The Historic and Design Review Commission on Wednesday endorsed two major projects set to markedly change the landscape of downtown for both locals and tourists.

The commission approved plans for the long-awaited first phase of Civic Park at Hemisfair, the second stage of the overall project to transform the former world’s fair site near the Henry B. González Convention Center. 

A groundbreaking is tentatively planned for early 2022 to kick off park construction that will include utility work, paving and hardscaping, landscaping, installing water features and incorporating the park design with the Acequia Madre de Valero. City Council is expected to vote on the plan at its Dec. 9 meeting and, if approved, the park would be completed in Fall 2023. 

The first phase encompasses five of the nine acres in Civic Park and is positioned along the west side of the convention center. It is comparable in size to the Great Lawn and Lurie Garden in Chicago’s Millennium Park

The second phase has been planned as a mixed-use development along South Alamo Street that would be made up of office, residential, and parking structures, and a boutique hotel in the northwest quadrant of Hemisfair.

In Phase 1, a zócalo, or public square, in the northwest corner of the park will be a multiuse space large enough to host events for up to 500 people. The centrally located great lawn can hold up to 10,000 people for larger events and general public use. The park also features smaller courtyards, gardens, and groves.

Renderings show a park designed to encourage movement, access, and interaction with the surrounding urban neighborhoods and sites.

“Hemisfair’s Civic Park is an inclusive gathering place that will be accessible to the entire community — near and far,” said Andres Andujar, CEO of Hemisfair. “Connectivity is important to us because we are restitching the fabric of the neighborhood that existed before the 1968 World’s Fair.” 

Phase one of Civic Park at Hemisfair consists of the Great Lawn, Shallows, and Promenade.
Phase one of Civic Park at Hemisfair will develop five of the nine total acres and provide access from the surrounding neighborhoods and convention center. Credit: Courtesy / Kara Weaver – GGN

Future plans for Hemisfair also call for redeveloping the area surrounding the Tower of the Americas. The southwestern section of the park, Yanaguana Gardens, opened in 2015. 

In 2017, San Antonio voters allocated in the 2017-22 bond program a total of $26 million to construct all of Civic Park and finish out streets in Hemisfair.

Of that bond money, $21 million will go toward building Phase 1 of Civic Park. Another $18 million from philanthropy and revenue from Hemisfair’s ground leases also will fund Civic Park’s construction, spokeswoman Thea Setterbo said, bringing the total Phase 1 price tag to $39 million.

Funding for the second phase of Civic Park Phase is written into the city staff’s recommendations for the 2022 municipal bond at $18 million, Setterbo said. If approved, construction will begin in 2023.

Also in the vicinity of Hemisfair, the owners of the Marriott Plaza San Antonio, are planning a major renovation of the hotel located at 555 S. Alamo St. in La Villita. 

Commissioners approved the plan submitted by attorney James McKnight on behalf of White Lodging and REI Real Estate Services, with one exception involving a new building on the site. 

Built in 1979 as a Four Seasons Hotel, the 251-room hotel property will get a major exterior facelift, new fitness center, redesigned pool, and a new name, The Otis Hotel San Antonio. 

“The hotel is approximately 40 years old and it’s an opportunity to turn a good hotel into a great hotel, while retaining the significance of the historic buildings on the site,” said White Lodging spokesman Mike Banas in an email. 

The request for a certificate of appropriateness to start work on the renovation also includes plans to modify the historic Arciniega House — adding to windows to the back of the house — build a new event center near the hotel, and install new signage throughout the property. 

Commissioners approved the request with few stipulations but asked the applicant to return for a design review meeting with the Office of Historic Preservation to go over plans for the 1,500-square-foot fitness center.

Currently, those plans call for a new structure of composite siding to be built next door to the historic Staffel House but with its back facing South Presa Street. While the architect, HKS, agreed to change to a smooth-finish siding per staff recommendations, commissioners also asked to see the building set back further from the street.

A new event building at Marriott
New construction at the Marriott Plaza aims to provide event space for what will be renamed as The Otis Hotel. Credit: Courtesy / James McKnight / Brown & Ortiz

Commissioner Monica Savino also noted the lack of architectural detail in the building. “That’s the one I’m most concerned about because of its adjacency to the Staffel House, the Staffel House being a perfect, typical example of what La Villita Historic District is all about — small scale, simple floor plans, vernacular structure, masonry,” Savino said. 

“All the other buildings on South Presa have porches and front doors,” said HDRC Chairman Jeffrey Fetzer. “This would be the only building whose back is turned to that street.”

White Lodging’s Terry Dammeyer, chief of owned assets, asked the commission to approve plans for the other parts of the project and agreed to return to the commission at a later date with a revised design for the fitness center building. 

“We are looking for the certificate of appropriateness so we can begin demolition on the guestroom part,” Dammeyer said. “The exercise room is very flexible from our perspective.”

With the design plans for the hotel renovation still in the works, Banas said he could not provide a timeline for construction. Previous reports from the company stated the Marriott would close in August 2020 for construction of The Otis Hotel, but an online search indicates the hotel is available for bookings in the coming weeks. 

In late 2019, the commission approved White Lodging’s request to build a nine-story boutique hotel at the 19th-century German-English School and an adjacent parking lot in La Villita.

Banas would not comment specifically on those plans except to say “more information would be coming in the near future.”

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.