It’s taken roughly half a century,
but much of Hemisfair Park is gradually being converted back to the land usage it once had before becoming downtown San Antonio’s central park. Plans include land dedicated for residential, office and retail uses, and more of the site is destined for future conversion.
Most recently, the University of Texas System invited developers to submit proposals for what they would do, if given the chance, to reinvent the 14.7 acres the university controls in the park’s southeast corner. The site is home to the Institute of Texan Cultures museum since shortly after the closure of the HemisFair ’68 world’s fair.
The UT System took over the site of the fair’s former Texas Pavilion, converting it to a museum about the confluence of international cultures in Texas. It’s also hosted the Texas Folklife Festival since 1972. But the system is now prepared to allow residential and retail development on the site, even if that means moving the institute.
On June 9, the University of Texas at San Antonio issued a Request for Proposals on behalf of the UT System. A Request for Qualifications issued the previous year expressed a desire to keep the museum on site, but allowed its relocation if a developer paid for the move. It appears that expense is no longer on the table.
Since its creation, Hemisfair Park has been a primary meeting place for San Antonians. Crowds gather year-round to enjoy festivals and concerts, and it’s where residents face the Tower of the Americas on New Year’s Eve to watch the city’s official fireworks display. But many landmark buildings from the world’s fair have either disappeared or are destined for removal. HemisFair Arena fell to the wrecking ball in 1995, and the John H. Wood Jr. Federal Courthouse, built as the fair’s United States Pavilion, will be retired as soon as a new courthouse is built.
The city arranged a land swap, giving the feds the former site of the city’s police department headquarters in exchange for control of federal lands in the park. Those lands will be added to the Hemisfair district under the authority of the HPARC (Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation), a local government entity created in 2009 to manage and redevelop the site. Meanwhile, the completion of a new $135 million courthouse is expected by late 2020.
The northeast quadrant of Hemisfair is home to the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center. The convention center was once situated in the northwest quadrant, and it was the $365 million redevelopment and upward expansion of the convention center that was most pivotal in allowing future development elsewhere in the park. The park actually grew in size when the new convention center opened in February 2016, because the center was reconfigured over land that was once parking space for an arena that no longer exists; the arena site eventually became the home of the Grand Hyatt San Antonio, a luxury convention center hotel and condo tower.
Before there was ever a Hemisfair Park,
the 96 acres that hosted the 1968 World’s Fair was a vibrant urban neighborhood. At the time, it was denigrated as a blighted area by city fathers who coveted the site for its proximity to downtown and potential as a venue for placing a global spotlight on what was then essentially a backwater military town.
But in reality, the neighborhood boasted a fully-developed infrastructure of streets and utilities, chock full of occupied homes, commercial shops, social halls, and churches. The power of eminent domain and dreams of HemisFair ’68 doomed the region, with only 24 original structures spared. Even most of the streets disappeared.
Forty years later, HPARC came into being, and with it the commencement of a master planning process. With unanimous city consensus that Hemisfair had been underutilized far too long, HPARC was granted a license to dream and collaborate. The plan that emerged called for the reintegration of residential and commercial life, but not by sacrificing the park.
Three new park sections are envisioned to be executed in phases, beginning with Yanaguana Garden. Completed in 2015, Yanaguana is a lavishly landscaped playground for children and adults. A recent survey found that in 2016 it was the second most visited urban park in the state, after Dallas’ Klyde Warren.
Civic Park, the second phase, is billed by HPARC as “the grandest of Hemisfair’s park series, boasting eight football fields of open public space. Inviting stretches of green will welcome you to enjoy a cup of coffee or morning yoga class. An interconnected succession of bustling plazas and charming courtyards will become your favorite destination for people-watching and exploration.”
The price tag for the nine-acre Civic Park is estimated at $60 million, and HPARC campaigned successfully to receive about a third of the park’s funding from the $850 million city bond package approved in a May referendum. It will take two years to build Civic Park, but Public Works hopes to have the Great Lawn, which is its centerpiece, ready in time for the city’s 2018 Tricentennial celebration.
The third park redevelopment phase is Tower Park, a redevelopment of the land around the Tower of the Americas. However, plans for that component are a few years away from implementation, with little information available at the moment.
In 2016, HPARC began cementing public-private partnership deals for residential development. Contracts with AREA Real Estate LLC came first on a project in the southeast quadrant. Adjacent to the Yanaguana Garden, AREA will build a 163-unit residential complex; with 50 percent of the units designated as workforce housing.
The NRP Group followed with a 380-unit apartment building to be positioned in the northwest corner. In February, Zachry Hospitality had its P3 deal approved by the city. Zachry’s $200 million project is on five acres, also in the northwest quadrant by the future Civic Park. The firm proposes a mixed-use community that includes a five to six story office building with up to 120,000 square feet, with an additional 200-room boutique hotel and roughly 50,000 to 70,000 square feet of ground level retail.
The planned residential development will restore housing in Hemisfair to its approximate pre-1968 population, albeit on much less land. In addition, Zachry will build an underground parking structure with 800 spaces. The city has agreed to pay $18 million to make 600 of those spaces open to the public.
The final piece is the UT System’s plan for the land that’s home to the Institute of Texan Cultures and its outdoor festivals. All of the residential and commercial P3 projects involving the HPARC are ground leases that funnel revenue back to the HPARC, and HPARC can also collect sales tax revenue within the confines of the Hemisfair district. While the UT System land is in the park, it is not in the district, freeing UTSA to administer its own ground lease deal with whatever development firm produces the plan most appealing to UT regents.
But the regents are still respecting HPARC’s Framework and Master Plan, which requests a new street grid constructed on the UT System’s land that will divide the site into seven blocks. The center block would include a park where the ITC building stands today. The surrounding blocks would be dedicated to high density residential with a mix of ground retail. UTSA set a deadline of August 2 for interested developers to submit their proposals.