The month of May has not been a good one for those working to build a better downtown in San Antonio. From my vantage point, I see well-intentioned people talking past one another, working in isolation without a shared vision.
Without a course correction, the dream many share of a redesigned Hemisfair Park becoming the city’s great public gathering place for locals and visitors is likely to fall short.
My fear is that we are blowing it. The civic, cultural and business leadership driving the redevelopment don’t seem to be in the same game, and as a consequence, San Antonio might never have a great downtown park.
That would be a tragedy, one that would undermine elements of the community-informed SA2020 plan, Mayor Julián Castro’s Decade of the Downtown declaration, and the drive to transform the city’s urban core into a nationally competitive space to live and work.
This seems like an opportune time for the newly formed Centro Partnership San Antonio to convene stakeholders and search for consensus and compromise to regain lost momentum.
“Centro Partnership San Antonio is a newly created public-private non-profit organization entrusted to envision and foster a vibrant and prosperous downtown that benefits the entire San Antonio community. The Partnership will focus on guiding and leading development in the center city.”
Those are Centro’s defining words. With former Deputy City Manager Pat DiGiovanni now working as the organization’s CEO, this is a good time to put Centro’s concept to the test.
Fault lines in and around Hemisfair Park have opened over a range of issues:
* One is the proposed hotel tower atop the historic Joske’s building, a project that has been rejected by the city’s Historic and Design Review Commission, but has the conditional support of Mayor Julián Castro, City Manager Sheryl Sculley and DiGiovanni. The San Antonio Conservation Society has rejected the project, too, even after it was scaled down and given a new skin by Overland Partners. The rejection has caused many in the development community to wonder how downtown can be revitalized if every building is deemed historic and worthy of protection in its current state and use.
* A second disagreement is over Rep. Mike Villarreal’s still-alive legislation that authorizes the Hemisfair Park Redevelopment Corp. to start construction work without holding a citywide election, and that allows construction of one hotel within the park. The bill nearly died after Villarreal, city officials and Zachry Corp. clashed over the bill’s ever-shifting fine print. Differences deteriorated into finger-pointing.
* A third dispute has erupted in the Lavaca neighborhood south of the park where residents oppose a proposal by the San Antonio Housing Authority to complete the development of Victoria Commons with a majority of subsidized housing units. Residents say the plans unveiled at a community meeting contradicted previous SAHA assurances of a more economically blended neighborhood. SAHA Chairman Ramiro Cavazos, who also serves as CEO of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, did not attend the hearing. Afterwards, however, he seemed to side with residents, saying subsidized housing should be limited to 20% of the total units rather than the 80% proposed by SAHA staff.
* Amid these tensions, no one is leading a serious public conversation about the future redevelopment of the southern side of the park, now home to a collection of world’s fair era buildings, one in use by UTSA for its Institute of Texan Cultures and the others used by the U.S. Justice Department as offices and a federal courthouse. Redevelopment there is on hold until federal offices move to a yet-to-be built new federal courthouse on the site of the former San Antonio Police headquarters at Santa Rosa and Nueva Streets.
All the great urban parks I know, large and small, from New York’s Central Park to Chicago’s Grant Park to Boston Common are gathering places that attract locals and visitors alike. It is that mix of interests that creates its own energy and sense of place. These parks are bordered by residential towers and hotels.
A compromise might lie in allowing a new hotel development atop the Joske’s building while designating as residential the southern edge of the park. The Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center on the park’s north perimeter dictates the logic of City Council approving the new hotel. Because of the convention center, it’s only natural that hotels abound on Hemisfair’s perimeter. One block to the northeast stand the Marriott River Center and Marriott Riverwalk. The Hilton Palacio del Rio, which opened for HemisFair ’68, anchors the northwest corner. Down the block on South Alamo Street, the historic Fairmount Hotel offers a more upscale, boutique hotel experience. South of la Villita, the Marriott Plaza San Antonio holds down the southwest corner.
But the northwest corner of Market Street is dead space. Nothing is happening there. It’s important to respect the integrity of the Historical and Design Review Commission, but it’s also important to see the commission as a body that does not have absolute power and can be overruled when there is compelling reason to do so. One good argument is that the best downtown is a shared downtown, not one where locals displace conventioneers and tourists. San Antonio’s convention and visitor trade is the engine in a great economic combine, and it deserves to grow along with every other downtown economic sector.
The Conservation Society’s “shadow over the Alamo” argument strikes me as the weakest of all objections. There is no evidence a new hotel will cast anywhere near the shadow, metaphorically speaking, as that of the tacky tourist traps that line Alamo Plaza. The buildings might be historic, but the tenants detract from the authenticity of the Alamo experience. I don’t remember that ever being a concern of the Conservation Society. The Emily Morgan Hotel rises up over the Alamo on its north side, but I can’t remember anyone lamenting its existence or the shadow it casts.
Many thought the first version of the proposed Joske’s project looked like a runaway building from Dallas, but the reworked version offered on very short notice by Overland Partners reduced the tower in scale and mass. It’s far more attractive than many of the other downtown hotel towers.
“Economic development encourages the proliferation of glass giants … but not always smart streets or better culture,” Michael Kimmelman, the New York Times architecture critic, recently wrote.
He was talking about New York, but the same can be said for San Antonio. If city leaders are truly committed to making it possible for more people to live downtown and not just encourage visitor industry development, several bold steps will have to be taken.
One is to find places in the park that will be designated for residential development. That will require UTSA agreeing to move the under-utilized Institute of Texan Cultures, and it will mean demolishing some of the other world’s fair era buildings. An NRP-style multi-family urban project (think Cevallos Lofts) would fit neatly on the park’s southern border and truly connect Southtown to downtown.
None of the buildings in question were meant to endure decades, and none are worthy of praise or protection, in my view. Are they “historical” because they came to life at HemisFair ’68? The Tower of Americas serves well as the iconic expression of the time. If every building in the city’s past is special and worthy of preservation than none are special.
Simply designating the park’s southern perimeter as residential, however difficult a process that could prove to be, will not be enough. The city’s recently adopted policy of offering low-interest loans to developers to build more downtown residential projects obviously is not taking hold. Downtown land prices are simply too steep, even with low-interest loans, for anyone to build apartments or convert existing buildings to residential housing and make a profit.
There are remedies. One is for the city, the country and public improvement district to create a private-public development fund that would provide direct cash incentives to developers. It’s been done here and in other cities and it makes otherwise unaffordable housing projects affordable. It’s the only way to build apartments downtown at $2 or less per square foot. Taxpayers recoup their investment over time with an expanded tax base.
Suburban council members will fight the establishment of such a fund, but they have one of their own and there ought to be reciprocity. Over the next five years, the city, county and the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority will spend $270 million buying right-of-way along roadways and for drainage systems overwhelmed by sprawl and vehicle traffic. If public funds can underwrite this kind of unchecked suburban development, why can’t public funds be made available to spur downtown residential housing? Residents who live in the urban core cost far less in tax dollars than people who live in the ever-expanding suburbs.
There is another bold step the city and county could take to accelerate downtown building conversions into residential housing. City and county leaders could send out appraisers and code compliance officers to reassess every unoccupied building in the urban core. It’s easy right now for absentee owners to sit on blighted properties that retard downtown economic development because the taxes they pay are so low. If their properties were assessed at something closer to fair market rates, they would have to either sell or invest. If code compliance officers started to issues citations for broken windows, illegal entry points into empty buildings, interior safety hazards, etc. owners would have to act. Again, such tactics have yielded good results in other cities. It’s a matter of political will.
South of Caesar Chavez Boulevard, meanwhile, many Lavaca residents are understandably alarmed by SAHA’s mixed messages. The property in question was once the home of the Victoria Courts housing project. Adding back the equivalent of a new housing project would be duplicating the failed policies of the past. Blending in mixed income housing is more in keeping with the organic development of the neighborhood.
A hotel in the park project is the trickiest challenge. Andres Andujar, the CEO and chief architect of the Hemisfair Redevelopment Corp., makes a strong argument for the value of adding a revenue-producing hotel tenant in the park to help underwrite other uses and improvements.
Selecting a footprint for the hotel and defining its size and design will be necessary to win public support. If the Joske’s building can support a 500-room tower, it seems reasonable to argue that the park should become home to a smaller, upscale boutique hotel that does not overwhelm newly created green spaces and leaves open space for public art, jogging paths, water elements and other park amenities.
San Antonio is a city with more than its fair share of chain hotels, and too few boutique venues. The Marriotts and Hyatts and Hiltons and Holiday Inns and all the others are vital to the convention industry and add thousands of jobs, but many people who travel to experience a given city’s charms want to stay in a unique hotel, places like the Talbott or Whitehall in Chicago, the Governor Hotel in Portland or the Peery Hotel in Salt Lake City.
A lot of people have a big stake in the future of Hemisfair Park and the surrounding streets, buildings and air space. How well we carry out this major redevelopment project will end up saying a lot about how successful Mayor Julián Castro is in achieving his goal of making this the Decade of Downtown. Without bold moves and serious public-private investment, we probably won’t make it. We might take the convention and visitor industry to the next level, but accomplish nothing else.
It’s a good time for city leaders to decide whether San Antonio’s downtown will remain the province of visitors or become home to locals, too, an aspiration that can’t be fulfilled without money.
It’s a conversation worth having.
Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.
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