It's been more than four years since Hemisfair's Yanaguana Garden opened on the south end of the park, the first phase of the long-awaited redevelopment of the old park that stood largely dormant since the '68 World's Fair. But Hemisfair is supposed to be more than a modern playground and collection of shops. So much more.
Hemisfair's second phase, called civic park, is due to be developed on the corner of South Alamo and Market streets, where a large fenced-off greensward has sat untouched in recent years. The plan is for two developments—a hotel and an apartment building, both with retail on the ground level—to enclose a series of promenades, courtyards and green spaces. Estimates put the public-private project, some 14 acres, between $250-$300 million, making it perhaps the most ambitious development in San Antonio's history when you consider the cost, scale and location.
Here's a rough sketch:
There was a time Hemisfair planners said construction of the civic park would begin in summer 2018. Then it was 2019. Now we're almost a quarter into 2020, and there are no signs construction will start any time soon.
So what's the hold up?
"We are in active real estate negotiations and are unable to comment or provide details at this time," according to a statement released by Hemisfair, otherwise known as HemisFair Park Area Redevelopment Corp., a governmental nonprofit the City Council created in 2009.
That's about all the update Hemisfair officials are giving about the civic park, towards which $60 million in public dollars are being invested, including $21 million from the voter-approved 2017-2022 bond program.
In a brief interview, Hemisfair Chairman Rod Radle was equally as opaque.
"There have been some unforeseen situations, which have prohibited us from moving at our original timeline," Radle said this week before forwarding any detailed questions to Hemisfair CEO Andres Andujar, who declined to be interviewed for this article.
The delay has caught the attention of some of the tax payers who voted for the project during the last bond election.
"As a citizen that voted to dedicate money to this project, I think that we deserve to know what the status is on the project," Jesse Garza, a downtowner whose family regularly visits Yanaguana Garden, wrote to the Heron recently.
Part of the hold up may be finding a new housing developer.
David Adelman, whose company AREA Real Estate completed Hemisfair's first development last year—a 151-unit mixed-income apartment building called The '68—is in line to build the park's second housing structure.
Last month, Adelman said he was negotiating to assume the lease on the residential portion of the five-acre northwest corner development at Alamo and Market. Adelman would replace NRP Group, a Cleveland-based developer with a strong presence in San Antonio, which was first tapped to build the housing.
The plan is for a housing developer to construct 385 apartment units, with retail and perhaps some office, on Market. Meanwhile, Zachry Corp. would build a mixed-use hotel development on Alamo, across from the Palacio del Rio Hotel, which the company's founder H.B. Zachry built in 1968 for the World's Fair. The hotel cannot exceed 200 rooms.
Combined, the two developments are estimated to cost $200 million. They'd enclose the civic park, nine acres of promenades and courtyards and green space that would blend into destinations east such as the Tower of the Americas and Yanaguana Garden.
In 2017, the City Council awarded Zachry Corp. a 50-year lease (with options that could extend the agreement another 47 years) for the hotel and residential segments of the northwest section. Read the lease agreement. Soon after, it was announced that NRP Group would sub-lease and build on the housing portion.
NRP Group did not respond to an interview request for this report. Zachry Corp. through a spokeswoman, said, "We are in active discussions with all parties to the development, and we will be in touch when we have something to announce."
According to Adelman, the park's underground parking structure is being redesigned. The parking is the first step before the green space and the buildings can be built at Alamo and Market.
In previous interviews with the Heron, Andujar said an underground parking garage, between 800 to 1,000 spaces, would be built with entrances on both Alamo and Market streets. It's unclear whether an underground parking garage is still the plan for the northwest sector of Hemisfair.
Adelman, who completed The '68 apartments in July last year, said the original underground parking garage design was not economically viable.
"So much was under ground and under the park, and it was cost prohibitive," Adelman said.
In previous interviews, Andujar said Hemisfair's civic park portion of the northwest zone would cost between $58-$63 million. It's being funded by $21 million from the 2017-2022 bond program; $18.1 million in 20-year bonds that will be repaid using longterm ground lease revenue from the hotel and residential developments; and about $20 million in hotel occupancy and sales tax rebates that are afforded to public entities if a hotel, such as the Grand Hyatt, is built within 1,000 feet of a convention center, according to state law. The Hemisfair Conservancy, a nonprofit entity separate from the Hemisfair park entity, is also raising funds to supplement the civic park.
The first phase of Hemisfair, the $8 million Yanaguana Garden, opened in October 2015. Hemisfair planners have begun the planning for the final phase, an area around the Tower of the Americas, but so far that phase only has $5 million from the 2017-2022 bond program.
» Worskshop spurs ideas for Hemisfair’s Tower Park
» How The ’68 at Hemisfair will offer true affordability to some
» The new federal courthouse’s impact on Hemisfair
» Hemisfair’s grand park construction begins this summer
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.
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.
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."
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"
In a vote last week, Bexar County Commissioners agreed to begin negotiations to participate in the Hemisfair Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ)—a mechanism that invests revenue from the rise in property taxes toward projects and upgrades within its boundaries.
The partnership, if ultimately agreed upon, could mean millions of additional dollars Bexar County would contribute toward housing affordability efforts inside Hemisfair.
For its part, the county would contribute 50 percent of its property tax revenue within the TIRZ's boundary over 12 years beginning in 2019—worth an estimated $4.4 million—said David Marquez, the county's Executive Director of Economic and Community Development.
Hemisfair CEO Andres Andujar said the specific project and use of the county's $4.4 million would be determined later.
At Hemisfair, two affordability mechanisms already exist for housing built within the park.
One is a nonprofit entity called the Hemisfair Park Public Facility Corp. (PFC), which has the ability to grant a full tax exemption to a developer in exchange for providing half the units to households making below the area median income (AMI), according to state law. This incentive is voluntary, meaning the developer could choose to charge market-rate rents, but they wouldn't receive the tax exemption.
The other is Hemisfair's own affordability requirement, which states that between 10 percent and 50 percent of a development's total units be rented to households making between 50 percent and 110 percent AMI. In addition, rents cannot be higher than 25 percent of the household's income.
Currently, the only residential development at Hemisfair is David Adelman's The '68. It's receiving the full tax exemption. In exchange, half of the units will be offered to people making 80 percent AMI. And, in accordance with Hemisfair's requirement, 10 percent of the total units will be available to people making between 50 and 70 percent AMI.
For the planned civic park at the southeast corner of Alamo and Market streets, NRP Group has been chosen to build apartments—part of a massive $200 million development that will frame the grand park. It's unclear at this time whether the development will be granted a full tax exemption, or to what degree it will participate in Hemisfair's housing affordability guidelines, because the deal has not yet been closed.
Zachry Hospitality is chief developer of the civic park's buildings, which will also include a 14-story hotel and an eight-story office mid-rise.
Before any of those buildings go up, an underground parking structure will be built. Andujar said that construction could begin the first quarter of 2019.
Finally, Hemisfair's third phase, around the Tower of the Americas, is still unplanned. Andujar said dates for a public process would be chosen in the next 30-45 days.
Later this summer, construction crews will begin to transform the expanse of land at Market and Alamo streets into one of America's great urban parks akin to Millennium Park in Chicago or Discovery Green in Houston, Hemisfair planners say.
The $58 million civic park, as it's known, is considered the centerpiece of the Hemisfair revitalization effort. It's envisioned by planners as an entry way into Hemisfair for people walking in from Market or Commerce streets, the River Walk or Alamo Plaza.
Plans show a large green space and other features framed by mixed-use buildings built by Zachary Hospitality and NRP Group — a mix of residential units, office space, and hotel rooms. The estimated cost of the civic park, the buildings, street upgrades — everything going into Hemisfair's northwest zone — is $300 million. From the civic park, the options for park-goers fan out and take the form of smaller parks, including Yanaguana Garden, the not-yet-designed portion around the Tower of the Americas, and even La Villita on the other side of Alamo Street.
Planners envision green space, fountains, tree-lined promenades and acequias.
But the civic park won't begin to resemble anything like a park until next year. This year, the work consists of "dirt being moved around" — below ground level, utility-type work — Hemisfair CEO Andres Andujar said.
"Super boring work," he said.
For Hemisfair's underground parking structure, crews will excavate 30 to 40 feet deep, which will eventually fit about 800 parking spaces. But that figure could be increased to 1,000 plus, Andujar said.
Some of the park's features, like some of the fountains and the tree canopy, will depend on a capital campaign that's currently underway by the Hemisfair Conservancy, an nonprofit separate from Hemisfair whose mission is to raise philanthropic funds specifically to execute the Hemisfair plan. The money raised will be the difference between a good park and a great park, said Anne Krause, the conservancy's president and executive director.
Krause declined to give the campaign's goal for civic park, explaining that she's still lining up big-dollar donors and publishing the figure now could harm the fundraising effort. She did say that the conservancy has raised about $750,000 so far for civic park. Since the conservancy received its 501c3 status in October 2014, it's raised roughly $2 million for all of Hemisfair, which includes the programming at Yanaguana Garden.
"Ninety five percent of the more than 600 events (held at Yanagauana) last year were free to the public," Krause said. "That's a great philanthropic story."
At civic park, the capital campaign will fund mature trees there so that there's a canopy providing shade on day one.
The park portion is due for completion in 2021, and the buildings, which will include office, residential and hotel space, will be done in 2021 and 2022, Andujar said.
The bulk of the $58 million for civic park comes from $21 million from the 2017 bond program, $18.1 million in 20-year bonds that will be repaid using revenue from the longterm ground leases from the Zachry and NRP buildings. Another $20 million or so flows in from an obscure Texas law that allows entities to receive rebates from the state on hotel occupancy and sales taxes if a hotel is developed within a thousand feet of a convention center.
Meanwhile, work on other segments of the park continues. The so-called Acequia Lofts, the 151-unit apartment project under development by David Adelman, is going up behind Yanaguana Garden. It's scheduled for completion in June 2019. Fifty percent will be rented at market rate, while the remaining 50 percent will be rented to households making 80 percent of the average median income (AMI) — $63,500 for a family of four — and below.
This summer, Hemisfair planners will begin asking people what they'd like to see in the third and final phase of the park: the eastern segment that includes the Tower of the Americas.
At Yanaguana Garden, a mini culinary destination is beginning to form with Dough Pizzeria Napolentana, Con Safos Cocina y Cantina, CommonWealth Coffeehouse & Bakery and Paleteria San Antonio. Andujar said Hemisfair is looking to add two more restaurants in two of its historic buildings, and that those will be announced this fall.
Rendering courtesy Hemisfair
Yanaguana Garden photo by Alma E. Hernandez / Special to the San Antonio Heron