It might seem a bit misleading to headline a column about the John H. Wood Jr. Federal Courthouse by referring to it as the U.S. Pavilion’s Confluence Theatre at HemisFair ’68, but it’s worth remembering that the familiar building-in-the-round was constructed for a six-month “world’s fair” that brought the nations of the Americas to San Antonio.
The majority of San Antonians were not alive or were not living here 53 years ago, and might not know that the drum-shaped building with travertine panels and concrete columns was built as a 1,200 seat cinema with three individual theaters that opened up to a single space featuring what was then the largest movie screen in the world.
The design by local architecture firm Marmon Mok was awarded the American Institute of Architects San Antonio Twenty-Five Year Award in 1993. It’s an enduring landmark in the downtown cityscape. It’s also a problematic building with a history of flea infestation and costly wear and tear.
San Antonio is about to engage in a vigorous, if not disputatious, debate over the future of the building and the site it occupies at Hemisfair on the northern flank of César Chávez Boulevard.
Ownership, along with an adjacent parking lot to the north of the courthouse, will soon be transferred from the federal government’s General Services Administration to the city. It’s a deal consummated in 2016 with the city’s transfer of vacant property at Nueva Street between South Flores and South Santa Rosa Streets to the GSA for construction of the now nearly completed new federal courthouse. The site was formerly the San Antonio Police Headquarters, which was razed after the 2012 opening of the $83.5 million Public Safety Headquarters across Nueva Street.
At the time the deal was struck, Mayor Ivy Taylor told reporters she supported the demolition of the dilapidated, flea-infested courthouse.
A strong coalition of preservationists who surely disagree with her will be one side of the debate, while others will be on the other side, advocating to use the site for more residential and mixed-use development as both the north and south sides of the boulevard undergo new development.
“It will cost many, many millions of dollars to repurpose the federal courthouse, if that is the outcome, regardless of its future use,” said one local official involved in the city-GSA swap. “The building is unique, but there is a reason you don’t see too many circular buildings.”
Hemisfair staff and various interest groups have informally convened to envision future uses of the building. Four distinct possibilities were identified: housing, offices, a museum, and an aquarium. So far, no single idea is supported by a significant public groundswell.
One city official said staff has not developed a plan for the building’s use, and no such effort is underway yet.
As federal agencies simultaneously move out of the adjacent San Antonio Federal Building, an ongoing process visible to those of us who are neighbors, there are reports the GSA is preparing to place the entire 7.66-acre site up for sale. It includes a total of 295,250 rentable square feet, including the smaller U.S. Pavilion’s Exhibition Hall, which now serves as the Adrian Spears Judicial Training Center. There are 638 surface parking spaces in three lots, one located between the seven-story federal office structure and the Institute of Texan Cultures, and two lots located across César Chávez Boulevard.
The federal building itself was built after HemisFair ’68 in 1974 and reportedly has been well-maintained and could be converted to low-rise residential condominiums complementing those at the Alteza Residences atop the Grand Hyatt north of the park.
The two lots south of the boulevard abut property recently purchased by Pearl developer Silver Ventures from the San Antonio Independent School District. A For Sale sign from the GSA undoubtedly would attract widespread interest.
The future of the ITC, part of the UT System and administered by UTSA, has long been the subject of debate. Multiple requests for proposals posted by UTSA have come and gone without any viable redevelopment deals that would keep the museum in place amid new development or lead to its move elsewhere. The 15-acre site is said to have a market value of $50 million, which suggests UTSA, intent on expanding its downtown presence, will move to leverage that value sooner or later.
Many might not realize the great potential the 92-acre Hemisfair holds for transforming downtown San Antonio once it is fully redeveloped. One-third of the property’s future remains undecided. As Civic Park on Hemisfair’s South Alamo Street flank begins to take shape, the public debate over the future of the southern section of Hemisfair will soon begin.
Identifying the best and most transformative uses and projects for the park is a challenge for Hemisfair staff, and this and future City Councils, to fully embrace. Slowing the park’s redevelopment, or diverting its funding, should be the only option off the table.