By 2020, the end of the decade that former Mayor Julián Castro memorably dubbed the Decade of Downtown, San Antonio’s central city should be transformed on all sides.

To the north, a redesigned Lower Broadway will become the closest thing to a complete street in San Antonio, with wider sidewalks, more tree canopy, and a new community of residents and workers activating a once-vacant zone into a vibrant urban neighborhood stretching from the Pearl to Houston Street.

To the west, there will be the redevelopment of San Pedro Creek and the Zona Cultural improvements along Commerce Street from Main Plaza to Market Square. The new Frost Bank Tower and hundreds of new residences developed by Weston Urban, many in resurrected historic buildings, will bring back to life a side of downtown that only the oldest among us can remember as ever being alive.

Done right, it’s unique Spanish/Mexican/Mexican-American essence will make the west side of downtown a magnet for locals and visitors alike in search of a contemporary experience built on cultural authenticity.

Hemisfair, with its eight-acre Civic Park surrounded by apartments, offices, shops, restaurants and cafes, will finally give San Antonio a great downtown green space for people to convene. Civic Park will be the jewel that serves as the centerpiece, tying together River North, Southtown, and the emerging tech district.

The hundreds of thousands of people who have come to play in the four-acre Yanaguana Park in its first 10 months of operation are proof that if you build it in downtown San Antonio, they will come.

Yet the first look at how City staff has allocated the $850 million in the 2017-2022 bond contains a hard-to-explain gaping hole in this vision: Funding to transform Hemisfair has been cut in half, without explanation, making it all but impossible to deliver the promised Civic Park.

City staff has recommended $43 million for the redevelopment of Broadway and $43 million for the Zona Cultural. There is $36 million to contribute to the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project led by Bexar County and the San Antonio River Authority.

Hemisfair and the Civic Park, with an estimated cost of $58 million, has been budgeted at a mere $26 million, with $5 million of that sum directed to the rebuilding of internal streets inside Hemisfair.

That leaves Civic Park with only $21 million, a shortfall of $37 million, a funding gap that could threaten the $200 million in private sector investment that the development partnership of Zachry Corp. and NRP has agreed to spend in developing apartments, offices, and other improvements around Civic Park.

“The deal is we develop around a park,” said one person associated with the development group. “No park, no development.”

You can’t have one without the other. Andrés Andujar, the CEO of the Hemisfair Redevelopment Corp. (HPARC), estimates that future revenues from the leases HPARC will manage in Hemisfair is sufficient for the City to leverage $18 million in a separate bond offering.

That would bring the total available funds to $39 million, leaving HPARC short about $20 million. Without the funding, the words “world-class” will once again be so much hot air in San Antonio. People will get something done on the cheap, something just good enough – at least for some.

It would be nice to believe there is $20 million in philanthropic dollars out there, but there probably isn’t anything even close. The Hemisfair Conservancy recently erected signage thanking its donors, who number less than 300 people. Civic Park will be a public park, and it will take public funds to build it right.

Why does an eight-acre park cost so much? Creating such an expansive green space in a space that has seen 150 years of development requires a lot of underground engineering. The massive Convention Center demolition and cleanup underway now, evident in the photos published with this column, shows the immense scale and complexity of the project. All that smashed concrete is supposed to become Civic Park.

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Public health and safety also must be engineered. The water circulating in the fountains near The Tower of Americas today is polluted and bacteria-ridden. It is unsafe for the children often seen playing in it. Civic Park will have a water recycling and purification system invisible to the park goer, but essential if we want a park built to national standards.

Several months ago, Centro San Antonio convened 21 stakeholders to study and debate the best use of funds from the 2017 bond. The group met without media attention to study the transformative projects that offered the greater return on investment.

Committee members asked themselves three questions in examining the many proposed projects downtown: Will it transform our city? Will it leave a legacy? Will we able to say, “Something big happened in 2017?”

The final report delivered to City Manager Sheryl Sculley on June 30 is vital to the vitality of downtown, and “secondary projects” worthy of additional funding if available. The Centro stakeholders concluded that the three most important and transformative projects, the ones most likely to serve as catalysts for private sector development, are those described above: Broadway, Hemisfair, and the Zona Cultural.

Centro asked for $43 million for Broadway. Check.

It asked for $61 million for San Pedro Creek and the Zona Cultural. City staff allocated $79 million.

It asked for $50 million for Hemisfair. City staff allocated $21 million for Civic Park and $5 million for park streets. Additional funds are recommended for streets around Hemisfair, and funds from the 2012 bond still are set to be spent on streets around Hemisfair.

Word quickly spread among the stakeholder group that Centro’s requested funding for Hemisfair was not met. Centro’s CEO Pat DiGiovanni put the best possible face on the outcome.

“We’re very excited that many recommendations from our volunteer bond committee made it on the list of bond projects that the City Manager presented to City Council this week,” DiGiovanni told the Rivard Report. “The stakeholders we convened not only shared an interest in seeing greater investment in the center city, but also were willing to look beyond their own interests to speak with a common voice for projects that they collectively determined had the greatest opportunity to result in transformational change. They worked together to develop guiding principles, thoughtfully and objectively evaluated a lengthy list of projects, and reached consensus on the recommendations that were then sent to City staff. We believe this is a model that can be used to inform the process for future bond programs. We’re grateful for their passion for the urban core and their hard work.

“As for the projects we submitted, strategic investments in the heart of the city for the Broadway Cultural Corridor, Zona Cultural and San Pedro Creek and Hemisfair, benefit the entire community. We’re hopeful that these projects will gain support from the citizen committees, the Mayor and members of City Council, and ultimately, the people of San Antonio who will vote on the bond,” he added. “We look forward to being an active participant in the community conversation and more importantly demonstrating to the community the return on investment that these projects will have on the neighborhood that all San Antonians can claim as their own.”

Rendering of Hemisfair's Civic Park promenade.  Rendering courtesy of Gustafson Guthrie Nichol
Rendering of Hemisfair’s Civic Park promenade. Rendering courtesy of Gustafson Guthrie Nichol

Mayor Ivy Taylor, Sculley and three newly-appointed tri-chairs of the Citizen Bond Committees all stated at a July 26 press conference at City Hall that the funding priorities will now be decided by citizens appointed to the three committees.

SA Tomorrow Tri-Chair Darryl Byrd, marketing and communications specialist and SAISD Foundation Co-Founder Carri Baker, and IBC Bank Senior Vice President Eddie Aldrete will serve as the committee chairs. About 30 volunteer citizens will be selected by City Council members to serve on each committee: Streets, Bridges, and Sidewalks; Drainage and Flood Control; Parks and Recreation; Facilities and Improvements; and Neighborhood Improvements.

History shows that more than 90% of the projects and funding levels drawn up by City staff are approved by the citizen committees. More attention has been paid to the planning of the 2017 bond than any of the previous cycles, and much of that attention has been driven by Rivard Report coverage and community events. It will be an interesting test of the process to see just how much voice citizens are given this time around.

At this stage of the process, Council members representing suburban districts, whose constituents vote in greater numbers than those living in the inner city districts, often push back in an effort to dilute investment in the urban core. The consequences of such underinvestment are evident everywhere in the urban core. While the growth sectors of the city have received far greater funding historically than the inner city, there is a way to avert that suburbs versus the urban core fight this time.

The answer is to increase the size of the bond by a little less than 3%. That would add $25 million to the $850 million bond. The impact on the city’s credit rating and its debt service obligations would be minimal, yet Hemisfair could proceed as promised without cutting any other transformative projects.

“In some ways we’re kind of battling against history,” Mayor Ivy Taylor said at Wednesday’s City Council briefing on the 2017 bond. “You go back some decades and some parts of town didn’t receive some of the attention that was needed, and so we’re still trying to play catch up. I think that’s what makes this conversation difficult. Acknowledging that is definitely going to be an important step.”

Truer words were never spoken at City Hall. Vision and transformation should be given equal weight alongside conservative fiscal management, which can lead to reduced project spending to the point it threatens genuine transformation. No one can doubt San Antonians want a downtown that is economically and culturally more vibrant, and that building such a center city is the foundation of building a better city for everyone, no matter where you live and work.

Top image: An aerial photograph of Hemisfair and the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.  Photo by Scott Ball.

Related Stories:

Council Reviews ‘Rough Draft’ Priorities for $850 Million Bond

Mayor Selects Three Citizens to Lead 2017 Bond Program

$850 Million Bond: Balancing Basics and Catalysts

Hardberger Seeks Funds for Unique Land Bridge

San Pedro Creek Project Pitched for 2017 City Bond

Urban Literacy: What is a Municipal Bond?

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.