A Poster for Submission No. 15 of the City Hall for All accessibility design competition.
Submission No. 15 in the "City Hall for All" design competition shows a reimagined plaza. Credit: Courtesy / AIA San Antonio

Designers and architects charged with making City Hall’s main entrance accessible to people of all physical abilities were given three months to draft and submit their innovative proposals. Those proposals were showcased to a public audience Monday night at the American Institute of Architects’ San Antonio office.

City Hall for All is a partnership project seeking to give citizens using wheelchairs, walkers, canes, or those with other special needs, access to the 126-year-old building’s front entrance.

Although the building technically satisfies requirements established by the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, special needs visitors enter the building by following a narrow side entrance around the building to a back door. There users access an elevator connecting the basement to the lobby.

Local philanthropist and developer Gordon Hartman made Councilman Roberto Treviño’s (D1) idea for a design competition a reality after offering $20,000 in prize money to the team with the winning design concept.

“We were very grateful that Gordon Hartman stepped up and donated the funds necessary to hold this design competition,” Treviño, an architect, told the Rivard Report in a phone interview Friday. “I’m very proud to have helped create this notion that we can find a better way to help with projects that include resources outside of the city to help us shape decision-making process within the city.” 

“[These teams] are here because they want to see City Hall become fully accessible,” Hartman told the Rivard Report. “I think the prize money is secondary. I think they’re here because they really believe that San Antonio … represents itself as a city that believes in full inclusion.”

The 22 project ideas submitted will be blindly judged by a panel of jurors that includes State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), historic preservation architect Jeffrey Fetzer, Sharon Fleming of the Texas Historical Commission, registered accessibility specialist Peter Grojean, and special needs community representative Todd Hargroder. The competition’s structure incentivizes judges to select a project based on its merits and feasibility.

Below are renderings representing the 22 solutions presented, with only No. 2 and No. 8 maintaining their original numbering from Monday night’s event.

“Competitions are great for either small firms or large firms, or people who are interested in doing something out there that they don’t typically get to work on,” AIA San Antonio President Adam Reed said.

Judges are slated to begin their selection process on Aug. 1, and the winning project will be chosen by Aug. 14. Judges were not invited to the public forum.

The purpose of the forum was to provide members of the community an opportunity to give feedback or share ideas on the projects anonymously. Presentation boards for the proposed ideas were numbered and displayed along three walls at the AIA office’s Center for Architecture.

“I think they thought of everything,” attendee Charli Valadez said after depositing her comment card. “It’s beautiful. It’s park-like with a very nice setting. There [are] so many wonderful entries, but No. 8 [stood] out for me.”

A Poster for Submission No. 8
A Poster for Submission No. 8 Credit: Courtesy / AIA San Antonio

Around 80 people curious to see what a fully accessible City Hall could look like attended Monday’s event. Several of those were architects or designers who adhered to speaking in general concepts pertinent to the designs in order to avoid identifying which submission was their own.

“Without getting too into our project, I think it called for a plaza,” said team Notio Image member Jeremy Jaramillo. “That was the essence of what I saw a lot of here.”

“It’s not as usable as it could be,” said Clayton Holmes of Cedar Street Worskshop, who collaborated with Jaramillo on a project. “Not just for accessibility but for press releases and for large groups to gather to make it like a really civic space that’s welcoming.”

The designs presented had varying scopes and scales. Project No. 5 included larger additions such as an entrance with an archway, while others outlined simpler additions like new ramps and benches.

“I noticed No. 2 has resting benches so that people who have a walker or a cane can sit down and rest and then get back up and continue their walk up to the entrance,” Marcia Coley said as she filled out her comment card. “The symmetry and everything is very beautiful, but I’m wondering about the cost. City Hall is a beautiful facade, but I’m wondering what the cost-effectiveness is.”

A Poster for Submission No. 2
A Poster for Submission No. 2 Credit: Courtesy / AIA San Antonio

Cost estimates were not included in Monday’s display as a capital limit for projects in their early stages has yet to be determined.

“We don’t have any idea as to what the cost is going to be,” Hartman said. “I think if you were going to go and look at these plans you [would see] a large array of costs.”

Cost considerations and potential viability issues were largely minimized by calls for innovative thinking in reshaping the building’s entrance. During a brief speech, Hartman explained why the City must address the issue at hand: Around 17% of the United States population has some form of special needs, he said, and about 20 million people (6%) need daily assistance for activities such as walking or climbing stairs.

Th issue is close to Hartman’s heart: a recognized advocate for the special needs community, he is the founder of Morgan’s Wonderland and Morgan’s Inspiration Island, the world’s first fully accessible theme and water parks. The Gordon Hartman Family Foundation is dedicated to furthering positive transformation in the lives of people with special needs, their families, and caregivers and contributes millions of dollars to local efforts annually.

“All those people that we’re talking about, tens of millions of people, deserve an opportunity to do everything that you and I can do with ease,” Hartman said. “Walking up to City Hall, walking up the steps, is something that most of us here can do without a problem.”

Designer Trent Tunks, who uses a wheelchair, spoke with the Rivard Report about his team’s submission following Hartman’s remarks.

“Being somebody who’s actually a wheelchair user, it’s something I encounter everyday,” Tunks said. “I had never been to City Hall prior to going there because of the competition, but I immediately came to the realization that this is one of our most important civic spaces and buildings in the entire city. [The competition] was an opportunity to, as a designer, insert myself into that problem and do something that could really benefit a lot of people.”

There is no guarantee that the winning project will ultimately turn into a realization at City Hall. Still, both Hartman and Treviño are confident that it will be implemented.

“I think that this City Council will make it happen,” Treviño said. “It is my belief that mayor [Ron Nirenberg] and City Council will see the benefits of this particular effort, but also see the big picture and the statement that this is making for the entire state of Texas.”

Jeffrey Sullivan is a Rivard Report reporter. He graduated from Trinity University with a degree in Political Science.