HemisFair could see a major makeover
By: Vianna Davila for San Antonio Express-News
Consultants are proposing an ambitious plan to revitalize HemisFair Park that could include demolishing part of the Convention Center and relocating the Institute of Texan Cultures within the park.
Calling it a framework plan, consultants working with the HemisFair Park Area Redevelopment Corp. presented the proposals to a packed house Tuesday night at Sunset Station. It was the third such public meeting to discuss the future of the 78-acre park, whose redevelopment has become one of Mayor Julián Castro’s top priorities.
Castro could not be reached late Tuesday for comment on the proposal.
The suggested concepts include streetcar lines in and around the park, a marketplace and mixed-use residential areas.
But the night’s most dramatic proposal was the idea to raze the western, older part of the Convention Center, built in 1968, to clear that area for more green space, open up the park to downtown and expose the San Antonio River.
HemisFair today features 15 acres of dedicated parkland, but only 6.9 acres of that actually is used green space, said Andres Andujar, CEO of the HemisFair Park Revitalization Corp.
“I think you need to open up that corner,” said meeting attendee Gregg Moon with the EastWest Design Group, adding that the change will give the Convention Center, which he believes has limited public use, an urban function.
In exchange for removing the older part of the center facing South Alamo Street, with about 200,000 square feet of exhibit space, the center would be extended on its eastern half.
The plan, still in the early concept phase, includes no cost estimate. But it likely would carry a high price. Expansion of the Convention Center in 2001 cost $215 million.
The city has retained Populous, the Convention Center’s architectural planning consulting firm, to work with the city and the HemisFair redevelopment corporation to further explore the idea.
Populous had completed a facilities development study on the possibility of expanding the Convention Center around the same time the HemisFair Park visioning sessions began, said Michael Sawaya, director of the city’s Convention, Sports and Entertainment Facilities Department.
No funding has been identified to either demolish or extend the center, Sawaya said. Officials still need to determine how to achieve an expansion while keeping the Convention Center competitive.
“They’ve (Populous) got to put into place a plan that takes into account the economic impact, of any construction,” Sawaya said.
The plan, as presented Tuesday, also includes relocating the Institute of Texan Cultures to another spot within the park, possibly into a proposed cultural center linked to the Instituto Cultural de México and the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, both current HemisFair tenants.
That would mean razing the institute’s current facility, which is part of the University of Texas at San Antonio, according to Andujar. The removal could clear the way for more high density uses in the southeastern portion of the park, said David Alpaugh, with Johnson Fain, the main consultants working with the redevelopment corporation.
Andujar admitted the concepts are controversial. But a representative from UTSA was at Tuesday’s meeting.
“They’ve seen the plan,” Andujar said. “They’re here tonight.”
Jude Valdez, UTSA vice president of community services, said the university is interested in revitalizing the institute and is “very open to some of the ideas.”
“I think we’d consider moving within the park,” Valdez said.
The park was built for the 1968 World’s Fair and counts among its occupants some of the city’s most visited locations, including the Tower of the Americas and the Convention Center.
Despite vigorous efforts to use the space, such as relocating the city’s arts fair, Luminaria, exclusively to HemisFair this year, the park has largely been underutilized.
Over the past several months, the momentum for a renaissance in the park has built rapidly.
But Tuesday’s proposals gave some attendees pause, including former Mayor Lila Cockrell, who raised concerns about the financial undertaking required for the project.
“Overall, I think the concepts, the principles, are very fine,” said Cockrell, whose name is attached to a theater at the Convention Center. “I think it’s just really being realistic about the cost, how we will pay for some of the proposals.”
“We’re looking at some substantial public investment.”
So far, city leaders have cobbled together a little more than $20 million for the park, including $17.6 million in savings from the 2007 bond issue. The HemisFair redevelopment corporation expects to receive money from the 2012 bond issue. Officials also are looking to form public-private partnerships and a nonprofit.
The framework plan presented this week calls for an enhanced grocery store and marketplace that would be a place “where everyone wants to go and not has to go,” Alpaugh said. Water elements that reflect Spanish colonial acequias that once ran through the city also would be incorporated.
Durango and Alamo streets both would be enhanced to become more pedestrian friendly, a concept the HemisFair consultants called “humanizing.” The creation of mixed-use housing and reconnecting to both the East Side and the Lavaca neighborhood to the south, are encouraged.
The plan for streetcars would include a line that runs through the middle of the park, dips under Interstate 37 and connects to the Robert Thompson Transit Center beside the Alamodome.
But like the plan to raze part of the Convention Center, this idea remains conceptual: VIA Metropolitan Transit is studying a plan to bring streetcars to San Antonio, but the money for a complete streetcar line has yet to be secured.
“We are planning as if we controlled all these properties,” Andujar said. That may not be true today, but the corporation is working to see those partnerships happen, he said.
A draft master plan will be presented at the next HemisFair public meeting, which could happen in two to three months, Andujar said.
“It’s a dream, and it’s in our hands to execute,” he said.