Main Plaza redux 

Mayor Hardberger wants to make downtown more pedestrian friendly, beginning with the beginning

Juan Antonio Pérez de Almazán was captain of San Antonio’s presidio when he laid out the plan for a church and town square in July 1731. Today, that square lies at the intersection of Main and Commerce streets, across from the City Council chamber.

A group of Canary Islanders had made a pilgrimage to the New World, and they planned to live in the newly-founded town of San Fernando de Bexar. The settlers built their homes around Plaza de las Islas, in front of the San Fernando Cathedral and adjacent to the San Antonio River, which looped eastward. Eventually, the population grew and houses sprang up elsewhere, but the plaza in front of the cathedral remained the only Spanish-designed public area in San Antonio. To the west and behind the church, City government officials built City Hall, in 1889, on the site of the old fort, known today as Plaza de las Armas, and displaced many residents and merchants who had migrated west beyond San Fernando Cathedral, a growth pattern that continued through the 20th century.

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Pedestrians stroll in Main Plaza, adjacent to the County Courthouse. If Mayor Hardberger’s proposal is approved by City Council, at least some of the main thoroughfares that border the park will be closed to enlarge the plaza. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

The result is the hodgepodge of buildings lining Commerce and Dolorosa streets west of South Flores, with no nearby accommodations for downtown living aside from the old county jail — now a privately operated correctional facility. Nowadays, a tourist wandering west of the River Walk, searching for the fabled Market Square, is hard-pressed to avoid this blighted sector of the City.

Mayor Phil Hardberger wants to change the layout west of the river all the way to El Mercado at I-35, and the first step he’d like to take is to close streets and restore Main Plaza to its former glory as the centerpiece of European colonization in South Texas.

“A whole historical connection needs to be made, with restoration of Main Plaza being the first step, not the last step. There is a lot to be done,” says Hardberger of his recently announced plan to refurbish Plaza de las Islas.

By his own words, the one-block-square Main Plaza would increase “threefold in size.” The existing fountain, built in the vicinity of where a bandstand once stood, would be removed to make way for at least two more fountains. There would be an unobstructed view of the river from the front of the Cathedral, and more shade trees, benches, shrubbery, and flower beds to draw visitors to the plaza.

“I want to get it done by next summer,” Hardberger says. “This project should be a lot of fun. My guess is it will be one of the most-visited park sites in San Antonio, and it will set us apart from the rest of the United States with a true European-style plaza that would be a great draw for tourists, and locals, too; it would also be attractive for economic development.”

“It will set us apart from the rest

of the United States with a true

European-style plaza that would be

a great draw for tourists, and locals, too.”

- Phil Hardberger

Hardberger says he has requested traffic surveys, and he plans to present three models to the City Council. One plan would close Main, Soledad, Commerce, and Market streets around the square to allow full pedestrian access to the plaza from the river, the courthouse, and the Cathedral; another would close three streets and leave Commerce Street open for traffic; and a third would close only northbound Soledad and southbound Main streets.

The estimated cost of the restoration project is $10 million, which includes traffic work, design, and construction. “I’m still seeking input into the whole process, and will make as intelligent a decision as possible,” says Hardberger.

Although there are opponents of the mayor’s plan, such as banker Tom Frost Jr., UTSA architecture professor Jon Thompson says it is “refreshing to have an activist mayor. We need to revitalize downtown, and bring Main Plaza back to what it was in the Spanish era. There has been negative publicity about it, but to me the glass is half full.”

Thompson says the city needs to build consensus to revitalize sections of downtown to draw visitors. “There are people with ideas, and things are in play, but these things take decades, not months.”

Thompson warns against over-developing the River Walk into a row of hotels. “We are getting a canyon of huge, ubiquitious buildings, and the River Walk threatens to lose its charm. The City needs to build plazas to give developers an exciting new space to build. There is a notion of new urbanism, and we have the most vital downtown in the region.”

Trinity University professor Char Miller says he applauds the mayor’s initiative, but is cautious about closing off the streets. “The problem is re-routing traffic, which could drain the area of its vitality. The compromise would be to cut off the side streets, with an exception of Sunday services, which would give the plaza a pedestrian feel.”

Restoring Main Plaza won’t bring back the Chili Queens, nor the cowboys and hay wagons, but Miller says he is excited about the project. “Nobody has raised this issue for a very long time. To make downtown a more livable inner city, the downtown core ought to be a vibrant, lively place.”

By Michael Cary

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