Rendering of Hemisfair's Civic Park courtesy of design firm Gustafson Guthrie Nichol.
Rendering of Hemisfair's Civic Park courtesy of design firm Gustafson Guthrie Nichol.

Cities that build great downtowns for locals become great cities for visitors, too, because smart travelers want to experience new destinations “like a local.” Some will come from other countries, some from other states, and more will drive in from the city’s own suburbs if we make it worth their while.

That’s why getting San Antonio’s urban core redevelopment right will do more than just give locals a better place to live, work and play. It will draw more creative and talented people to live and work here, which means more culinary, arts and entertainment choices, greater demand for better public transportation choices, and a growing tax base to fund better inner city schools.

HemisFair ’68 changed the city nearly a half century ago and led to the development of San Antonio’s robust convention and visitor industry. The city leadership’s obsession with that new economy took the most colorful and historic downtown in Texas and stripped it of many local businesses, residents and much of its cultural authenticity.

Since the administration of Mayor Phil Hardberger (2005-2009) there has been a commitment to building a better urban core for the people who live here. That commitment deepened under the administration of Mayor Julián Castro (2009-2014) with his Decade of Downtown vision. Now, under the administration of Mayor Ivy Taylor, it is critically important to reaffirm that vision and make sure the SA Tomorrow plan and the 2017 bond both lead to building a better downtown.

Hemisfair is once again our best opportunity to redefine the city, a process that started with the $384 million improvements to the San Antonio River. Yet very little bond money has been invested in downtown. One exception: $8 million from the 2012 bond helped create Yanaguana Garden, now the most widely visited pocket park in the city. That park is for kids. Now it’s the adults’ turn.

The eight-acre Civic Park, the intended centerpiece of Hemisfair 2018, will eventually be surrounded by hundreds of new residential units, shops, offices, a boutique hotel, restaurants, cafes and more. Building a national-class park and the invisible infrastructure to make it sustainable will require a more substantial investment, perhaps $50-60 million. It’s an investment that will spur a far greater amount of private investment and thus pay for itself over time.

Two developments make this a good time for an open community conversation about the redevelopment of Hemisfair’s southern reaches. The first development came in December when Congress appropriated $135 million for San Antonio’s new federal courthouse complex, which will be located on a vacant, city-owned square block on West Nueva Street along San Pedro Creek. The city and U.S. General Services Administration will undertake a property swap that will give the GSA that city property and deed the federal office building and courthouse at Hemisfair and its surface parking to the City.

Brutalist buildings can be hard to love. UTSA's Institute of Texan Culture.
Brutalist buildings can be hard to love. UTSA’s Institute of Texan Culture. Photo courtesy of Brantley Hightower.

The second development came on May 11 when the University of Texas System, on behalf of UTSA and the Institute of Texan Cultures, issued a Request for Qualifications for redevelopment of the 14.7-acre UTSA Hemisfair Campus on the park’s southeast corner, which includes the former world’s fair-era Texas Pavilion building where the Institute of Texan Cultures (ITC) is housed.

Interested developers are offered three choices: develop the 12-plus acres around the legacy building that is home to the ITC; develop the land and expand the existing building, leaving room for the ITC to stay there; or propose a complete redevelopment of the property, including the costs of relocating the ITC to a new home. Relocating doesn’t just mean “moving.” It means paying to house the state museum in quarters worthy of its educational, historical, and cultural mission.

The Express-News published a page one story last week that cited unnamed sources who said Centro San Antonio and Mayor Taylor were viewing the site as possible home to a Triple A baseball stadium. Centro CEO Pat DiGiovanni refuted the story in a Friday interview with the Rivard Report. His organization has not received a consultant’s report on possible sites, he said, without commenting on whether the UTSA property might be one of them. An earlier effort by some city officials to consider the future Civic Park as a potential stadium site was quickly shut down.

In this latest instance, the UT System is offering to lease rather than sell its Hemisfair property, and knowledgable downtown development contacts say the cost of moving ITC to new quarters and redeveloping the property for baseball would probably double the publicly stated cost of $60-80 million for a Triple A park. In other words, it’s a non-starter.

There also is the issue of the Texas Pavilion’s likely designation as a historically significant landmark that could not be razed. The building and surrounding acreage also are home to the Texas Folklife Festival and the Asian Festival, among other annual cultural traditions with devoted followings.

Just as location of the stadium on the land designated as the future Civic Park would have killed the Zachry Hospitality/NRP Group‘s planned $165 million mixed-use development around the Civic Park, any serious talk of locating a stadium on the university property – even it were affordable – would trigger serious community opposition.

I love baseball, but I find the backroom talk about a city-funded stadium a distraction from much greater opportunity to affect genuine urban transformation. Some say taxpayers would only be on the hook for half the cost, but show me who is paying for the other half and I’ll believe it.

A more sensible vision for the southern reaches of Hemisfair would be a mixed-use approach that physically and psychologically connects the park and downtown with Lavaca and Southtown, creating a transition zone from urban residential to activated center city park.

Such an approach would defines the south side of Hemisfair as “local,” just as the park on its north side, with the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, the adjacent hotels, Rivercenter Mall, and Alamo Plaza define it as “not local.” It’s the purview of conventioneers and tourists.

The opening of the Agave apartments and H-E-B’s South Flores Market has helped considerably to connect downtown with King William and South Flores. Sensitive redevelopment of Hemisfair’s southern acreage will do the same, and check me on this one year from now, it won’t include a baseball stadium.

Why Downtown Matters for All of San Antonio

It needs to be said that a huge percentage of locals find life more suitable in the suburbs for many good reasons. Proximity to workplace, good schools, great neighborhoods for safely raising children, affordable new housing, more green space, infinite shopping choices – are among the many good reasons so many people live outside the urban core.

There is a responsibility, however, for city planners to make developers share the costs of expanding suburban communities. Not doing so in the past has led to a disproportionate percentage of public bond funds spent alleviating sprawl, traffic congestion and the other consequences of poor planning.

With billions of dollars of unmet infrastructure needs on its books – basics like streets without sidewalks or bike lanes – the City of San Antonio finds itself in a difficult position: It can’t meet the needs of its citizens, yet it’s spending to annex more neighborhoods and corridors and laying out hundreds of millions of dollars to meet infrastructure needs in its outlying sectors. That’s a topic I have been writing about for some time in the context of the 2017 bond and will continue do so again in the coming weeks and months.

Today’s column, however, is an argument for unprecedented bond spending in the urban core, and why that spending would benefit everyone in the city, not just those of us who live or work downtown.

The personality and profile of any city – its DNA – is found in the heart and soul of the urban organism and that is its downtown. That’s why San Antonio’s celebration of its 300th anniversary in two years will unfold in places like Hemisfair, in Alamo and Main Plazas, along the San Antonio River and San Pedro Creek, and at the Missions. There will be no big gatherings at the Rim, in Stone Oak, or along Wurzbach Expressway.

When we go to New York, we go to the High Line Park or Central Park or the Village in Manhattan, or to Brooklyn, where we want to experience the transformation of neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Greenpoint or those around the old Navy Yard. No one goes to Staten Island. When we go to Denver it’s to experience the 16th Street Mall, LoDo, the Arts District, the microbreweries, Five Points, and Highlands.

Building a truly vibrant urban core that offers a great work environment by day and a great live/play environment all the rest of the time makes the city a destination for everyone: urban dweller, suburban commuter and visitors from other places. A great downtown, surrounded by great neighborhoods void of blight and vacancy, is what puts a city on the big map of places everyone wants to go. You don’t have to live in it to appreciate its value.

This is a future view looking towards the Alameda Theater. Aquatic plantings will catch litter and filter pollutants from storms before they enter the San Pedro Creek. Image courtesy San Antonio River Authority.
This is a future view looking towards the Alameda Theater. Aquatic plantings will catch litter and filter pollutants from storms before they enter the San Pedro Creek. Image courtesy San Antonio River Authority.

Yet looking around downtown San Antonio I can’t put my finger on a single past bond project that was truly transformative in our urban core except Yanaguana Garden. That is why Mayor Taylor, City Council and City Manager Sheryl Sculley and her staff are hearing greater clamor for packaging Brackenridge Park, Broadway, Hemisfair, San Pedro Creek, the Zona Cultural, and the World Heritage district in the 2017 bond. It’s a clamor that is only going to grow as stakeholders and voters become more educated about the City’s political process and demand a greater voice. No one wants to serve on a committee or attend a public hearing after the decisions have been made.

People have to get civically engaged to affect the outcome. Don’t expect City staff to have vision. They are hired for their competency to manage city finances, to plan, engineer, and carry out city projects. Elected leaders are responsible for listening to voters and articulating a vision.

It really comes down to how badly we want it, how hard we are willing to work to make San Antonio a truly better city.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Centro San Antonio has not released a consultant’s report on potential downtown sites for a Triple A baseball stadium. Centro has not received the report, and has not commented on whether the UTSA property in Hemisfair could be one of the recommended sites.

Top image: Rendering of Hemisfair’s Civic Park courtesy of design firm Gustafson Guthrie Nichol.

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Robert Rivard

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