Tower Park, the third phase of Hemisfair’s multimillion-dollar redevelopment, is essentially a “blank canvas” for the public to decide how they want the public park space to look and feel, said Omar Gonzalez, Hemisfair’s director of real estate. But Monday night, about 75 San Antonians started adding the first rough sketches and strokes of color.
“Fun,” “accessible,” “relaxing,” and “active” were a few of the words many participants, working in groups, used to describe their vision for the park.
More public and stakeholder meetings will be hosted over the next few years, Gonzalez said, and a public survey will launch soon to gather more public input. Project for Public Spaces, the firm hired to lead the engagement and visioning process, has already started asking focus groups and park visitors for their thoughts.
Construction is slated to begin in 2022, with a park opening in 2024, but take that with a grain of salt. “It always takes longer than we think,” Gonzalez said. Civic Park, phase two of the public-private redevelopment, is slated to open in 2022, but initial estimates were 2020.
“All of these [dates] have pluses or minuses,” he said. “This is unique because it’s the one public input session where literally the canvas is completely empty so it’s a chance for the public to say: ‘I want to see this, this, and this here.’”
Yanaguana Garden, the first phase, a playscape with food and drink options, opened in 2015. The master plan process for the Hemisfair district – to convert the grounds of the former world’s fair into a vibrant public space – was completed in 2011. Yanaguana has served as a proving ground for the kind of activation and revenue generation the rest of the park aims for on grander scale. A portion of rents from developable land (restaurants, hotel, office, apartments, bars, etc.) goes back into park programming and maintenance.
Tower Park’s 5.5 acres surrounds its namesake, the Tower of the Americas (but keep in mind that Civic and Tower parks are working titles), and includes historic and nonhistoric buildings that have remained empty for years, save for temporary event space.
The attendees sat at round tables and worked as teams on coming up with activities and amenities that would complement and enhance Yanaguana and Civic Park. Simple enough, but they were also asked to represent different groups: What would a mother with a stroller, a family of four, a teenager, a millennial, a downtown resident, conventioneer, tourist couple, or a senior citizen want out of this park?
“This park is going to be for San Antonio residents,” said Philip Myrick, CEO of Project for Public Spaces. “There’s enough downtown that is already built for tourists.”
A few amenity suggestions included: skatepark, water, shade, picnics, shopping, historical context, phone/device charging stations, beer garden, commercial uses like a barber and laundry for locals’ errands, and a remodeled Women’s Pavilion that offers indoor class and workshop space. One of the “teenager” groups suggested a zip line from one side of the park to the other.
That kind of diversity of use mirrors the diversity of park visitors, Gonzales said. Hemisfair is “the place where San Antonio meets and we truly believe that Hemisfair – because of our location, because of the DNA of it – can be a place where you can have that cross section with multiple generations and multiple demographics. I think you see it at Yanaguana. … We call it ‘pre-k to grey.’”
This input and that from other meetings will inform how the land is developed, Gonzalez said. If there’s a push for residential, office, or retail, Hemisfair will seek out developers that want to follow that vision, he said.
The parks and the public-private partnership have not gone without criticism. Some say the Civic Park project threatens to overcommercialize the public space.
But it’s the partnership – and revenue – with private entities that will ensure that public space will remain accessible to all, Hemisfair CEO Andres Andujar said
“All of this cost money to do, and the City [of San Antonio] is unable to deliver that on an ongoing basis,” he said, noting that the City could not afford to build and maintain a district of Hemisfair’s scale solely through the taxpayer dollars. “So not only do we leverage private interest but we also leverage philanthropic interests … [and we] benefit the public good out of it.”
The Instituto Cultural de México and Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México language school are not part of this planning stage, Andujar said. The plan for now is to preserve those buildings and the “status quo” of their programming.
The two federal buildings, relics of HemisFair ’68, have uncertain futures, though Hemisfair may consider purchasing them, Gonzalez has said.