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Workshop spurs ideas for Hemisfair's Tower Park

by Ben OlivoMar 05, 2019
The promenade as one leaves the Tower of the Americas. BEN OLIVO | HERON

Near the Tower of the Americas, a mother and her toddler may decide to duck into the circa-HemisFair '68 women's pavilion for a pottery class. Or, perhaps it's a family of four grabbing lunch at the farmers market that has popped up for the afternoon.

Maybe they are teenagers hanging out at the skate park or a tourist couple catching a band at the amphitheater before cocktails at sunset at the tower bar.

The downtown employee may want to finish the rest of their day at a public recharge station slash workspace. Or, for a group of millennials, the afternoon could be spent taking the pups to the dog park before a few cold ones at the beer garden.

These were some of the ideas that flowed from about 100 people who attended a placemaking workshop for Hemisfair's undesigned and mostly-unfunded Tower Park, the third and final segment of the urban park's massive makeover.

The participants seemed to be mostly downtown residents, workers and advocates. They were asked to imagine new uses and activities for the 5.5 acres roughly south and west of the Tower of the Americas that are dotted with structures—some ruinous leftovers from the World's Fair, others newer, more modern constructions.

This map shows Hemisfair's three phases. COURTESY HEMISFAIR

Other parcels, about 10 acres around this segment, are being reserved for future mixed-use development, Hemisfair CEO Andres Andujar said.

The feedback from Monday night will inform the eventual design of Tower Park. The other segments are the Yanaguana Garden, which opened in October 2015 in the area's southwest corner, and the embryonic Civic Park, which will be the park and urban development's centerpiece in the northwest corner at Market and Alamo streets.

For Tower Park, feedback is also coming from 10 focus groups of locals that met this week, and from a soon-to-be launched online survey, Andujar said.

In early summer, Hemisfair will gather the responses. But it's unclear when they'll be handed to an architect, because the Tower Park, for the most part, has no funding.

"This can sit on the shelf and be reference material," Andujar said. "And then when we get ready to go ... it may be a couple of years from now (when design begins)."

The Tower Park segment of Hemisfair is expected to be completed by 2024.

...

Moderator Ross Patrick (clockwise from top), Hemisfair employee Jane Linde, Stuart M. Johnson, Brian Lange, and Rob Sult participate in a Hemisfair Tower Park workshop March 4 at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center. BEN OLIVO | HERON

Attendees were assigned to tables—each table represented a different demographic. Seniors. The tourist couple. Downtown worker. Teenager packs. Families.

At one of the "millennial" tables, the group of six began throwing ideas onto the table.

Roller coaster, one said—like the Stratosphere on Las Vegas Boulevard.

"The roller coaster idea kind of felt like Ripley's Believe It or Not! across from the Alamo," said Hemisfair employee Jane Linde, who was there as a participant. "It's kind of a cheap feeling to me, not to be offensive.

Stewart Johnson, an architect at Ford, Powell & Carson, suggested a tower walk along the rim of the Tower of the Americas. "Less invasive than putting a roller coaster," he said.

Much of the conversation centered on ways to upgrade the tower.

"In my opinion, it's just unattractive," downtown worker Brian Lange said. "I know it's great architecture. It's just unattractive. People today want an experience, and they want to see something that is vibrant."

The group talked about a water feature other than the overhead fountains that are there now. A coffee booth in one of the smaller buildings. A gallery or food hall in the women's pavilion. Charging stations all up and down the avenue leading up to the tower. A visitors center.

"I would love to see the monorail brought back," said Rob Sult, who attended HemisFair '68 as a kid.

"Would that be too chintzy like the attractions on Alamo Plaza and the roller coaster around the tower?" Lange asked.

"But once you have the park scheme in there to take a run overhead of the park would be really cool," Sult said defending the monorail comeback idea. "That seems to me more plausible than a roller coaster. But then I'm too old for a roller coaster."

A book store. Lawn games like bocce ball. Dog park.

Or, a turn-back-the-clock feature like the one in one of the World Trade Center elevators that gives riders a 500-year visual history of New York City in 47 seconds, Sult suggested.

"I like that because ... when you go up (the Tower of the Americas), they have an audio track and it goes, 'Welcome to the Tower of the Americas," Linde said mimicking a monotone voice.

"It sounds like it's from 68, right?," Stewart said.

"Yeah, it's cheese ball city," Linde said.

"It might still be the same (recording)," Lange said.

"It gives a history of the city, but it's awful," Linde said. "It's so badly done."

"One thing that's interesting: There's nothing in that park that sort of reflects on the old neighborhood that was taken out," Lange said. "Other than the buildings that are left, there's nothing to say this was an old ... neighborhood."

"I like what you're talking about ... honoring the neighborhood," Lange said. "We could have a map of the neighborhood on the ground. That could be really cool."

This map shows in more detail the other uses of Hemisfair. COURTESY HEMISFAIR

Not discussed at the placemaking workshop were the John H. Wood, Jr. Federal Courthouse (built as the U.S. Pavilion for HemisFair ’68) and the Adrian Spears Federal Judicial Training Center, both of which will eventually be transferred to the city as part of a land deal with the U.S. government. The federal government is building a new $117 million federal courthouse at 214 E. Nueva St., with construction set to begin sometime early this year.

Andujar said it's not an automatic that the city will then deed the properties to Hemisfair for inclusion.

The Tower Park itself has about $5 million from the 2017-2022 bond program for the construction of Hemisfair Boulevard—a street that will connect Hemisfair with the U.S. 281 access road. Andujar said Hemisfair will pursue funding from the next municipal bond program—in 3-4 years—for Tower Park. Philanthropic dollars will also be sought by the Hemisfair Conservancy, a 501(c)(3) organization that procures donations for Hemisfair.

Any excess in funding from the $58-$63 million Civic Park, which is expected to break ground later this year, would also go toward Tower Park. Civic Park is being funded by $21 million from the 2017-2022 bond program, $18.1 million in 20-year bonds that will be repaid from longterm ground lease revenue from the new development that will surround it, and a little-known state law that allows public entities to receive rebates on hotel occupancy (HOT) and sales taxes if a hotel, such as the Grand Hyatt San Antonio, is built within 1,000 feet of a convention center.

For more details on Hemisfair's Civic Park, read this recent Heron story: "Hemisfair wants public input on Tower Park segment"

Contact Ben Olivo: 210-421-3932 | ben@saheron.com | @rbolivo on Twitter

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