On one side of a tall chain-link construction fence along East Nueva Street, neighborhood residents walk their dogs, children run and play, and parents watch from park benches shaded by leafy trees.
On the other, crews on front-loaders move piles of rock and soil as stonemasons work under tilted canopies to lay massive sections of limestone brought by specialized forklifts.
The mesh sign on the barrier says “coming soon,” assurance to passersby that the $28 million park officials have said will transform a key pedestrian intersection in downtown San Antonio is well underway.
After pandemic-wrought delays, construction of Civic Park in a 5-acre section of Hemisfair began in January. On track to be completed in August 2023, two years later than originally planned, the first phase of the park is beginning to take shape.
A project manager for general contractor Skanska led a recent tour of the site where the park, designed by Seattle-based landscape architecture firm GGN, is being built along the west side of the Henry B. González Convention Center on the grounds of the 1968 World’s Fair.
Tom Hull, senior project manager for Skanska, considers Civic Park the work of a lifetime. “I’ve built schools and universities and those are cool … but this is a spot that my daughter will come to in 20 years and [say], ‘Hey, your granddad built this,’” he said.
“It’s one of those projects that you always want to have on your résumé that not everyone gets to have, and the team is really excited about what this is going to be and the vision,” he said.
On the south end of what will become Civic Park, closest to Yanaguana Garden and the historic Mayer Halff House, each of the five springs, or pools, planned for the park is in various stages of completion.
In the first, there’s only dirt and the hole where water pipes will be installed and concrete poured.
In the fifth, 1,200 pieces of limestone, quarried in the North Texas city of Lueders, and cut with a computerized tool are being laid piece by piece to form the shallow pool.
Each of the pools will connect to one another and to a channel of water coursing through the park. Water circulating continuously through the system is intended to replicate how early settlers used acequias.
“We want to use that channel as a way to educate the public, both visitors and residents, about how the acequia was vital in conserving water,” said Gary Boyd, senior project manager at Hemisfair.
The water for the park is being sourced from “nuisance” groundwater that seeps into the river level of the convention center adjacent the park.
Water that was previously pumped out and to a storm drain line instead will be piped to a 40,000-gallon cistern buried 20 feet below ground, treated and released into the channel, to feed the springs and for use in irrigation. Even during drought conditions, tests have shown there’s enough water to keep the system going.
Despite his pride in the project, Hull said he jokes with the superintendent that when the work is done, “everyone’s going to say it’s [just] a park.”
“No, no, no. This is a very well-designed, thought-out and purposeful park,” he said. “Everything here was done for a very specific reason to support water conservancy, help the trees and really provide a park that lasts generations.”
Hemisfair part two
Civic Park was designed to be the “grandest” of Hemisfair’s park series, according to Hemisfair officials, a great public place not unlike urban greenspaces in other major cities, including Millennium Park in Chicago and Prospect Park in Brooklyn.
The city of Austin has Zilker Park, which the tourism site Thrillist calls one of the top 15 city parks in the United States. Also making the list are Boston Commons, Dolores Park in San Francisco and The Gathering Place in Tulsa, but New York City’s 843-acre Central Park, designed by the “father of landscape architecture,” Frederick Law Olmsted, set the standard.
In a city known for its linear parks, the vision for Civic Park began as part of the overall Hemisfair redevelopment plan. Former Mayor Phil Hardberger proposed the idea as a way to re-energize the tired former fairgrounds.
In 2009, City Council established the nonprofit Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation to lead a public-private partnership. The first phase of Hemisfair was completed in 2015 when Yanaguana Garden opened to the public.
Voters agreed in 2017 to allocate $21 million for the next segment, Civic Park, which was expected to start in 2021 but delayed due to the pandemic and funding shortfalls. The project was later split into two phases with a second tract of 4 acres in the farthest northwest corner put on hold until the first phase is complete.
Some progress has been made on plans for the eastern zone of Hemisfair, which is no longer being referred to by Hemisfair officials as Tower Park. An infrastructure review is ongoing in the area surrounding the Tower of the Americas as Hemisfair officials work through issues with historic rehabilitation of some structures and determine how to use the area.
Trees and grass
Public input into the design of Civic Park prioritized water, shade and gardens, Boyd said. The park will have all three — a haven with views of several towering hotels and the spire of St. Joseph Catholic Church.
Alongside what will become the winding channel is a path outlined by light poles where a promenade is planned. Lining the promenade will be wide pavers weighing 700 pounds each, Hull said. Visually, the promenade leads from the 65-foot Torch of Friendship sculpture at East Commerce Street to a view of the Tower of the Americas.
When complete, the walkway will be shaded by 130 fully mature Mexican sycamore trees grown especially for the park in Big Foot, Texas. A total of 18 trees already growing on the Hemisfair site were moved into other sections of Civic Park; two of the trees have died, Boyd said.
The sycamores and other native species are set to be planted in December and January, with the sod for the great lawn to be laid in April 2023. The water features are expected to be flowing by May.
Between the promenade and the convention center, the lawn will span much of the park. It will be large enough for 10,000 people to attend a concert or special event and suitable for the everyday frisbee toss.
A special kind of soil mixed with fiber, similar to a sports field, will be used with a drainage system to protect the turf, Hull said. “The design team was very intentional on maintainability and making sure that what we’re putting in is easy to maintain and keep up.”
In the course of the next two years, even more contractors and crews will be descending upon the northwest corner of Hemisfair.
One section of the Peggy Mays Garden series being built on the southwest corner of the park will be complete in December and the remaining sections by July 2023, Boyd said.
Zachry Hospitality is planning to break ground on the 17-story Hemisfair Hotel in December and complete it by February 2025 in time for the NCAA Men’s Final Four that April.
San Antonio developer Area Real Estate, which built The ‘68 apartments in Yanaguana Garden, and the Austin-based Johnson Trube have yet to break ground on residential and mixed-use developments that are planned for the west and north edges of the park. But plans call for an underground tunnel connecting the hotel to the Trube development on East Market Street to expand parking access.
Both projects are expected to be mostly complete prior to the 2025 Final Four, Boyd said. “We want them from the exterior to be looking like they’re finished,” he said. “They might be still building out apartments inside [but] at least they’ll have all the retail available at street level.”
In addition, Boyd said he hopes that in October the city will select a contractor for the planned South Alamo Street improvement project between Hemisfair and the La Villita Historic District. That step would jumpstart construction to reduce the number of lanes between East César Chávez Boulevard and Market Street and make the area more pedestrian-friendly.
“We envision South Alamo to be not next to a park, but the street through a park,” he said. “So there are 160 trees going in on that project.”
The construction fences for Civic Park are set to come down in August or September 2023, preceding the park opening to the public. A grand opening celebration will follow later in the fall, said Meredith Balzen, director of communications at Hemisfair.
In the meantime, the convention center sales team is already promoting the park as an amenity to meeting planners in the hopes it will attract more convention and visitor business to San Antonio. Almost 300 conventions and meetings are booked for 2024 in the convention center, where up to 800,000 people visited annually before the pandemic.
Planning for a new 15,000-square-foot “junior ballroom” with a balcony overlooking Civic Park is also in the works, said Patricia Muzquiz Cantor, the city’s director of Convention and Sports Facilities, who said she is excited to have the park completed.
“We’ve been waiting on this for a few years,” Cantor said. “One of the great attractions to San Antonio is walkability and an accommodating downtown. Civic Park will add to that by adding an urban green space that is so much needed.”
Hemisfair CEO Andres Andujar said he couldn’t be more excited about the progress of construction.
“Each day, we marvel at the development and know that the leaders and members of our community should be proud of what’s to come,” Andujar said. “This park, and the district as a whole, will leave a lasting legacy.”