When Hemisfair and city leaders gather Jan. 26 for the ceremonial shoveling of dirt to mark the long overdue groundbreaking at Civic Park, the first steps will be taken toward creating a downtown destination capable of hosting music festivals and other events for as many as 15,000 people.
When completed by the end of 2023, the 5-acre green space that borders South Alamo Street, soon to be planted with shade trees, will become the year-round people magnet downtown San Antonio has long been missing.
The road to the groundbreaking has a been a long one, one of the countless pandemic-delayed phases in the continuing revitalization of 92-acre Hemisfair, which anchors the southeastern corner of downtown. Hemisfair, flanked on the south by the federal courthouse, federal agency offices and the Institute of Texan Cultures, and on its northern edge by the Henry B. González Convention Center and the Tower of the Americas, was a park in name only for 50 years following HemisFair ’68. Not many people frequented the park. Major public events were few and far between.
The plan to redevelop Hemisfair was initiated by Mayor Phil Hardberger in his second and final term in office, from 2007 to 2009, and picked up by Mayor Julián Castro in the ensuing years. Major projects happen slowly.
If the enormous success of Yanaguana Garden in attracting a great socioeconomic mix of the city’s population since its opening in 2015 is any indicator, Civic Park is going to beckon locals the way the River Walk draws visitors.
It will take successive City Councils, including the current one led by Mayor Ron Nirenberg, to stay committed to funding what can and should become downtown’s public jewel. Some current council members have been working to scale back citywide projects selected by staff and supported by citizen committees for the 2022 municipal bond in an effort to divert more funding to their individual districts.
While no one doubts the significant needs of each district, particularly those in the inner city where poverty rates are highest and a history of public disinvestment is most evident, transformative projects like Hemisfair promise to elevate the entire city.
Hemisfair CEO Andres Andujar and his staff requested $58 million in the 2022 bond cycle to fund four distinct projects. With $21 million allocated in the 2017 bond for Phase One, park officials sought $20 million more for Phase Two. They are tentatively set to receive $18 million if voters approve the overall parks bond initiative on the May 2022 ballot. An additional $9 million has received tentative approval to fund construction of Hemisfair Boulevard from César Chávez Boulevard to Montana Street, which will open access to the park’s 10 acres on its eastern border set for redevelopment.
Unfortunately, the much anticipated $15 million Tower Park development, which would include an “inner city neighborhood” built on those 10 acres, is not currently slated for funding in the 2022 bond. That means the project likely will stay on hold until 2027 with completion unlikely for a decade.
Hemisfair’s redevelopment has been set back by the pandemic and its economic impact on Zachry Hospitality and other private developers originally slated to construct a first-class hotel, office tower, multifamily residences, and downtown’s largest parking garage. That $200 million private-public development project is said to be nearing a renegotiated agreement that will eliminate the office tower. It also will open two new parcels in the 5-acre northwestern corner of Hemisfair abutting Civic Park to other local developers to partner with Zachry, probably for residential and mixed-use construction.
Zachry is expected to break ground in summer 2023 on an upscale, 200-room Hilton Curio Collection Hotel with an adjacent 600-space parking garage. Both are slated for completion by the end of 2024, in time for the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four at the Alamodome in April 2025.
My Sunday column will look at the coming public debate over the future of the soon-to-be vacated 7.6-acre San Antonio Federal Complex on Hemisfair’s southern flank. The move by the federal judiciary to the new federal courthouse is already underway with official completion set for this spring. A number of federal agencies housed in the San Antonio Federal Building next door have signed new leases elsewhere and are on the move.
In the end, it will take far longer to complete the redevelopment of Hemisfair than it took city leaders to plan and build HemisFair ’68 more than 55 years ago. It should be worth it. Hemisfair, a venue that ushered in a new era in San Antonio can once again become a premier attraction, this time for decades instead of months.