Local officials broke ground Wednesday at what they called the “most important corner of San Antonio,” marking the long-awaited construction start for Civic Park, the next phase of redevelopment at Hemisfair.
The $27 million project at the corner of South Alamo and East Market streets will turn a 5-acre empty lot in the northwestern portion of Hemisfair into a large public green space. As Phase 1 of the overall project, it is expected to be complete in late 2023, with a second construction phase to redevelop another 4 acres set to begin just after.
But the future of Civic Park’s Phase 2 will be in the hands of voters, who will be asked to approve $18 million more in spending as part of the 2022 municipal bond.
As only the second major park development at the former site of the 1968 world’s fair since Yanaguana Garden was completed seven years ago, the vision for the park was sparked by Phil Hardberger, mayor of San Antonio from 2005 to 2009. The pandemic and funding shortfalls combined to delay construction, which originally was to be completed in 2021.
“They do say that good things happen for those who wait and we know that generations of San Antonians have been waiting for this moment,” said Mayor Ron Nirenberg. “Civic Park … will be the centerpiece of the San Antonio park system, it truly will.”
The expanse of urban land that three centuries ago was farmlands for the Alamo today sits in the heart of downtown San Antonio and is framed by the Henry B. González Convention Center, La Villita and the River Walk. Hotel towers also define the space, including the Hilton Palacio del Rio, built in a record 202 days and completed in time for HemisFair ’68.
Civic Park will be a welcome addition to the area, said Joe Chodash, a local real estate professional who watched the groundbreaking. Chodash said he makes regular donations to the Hemisfair Conservancy in support of the master plan developed in 2012.
“I’m a New York native so for me, Central Park and its great lawn and the meadow and everything, that felt like home,” he said. “And I’m hoping this will feel like home as well. I just love being downtown.”
When complete, Civic Park will be one of the “world’s great public places,” said Andres Andujar, CEO of the Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation.
Plans call for a zócalo, or public square, in the northwest corner of the park, large enough to host events for up to 500 people and a great lawn that can hold up to 15,000 people for larger events and general public use. The park design also provides a shaded promenade and water features.
In 2017, voters approved allocating $26 million of a bond program for the construction of Civic Park — a sweeping lawn and promenades to rival Chicago’s Millennium Park.
But the pause button was pressed by the pandemic in 2020. Soon after, housing developer The NRP Group backed out of a 2016 agreement with Hemisfair and Zachry Hospitality, an owner and developer of hotels, to build a mixed-use development in the northwest quadrant of Civic Park.
Since last summer, Hemisfair officials and the City have been renegotiating the terms of that agreement and until recently the outlook for the entire what would be part of Phase 3 of Civic Park “looked bleak,” Andujar said.
However, in recent weeks, the parties have made progress toward finalizing a deal that downsizes the original project but retains its scope, he said. No details are available yet, but the proposed office space likely will be smaller and the residential component may end up larger than originally planned.
A 200-room hotel — a key element in San Antonio preparing to host the 2025 men’s basketball Final Four three years from now — remains in the project plans.
Plans for the park got moving again a year ago when the project was split into two phases and $21 million of the original bond money was slated for the first section of the 9-acre park. The remaining funds will come from private donations and monetization of Hemisfair’s ground leases for businesses on the property.
The San Antonio office of New York-based Skanska USA Building Inc. is overseeing the construction. Plans for Civic Park were developed by landscape architects GGN.
In May, voters will again be asked to approve $18 million for Phase 2 of Civic Park, the bulk of the project’s estimated cost of $20 million. Civic Park is one of 84 park projects across the city that will be part of the parks portion of the $1.2 billion bond.
District 1 Councilman Mario Bravo was on hand for the groundbreaking ceremony and said he supports funding the project for all of San Antonio, not just his district.
“Since I’ve gotten into office, there’s been a lot of talk about investing in downtown versus investment in the neighborhoods and this is an opportunity to show the community that this park is for everybody,” he said. “It’s forever. It’s for everyone in San Antonio.”
About $9 million in 2022 bond funding from the streets portion of the bond has also been recommended for the third phase of extending Hemisfair Boulevard, which would connect East César E. Chávez Boulevard on the south edge of the park and Montana Street to the east.
The roadway is seen by Hemisfair planners as critical to unlocking future development in the area near the Tower of the Americas, commonly known as Tower Park. Whether that’s housing, office space or something else is still to be determined, Andujar said.
But several significant and historic structures in the eastern zone — including former federal buildings, pavilions built for the world’s fair and the Institute of Texan Cultures — will have to be considered in those plans.
The City of San Antonio is set to soon take ownership of the three buildings within Hemisfair owned by the General Services Administration as the result of a 2016 land-swap agreement. In recent weeks, the functions housed in the John H. Wood Federal Courthouse have been relocated to a newly constructed courthouse on East Nueva Street.
Andujar said Hemisfair planners have come up with various ideas for the reuse of important buildings though nothing is set in stone yet. “We have these truly great icons of that era, and I think that the solution needs to fit that memory,” he said.
Civic Park is one of many redevelopment projects at various stages of progress within the district, from the Alamo and La Villita to a proposed development by Pearl developers Silver Ventures south of Hemisfair and ongoing activity to the east at St. Paul Square. Andujar said those projects add up to about $2 billion worth of activity that will be propelled further by the proximity to Civic Park.
“There is effervescence all around us and so that’s why I think this idea of Civic Park, you put the shovel in, and it creates this kind of momentum,” he said. “This momentum is explosive because of everything else that’s already coming along with us in our neighborhood.”