Iris Dimmick

Hemisfair Park’s phase one design renderings for the seven-acre “Play Escape” were approved by the  Historic Design and Review Commission (HDRC) Wednesday afternoon.

The designs were met with unanimous approval from the HDRC members in attendance but carried staff stipulations to be reviewed before final approval – as is typical of large, preliminary designs – including concerns of materials used on or around historic structures, lighting, and signage.

[Download the HDRC’s recommendations here.]

An artistic rendering of Play Escape by MIG, Inc.
An artistic rendering of Play Escape at the northeast corner of South Alamo Street and East César Chávez Boulevard by MIG, Inc.

The renderings illustrate an urban park surrounded with five gateways or access points, at least six courtyards and various opportunities for kids of all ages to play and relax including large structures to climb and skate on, water features to cool off in, and spaces for temporary, pop-up markets. The historical structures will be restored, but unaltered for the most part, Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation CEO Andres Andujar noted.

A small network of shaded pathways, or trellises, guide visitors to the center plaza. While the specific materials and designs are not finalized, the structures will likely prove to be a welcome respite from long Texas summers.

The approved gateway entrance to Play Escape off of S. Alamo Street.
The approved gateway entrance to Play Escape off of S. Alamo Street. Courtesy rendering.

Construction on the Play Escape, which includes a historic Spanish acequia walk, archeological dig, educational displays, an interactive music garden and game plaza, will begin in May 2014 and is expected to be completed in early 2015.

A rendering of Hemisfair's possible future. Areas shaded green indicates open park space. Image courtesy of HPARC.
A rendering of Hemisfair’s possible future. Areas shaded green indicates open park space. Image courtesy of HPARC. Click to enlarge.

There are four acres of open park space and two sections reserved for mixed-use development within the Play Scape – the latter of which are beyond the scope of this preliminary approval, but Andujar explained that the current parking lot to the east will become a 100-200 unit apartment complex with onsite parking. The northern expansion of the Magik Theatre will also likely include residential space.

The first phase of Play Escape (a working title until the public selects a new one) is fully funded through the 2012-2017 bond program. A philanthropic fund conducted through a 501(c)3 will provide for the second.

“Still purely public,” Andujar explained that private entities will not dictate park plans. “(The money) will have to be used in public realm and serve a public service.”

Several citizens signed up to speak in favor of the plans, but several more signed up to speak against the design plans. Most cited a lack of inclusion of indigenous American history and contemporary clan input, though more than a dozen public meetings have been held in regards to the park’s design.

“It’s a problem with all city meetings,” said Graciela Sanchez, director of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center. “Not everyone knows about them … I’m concerned about the thousands of people who aren’t participating, but would.”

Play Escape rendering courtesy of MIG, Inc., the design firm hired by HPARC to assist in the development projects.
Play Escape rendering courtesy of MIG, Inc., the design firm hired by HPARC to assist in the development projects.

Sanchez also expressed skepticism about the possibility of a hotel on Hemisfair Park grounds, considered sacred by many members of the local indigenous population. A skepticism echoed by La Presna writer Lance Aaron.

“Park land is one of the assets that we all own together … cultural and civic areas,” he said.

“You guys continue to disrepect our sacred lands and our history,” said Maria Torres, tribal chief of the Pacuache Tilijaya Coahuiltecan Tribe of Texas, to the commissioners. She called for more attention to be called to the historical aspects of the area. Torres and others proposed that proper historical and cultural resource studies have not been carried out as Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 prescribes.

However, Andujar noted, “no federal dollars are being used for this project … so we’re not required to go through that process.”

The cultural resource and standing structure studies carried out in 2012 were to Section 106 standards, Andujar said.

“We’re doing this in a legal fashion with council approval … I don’t see a big disagreement,” Adujar said in response. “We both want to tell the story of our city … part of the beauty is that we can bring the entire history into this place.”

Download Hemisfair’s Play Escape program memo here [PDF].

Iris Dimmick is managing editor of the Rivard Report. Follow her on Twitter @viviris or contact her at

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Hemisfair Park: A ‘Brutal Redesign’ or the Bulldozer?

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at