollars to meet infrastructure needs in its outlying sectors. That’s a topic I have been writing about for some time in the context of the 2017 bond and will continue do so again in the coming weeks and months.

Today’s column, however, is an argument for unprecedented bond spending in the urban core, and why that spending would benefit everyone in the city, not just those of us who live or work downtown.

The personality and profile of any city – its DNA – is found in the heart and soul of the urban organism and that is its downtown. That’s why San Antonio’s celebration of its 300th anniversary in two years will unfold in places like Hemisfair, in Alamo and Main Plazas, along the San Antonio River and San Pedro Creek, and at the Missions. There will be no big gatherings at the Rim, in Stone Oak, or along Wurzbach Expressway.

When we go to New York, we go to the High Line Park or Central Park or the Village in Manhattan, or to Brooklyn, where we want to experience the transformation of neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Greenpoint or those around the old Navy Yard. No one goes to Staten Island. When we go to Denver it’s to experience the 16th Street Mall, LoDo, the Arts District, the microbreweries, Five Points, and Highlands.

Building a truly vibrant urban core that offers a great work environment by day and a great live/play environment all the rest of the time makes the city a destination for everyone: urban dweller, suburban commuter and visitors from other places. A great downtown, surrounded by great neighborhoods void of blight and vacancy, is what puts a city on the big map of places everyone wants to go. You don’t have to live in it to appreciate its value.

This is a future view looking towards the Alameda Theater. Aquatic plantings will catch litter and filter pollutants from storms before they enter the San Pedro Creek. Image courtesy San Antonio River Authority.

This is a future view looking towards the Alameda Theater. Aquatic plantings will catch litter and filter pollutants from storms before they enter the San Pedro Creek. Image courtesy San Antonio River Authority.

Yet looking around downtown San Antonio I can’t put my finger on a single past bond project that was truly transformative in our urban core except Yanaguana Garden. That is why Mayor Taylor, City Council and City Manager Sheryl Sculley and her staff are hearing greater clamor for packaging Brackenridge Park, Broadway, Hemisfair, San Pedro Creek, the Zona Cultural, and the World Heritage district in the 2017 bond. It’s a clamor that is only going to grow as stakeholders and voters become more educated about the City’s political process and demand a greater voice. No one wants to serve on a committee or attend a public hearing after the decisions have been made.

People have to get civically engaged to affect the outcome. Don’t expect City staff to have vision. They are hired for their competency to manage city finances, to plan, engineer, and carry out city projects. Elected leaders are responsible for listening to voters and articulating a vision.

It really comes down to how badly we want it, how hard we are willing to work to make San Antonio a truly better city.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Centro San Antonio has not released a consultant’s report on potential downtown sites for a Triple A baseball stadium. Centro has not received the report, and has not commented on whether the UTSA property in Hemisfair could be one of the recommended sites.




Top image: Rendering of Hemisfair’s Civic Park courtesy of design firm Gustafson Guthrie Nichol.

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13 thoughts on “Rivard: Hemisfair ’18 Key to Transforming Downtown

  1. You hit the nail on the head with this one. I do not know of one person that wants a baseball stadium downtown. I do know several young people who go to Southtown at least once a week because of it’s unique business environment. A co-worker does not drive, rides a bike, has a dog, lives in tge Peanut Lofts, looking through his eyes at downtown gives a different perspective. I am older, always drive, can not walk long distances but would also like to enjoy downtown, SA needs to ,and could with good planning, meet both our needs.

    • A downtown baseball stadium will bring people into the central district – other similar sized cities (let’s stop kidding ourselves with this claim of being th 7th largest city, there is no shame in being the 31st largest metro area) have utilized publicly financed stadiums to revitalize underutilized areas and transform communities. Unlike the AT&T center that is just now starting to have an economic impact on the east side, baseball is played on more consecutive nights and will have a more immediate impact. Much like other ideas to transform this city (street cars being one of the latest examples) those who lack vision for what a great downtown could and should be will likely kill this idea and the economic and social benefits that accompany it. As they say, keep SA lame!

      • If you really want to increase foot traffic downtown, put in an Apple store. They draw more visitors than MLB stadiums, not just third-tier minor-leaguers.


        Nothing will keep SA “lamer” than putting in a non-major-league stadium and crowing how modern and big-city it is now. Stadiums are wastes of civic money; study after study (linked in previous articles on this topic) proves this without question or argument.

      • Marc–there is very little empirical evidence to support your claims with respect to the baseball stadium revitalizing/transforming communities. In fact, countless studies over the last 20 years prove that the opposite is actually the case and that there is no significant relationship between an investment in a sports stadium and significant job OR income growth. This website is arguably one of the biggest supporters of a vibrant and revitalized urban core (including the streetcar), yet its writers took a stance against the proposed taxpayer-funded, minor league baseball stadium for precisely those reasons. It’s ironic that you use the AT&T Center as an example–it was completed in 2002 and you say it is “just now starting to have an economic impact on the east side”… Let’s just assume you’re correct that the burgeoning revitalization 14 years later is due to the presence of the AT&T Center and not reflective of increased interest in the urban core in general. You’re honestly trying to make the point that spending taxpayer dollars of $175 million in 2002 and another $101 million last year to renovate the AT&T Center (not to mention the lost revenue from property tax subsidies) is a decent ROI for modest revitalization 14 years later? I certainly don’t, and I think anyone who has even remotely studied this subject would agree with me.

  2. HemisFair Park should remain a park. Can you imagine Central Park in New York if they added hundreds of new residential units, shops, offices, a boutique hotel, restaurants, cafes and more? Many of the buildings in Fair Park in Dallas were constructed for the Texas Centennial Exposition in 1936. The area is now a recreational and educational complex. Countless concert and sporting events are held there every year, not to mention the State Fair. We would do well to emulate the designs of Big D. More than boxes of condos, cafes, and office cubicles, San Antonio needs a downtown playground – and I don’t mean the Alamodome parking lot!

    • Hemisfair has never been anything like Central Park, which is 843 acres of green space. HemisFair’68 was staged on slightly less than 96 acres, all of it acquired through eminent domain. It never was a green space, at least not in the 20th century. It was a neighborhood. For the last 50 years it has been home to the convention center, ITC, the federal complex and its many parking lots, Magik Theater, many historic buildings…I could go on. Our Central Park is the San Antonio River, a linear park and jewel. The green space that can best be protected in the urban core is Brackenridge Park, although it, too, is little more than 100 acres of actual green space. –RR

    • Don–Have you been to Fair Park recently (and not during the State Fair)? It’s falling apart and all the tenants like the DSO have all left. Have you read any of the recent coverage of Fair Park in the DMN? We absolutely do not want to emulate it. The cool art deco buildings are falling apart and sit unused except during the fair as car showrooms. See link: http://watchdog.org/263984/fair-expenses-park/

      While I agree some more greenspace would be nice, I like the plan the city has made, and I think it will create a very cool, dense, urban environment. I don’t think the Fair Park comparison is valid. It is most certainly NOT a playground, it’s pretty much a sea of parking lots fenced off from everything.

  3. Mr. Rivard,

    I found the concluding statements of your article particularly galvanizing:

    “People have to get civically engaged to affect the outcome. Don’t expect City staff to have vision. They are hired for their competency to manage city finances, to plan, engineer, and carry out city projects. Elected leaders are responsible for listening to voters and articulating a vision.”

    How would you advise a young 30-something with an architectural background who feels daunted and excluded by the city’s political/administrative apparatus to “get civically engaged,” especially in matters of planning?

    • Fernando, we’d love to have you a part of the Hemisfair Coalition, a group of young professionals supporting Hemisfair and generally interested in downtown redevelopment. You can find more information on the HC at our Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/HemisfairCoalition/). If you are looking for a more general organization I think LOOP San Antonio is a great way to start getting involved. You can google or Facebook them as well.

  4. It is just incredible that the developers also known as City Council and Mayor have entertained the thought of tearing down the major symbol of HemisFair68: the confluence of cultures in the Americas. The Institute of Texan Cultures is a irreplaceable
    learning center for children of all cultures. And tear it for what?? A MINOR league baseball stadium! This is just another plan to leave as little parkland as possible and giving the land to developers. And the idiots who are in charge of HemisFair redevelopment have the nerve to call their work “WORLD CLASS LIKE CENTRAL PARK”. I guess these clowns have never been to SEATTLE where the World’s Fair site has been saved. There are tens of thousands of locals and tourists flocking to it. Everything that is suggested for San Antonio will never make us “WORLD CLASS”.

  5. Hemisfair ’68 transformed San Antonio into a desirable, cultural, innovative “Big Town”. With this incredible opportunity, I would love to see us take a lesson from Fort Worth with it’s INCREDIBLE Cultural District. Before we turn big chunks of land over to developers, (especially the Institute of Texan Culture) let us explore a plan that might include a cultural center comparable to The Kimball, and The Armon Carter Museums. Call it the McCombs, Zachery, Butt Center!!!

  6. Glad to have a little more clarity around the Institute of Texan Cultures (ITC) / State of Texas Pavilion from Hemisfair ’68 – designed in part by Caudill Rowlett Scott (CRS) of Houston (and possibly a key site for Aggie architects – see http://crs.arch.tamu.edu/). As noted above, it’s a likely contender for national historic destination and/or otherwise a ‘non-starter’ for demolition.

    See this interesting documentary about Hemisfair ’68 – including for its depictions of the ITC/State of Texas Pavilion grounds (amazing fountains) and innovative construction methods (the million dollar berm, etc): http://video.klrn.org/video/1559853325/

    Ideally, though, some site retrofits and possibly a B-Cycle station will improve pedestrian access to and through the ITC grounds from the eastside / the new Tower of Americas Way Linear Park. Also, depending on the City’s upcoming flat rooftop assessment (as part of the City’s Hazard Mitigation Action Plan) and future green roofs work (suggested with the SATomorrow draft sustainability plan), there might be some interesting possibilities for on top of the ITC (as well as the Convention Center?), too?

    One aspect to note, though – San Antonio was a tourism and specifically a convention city (trading on our climate, transit access, a Mexican-American identity and key downtown sites like San Pedro Pool and Park) well before Hemisfair ’68. I’ve seen local tourism literature from the early 1900s promoting San Antonio for conventions as well as advertising places like the Original Mexican Restaurant, the street car line (the City’s first) to San Pedro Park, etc to convention-goers and other visitors.

    I’m surprised that more of the City’s history – specifically the 50th anniversary of Hemisfair’68 but also the legacy of key downtown sites of national heritage importance like San Pedro Park and Pool – doesn’t seem to be shaping 2018 Tricentennial planning or seemingly 2040 (SATomorrow) planning.

    A key aspect of building a better ‘urban core’ in time for these milestones, I think, is to build quickly from our history (including as a transport hub and innovator) and re-connect historic neighborhoods like Five Points and Ave. Guadalupe/Vista Verde South (2016-17 RenewSA areas) and St Paul Square/Historic Gardens that, from a historical standpoint, rather recently have been cut off from ‘downtown’ and tourism interaction and enjoyment.

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