An independent panel of land use experts envisioned plans that could connect Hemisfair to surrounding neighborhoods as Tower Park continues the design process.
An independent panel of land use experts envisioned plans that could connect Hemisfair to surrounding neighborhoods as the design process for Tower Park continues. Credit: Courtesy / ULI - R. Nishimura

Renowned land use experts who spent the past week looking at how to make Hemisfair’s final phase of redevelopment a “great public place” envision a new urban neighborhood that serves a demand for inner-city housing while paying homage to the residential history of the land before the world’s fair of 1968.

The independent panel, which presented its findings and advice Friday at a meeting of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) of San Antonio, recommends retaining some of the historically significant structures, redeveloping others, and creating green spaces and pedestrian connectivity both within the park and with the surrounding neighborhoods.

“San Antonio is continuing to grow, and that means people, that means households, and that means Hemisfair has a capture opportunity to create a foundation for that great place,” said Alex Rose, senior vice president, Development Continental Development Corp., who chaired the national ULI panel.

ULI’s advisory services panel is composed of land use, real estate, urban planning, and parks experts who represent ULI and provide multidisciplinary advice on complex land use and real estate issues such as Hemisfair. Since 1947, the advisory panels have studied more than 700 projects with the goal to offer creative, practical solutions for land use projects, such as downtown redevelopment, land management, and parks.

The panel of six men and three women studied the final phase of the Hemisfair master plan, referred to as Tower Park and the Eastern Zone, between April 28 and May 3. The vision for Hemisfair is an active urban district that will foster community cohesion and advance the area as a critical connector between neighborhoods to the south and east of Hemisfair.

“ULI’s engagement on this process means Hemisfair is on the map nationally,” said Andres Andujar, Hemisfair CEO. “We’re pleased the panel agrees that development led by housing is how the world’s best public places get built.

“Their recommendations ratified the framework in place, supported reestablishing the neighborhood surrounding parks, and gave us additional encouragement about Hemisfair’s location and market timing,” Andujar said.

Known as Tower Park, the 5.5 acres surrounding the Tower of the Americas includes historic and nonhistoric buildings that have remained empty for years, save for temporary event space. It is the third phase of a master-planned project established in 2011 to convert the grounds of the former world’s fair into a vibrant public space.

Tower Park construction is slated to begin in 2022, with a park opening in 2024. But if the progress of Civic Park, the second phase in Hemisfair’s northwest section, is any indication, those dates could change. That section is now expected to open in 2022, but initial estimates were 2020.

The first phase, Yanaguana Garden, is a playscape with food and drink options that opened in 2015. A multifamily development known as The ’68 is under construction there as well.

For Tower Park, some of the panel’s suggestions included:

  • Converting the John Wood Federal Courthouse building into a covered amphitheater that mimics the current footprint of the building.
  • Adapting and reusing the GSA Building as affordable senior housing.
  • Developing green spaces, plazas of varying sizes, and a dog park, as well as a pedestrian axis that runs east to west.
  • Renovating the Women’s Pavilion to serve as indoor event space.
  • Removing the water fountain at the base of the Tower of the Americas that currently blocks free-flowing access and redevelop other smaller water features.
  • Creating an Exploratorium experience similar to the one in San Francisco.
  • Installing a solar array on the roof of the Henry B. González Convention Center.
  • Redeveloping César Chávez Boulevard.

    The Woman’s Pavilion in Hemisfair Park.
    The Women’s Pavilion could become an indoor event space at Hemisfair.

The overall plan is organized into areas that are more public on one side, nearer the convention center, and more private on the other.

“The more private axis connects predominantly the residential buildings and spaces,” said panelist Riki Nishimura, director of urban strategies at the architecture firm Gensler. “These residential buildings consist of multiple scales and densities … that gradually become higher in height to the east. This creates a new residential neighborhood that strengthens what was lost back in ’68 while retaining some features from the world’s fair that provided San Antonio the global identity and presence.”

The advisory panel emphasized that the financial viability of the plan depends on private development within the boundaries of Hemisfair as well as south of César Chávez.

Much of that should come in the form of high-density, multifamily residential development within the zone, they said. Such development is not only a critical element of their vision, but with a mix of housing type and affordability, it also would activate the area, ensure socioeconomic diversity and mitigate gentrification.

The strategy the panelists suggested puts 1,360 multifamily rental units, 200 affordable senior housing units, and 36 townhome units in the Eastern Zone. Some 11,000 square feet of small neighborhood retail and nine civic buildings are also in the plan.

The ULI vision framework for Tower Park at Hemisfair.
The ULI vision framework for Tower Park depicts a new urban neighborhood at Hemisfair. Credit: Courtesy / ULI

The key to turning the vision into reality is public-private partnerships (P3). “We have to get more creative in a world where we don’t finance things ourselves,” said panelist Tyrone Rachal, principal, Red Rock Global Capital Partners, and a leader in developing the BeltLine Park in Atlanta. “We can’t go to the cities to pay for all this. We’re going to have to think about ways to grow value, unlock it, distribute it to the things we want so we’re all successful and can accomplish our goals.”

As part of the panel’s presentation, Rachal outlined a number of financial tools the Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corp. can employ to cover park infrastructure costs. Those include developer notes, tax credit programs, opportunity zone equity, non-City grants, philanthropic gifts, and corporate sponsorships.

Panelist Allen Folks, a principal and director of design and planning at Ascent Environmental, told ULI members attending the presentation that he hoped they recognize how important Hemisfair is to the rest of the city as they go about planning for it.

“We heard from a number of people when we did the interviews [who said] this is the most important piece of real estate in the city,” Folks said. “At the end of the day, it really is about this park piece and what we get out of it. Because what you’re going to remember from this in the future is going to be these important public spaces that help set the frame for where these P3 development sites go.

“So the parks and open spaces lead, the P3 sites follow. It’s not the other way around.”

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.