People can sense the possibility that someday soon San Antonio could have what is now missing from the center city: a great public park with green spaces alive with locals and visitors.

At the same time, a clear majority of our readers see the future quality of Hemisfair Park tied to the city’s ability to balance expansion of convention hotels with its stated goal of increasing downtown residential density, and elevating Alamo Plaza and Travis Park into public spaces that appeal to locals and are free of vagrants and the homeless.

More than a few raise the fear that a new hotel tower built atop the historic Joske’s building will add more rooms to the city’s inventory than can be filled, and that longer-term trends could send the convention industry  into decline as companies economize and use new technology to convene workers virtually.

Option Two rendering courtesy of Overland Partners.
Option Two rendering courtesy of Overland Partners.

What a redeveloped Hemisfair Park means to people depends on whose imagination is at play – if the comments to our widely-read story, Hemisfair Park: Time for Bold Steps, is an accurate reflection of how people feel. But one thing is clear: There is shared passion for a real downtown park where many people can gather and for more room to live, shop and recreate downtown.

“One concern that I have is the lack of focus on green spaces,” wrote Jaime Solis, a former state legislative director and Southtown resident. “I feel we have a great opportunity to create large amounts of open spaces where people can picnic, play sports (i.e. downtown kickball) and exercise. Instead the talk surrounds hotels and apartments. Ask yourself: when you think of a park do you think of hotels or apartments? I think of green grass and trees.”

Much of the discussion is spurred by a bill now awaiting Gov. Rick Perry’s signature that was introduced by Rep. Mike Villarreal on behalf of the City of San Antonio. The bill makes it possible to reconfigure Hemisfair Park land and expand open spaces without a popular vote.

A rendering of Hemisfair's possible future. Image courtesy of Hemisfair Park/City of San Antonio.
A rendering of Hemisfair’s possible future. Areas shaded green indicate open park space. Image courtesy of Hemisfair Park/City of San Antonio.

Villarreal’s original version of the bill stipulated that no hotels could be built within Hemisfair Park, but protests from developers and others in the economic development community led to a compromise that allowed a hotel development limited to 20% of the newly opened spaces within the park.

Redeveloping Hemisfair Park was first raised during the then-Mayor Phil Hardberger’s second term, and it has become the centerpiece of Mayor Julián Castro‘s campaign to make this the Decade of Downtown.

Readers share Castro’s priority to create more park space quickly and comments suggest there can’t be enough green space to hold everyone and all the activities they envision taking place there.

A place to throw a frisbee. A dog park. A public sculpture garden, complemented, perhaps, by the sound and spray of fountains. A quiet shaded park bench to read a book on lunch break. Free outdoor movies. Live music events. Cafe seating, with a local beer garden, coffee shop, a good, affordable place to eat, drinking fountains. Lots of bike racks and B-cycle stations.

In other words, a park very much like the one envisioned in the master plan produced by the Hemisfair Park Redevelopment Corp., its CEO Andres Andujar, the board of trustees, and a lot of grass-roots public input.

HemisfairFutureRendering

“As the co-founder of Downtown Kickball League, which plays at Hemisfair Park on that little patch of grass on South Alamo Street beside Magik Theater, I can tell you without a doubt the league would not be the same if we played elsewhere,” wrote Ryan Bigley, the general manager of Plastic Supply of San Antonio. “Playing and congregating in the shadow of the Tower adds something special.

“Andujar has done a masterful job so far, “Bigley added. “However, I do disagree with the amount of field space in his design, there is not enough field space. If San Antonio wants to emphasize becoming a fit city it should start at the core. More field space to encourage a pick-up soccer match, a fitness session or simply to throw a frisbee should be more of a priority. Look to Central Park in New York or Zilker Park in Austin, at the core park there should be a place to run around and break a sweat!”

Others worry that even with the Haven For Hope, one of the nation’s most ambitious homeless services and shelter complexes, that the city will be unable to prevent Hemisfair Park from going the way of Travis Park or other public spaces occupied by transients.

“Let’s be honest, the downtown Main Plaza is a mecca for homeless and wayward folks during the day,” wrote a reader identified only as L.D. “The usage by downtown residents and business persons has trailed off. Hemisfair Park would likely be a huge playground for the homeless and downtrodden. Unless Mayor Castro has some plan to continue to find shelter for such individuals, this can ruin the park. Sad, but true.”

A quiet day in Travis Park. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Transients congregate on the benches at Travis Park. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Reader Carol Wood expressed concerns that the city is not taking the necessary steps to implement plans already on the drawing board for other public spaces. Noting that the hotel tower atop Joske’s might be perceived as a negative influence on Alamo Plaza by World Heritage Site judges, she also noted that the plaza itself remains unimproved.

“Despite the fact that Project for Public Spaces laid out ideas and recommendations based on public meetings for improving the experience of Alamo Plaza for tourists and locals – and a $1 million bond was approved to begin the task, nothing has yet been done in the past year,” Wood wrote. “Nothing. Any new construction or major changes in the Alamo Plaza core should be delayed until the World Heritage designation is decided and until major planning for Alamo Plaza is complete. Then would be the time to decide if more hotels need to be there.”

Better Block seating and shade
Seating, shade, and things to do at the Alamo Plaza Better Block in August 2012. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Others just want a park that creates an experience otherwise missing in the downtown for much of the year.

“People want to be around other people,” one reader wrote. That point is echoed by many in San Antonio.

“Shouldn’t we be considering a park in which the city can host more music festivals and the like?” asked Eliza Bowers, a former U.S. Marine and now college student. “Houston has the Buffalo Bayou Park now in which you can kayak, and a festival called the Free Press – similar to our Current-Summer Fest FPSF – that has been held each summer for the past 4-5 years. They’ve had everyone from The Flaming Lips, Snoop, Weezer, Girl Talk, Beirut, Big Boi, Major Lazer(?) …  Anywho, I think this is an important topic be taken into consideration. Music, folklife, film, art, book, festivals as a whole generate a lot of revenue…”

It’s a generalization, but most people involved in economic development in the city favor a scaled-down version of the hotel tower atop the Joske’s building, while the average person seems more concerned with seeing Castro focus on building a better downtown for residents, as envisioned in the SA2020 initiative.

Downtown seen from the Steel House Lofts' roof. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
View from the Steel House Lofts’ roof. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

“Large conventions are so five years ago,” wrote Sam Reid. “Why isn’t anyone screaming about the huge amount being spent on that dinosaur?”

Once Perry signs the bill — if he signs the bill – Castro and the City Council can begin to work with staff and Andujar’s team to lay out a timeline for completing Phase One of the master plan.

In that same time period, the hotel tower will come back for reconsideration, presumably with changes and more detail as requested by City Manager Sheryl Sculley. That will give readers a fresh look at the project and the opportunity to be heard, again.

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

Related Stories:

Hemisfair Park: Time for Bold Steps

A Contemporary Look at the Alamodome

Great Cities Have Great Gathering Places

Why San Antonio’s Future is Bright

Thinking Big and Brutal: An Architect Examines Hemisfair Redesign

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.