Will efforts to revitalize the city core draw locals back or simply extend the Disneyfication of the River Walk?

Justin Arecchi remembers brainstorming with local developers and pioneers like Hap Veltman and downtown jazz staple Jim Cullum for hours at a stretch at the long-since shuttered Kangaroo Court restaurant and bar along the River Walk. A popular topic was how to make downtown world-class, a vibrant place for locals to live, work, and play. Even during those 1970s-era chats, Arecchi and the gang kept returning to one central issue, one that still swirls about today’s discussions as millions in taxpayer dollars pour into another round of planning to revive downtown. “We’d each get on top of our soapboxes to make our pitch,” Arecchi said. “And what was clear is that even back then, we all thought we just needed more people living downtown.”

Compared to the corporate-chain explosion of the River Walk that has since engulfed much of downtown proper, Arecchi, one of the few local business owners still operating on the River Walk, has witnessed the continued migration of locals out of the city core. “We used to be a real city long ago. [Today,] it’s so much different. It’s very corporate: very big, very touristy. … There were real people downtown back then, you know. That was HemisFair time.”

Decades after those Kangaroo Court sessions, Mayor Julián Castro stepped into the ring, delivering his own vision for the city’s future informed by extensive community input and packed work sessions known as SA2020. On an overcast Saturday in late March before a crowd stacked with a Who’s Who of local business and political leaders at UTSA’s downtown campus, Castro announced the dawn of the “Decade of Downtown.”

“This is not a list of projects, it’s not even a strategic plan. It is a set of aspirations for our city, the dreams we have for ourselves,” he said.

At the apex of these aspirations is the resuscitation of HemisFair Park, a celebrated achievement of its day that still hosts the icon of San Antonio’s skyline, the Tower of the Americas. But to dominant interests in the city, this prime real estate has long sat ignored and underutilized. Recognizing this, the city embarked on a lengthy, and costly, “visioning” process to discern what the park, first unveiled for the 1968 World’s Fair, should be in the decades to come. In fact, Castro christened the HemisFair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation shortly after taking office. And having now invested $3.3 million toward developing a master plan for the park, city leaders like Castro are hoping HemisFair’s transformation will be the spark that reignites local interest in downtown San Antonio.

With the plan to revamp HemisFair soon to take its final shape, the process of actually remolding the 80-acre stretch of land is still largely in the infantile stages. But soon the City of San Antonio will pitch its largest ever bond program, estimated at nearly $600 million, to local voters. City officials have been quick to note that downtown got less than 3 percent of the funding from the last bond issuance, 2007’s $550 million, and increasingly hint that they want downtown to see a larger slice this time around with projects that have “city-wide” impact. To push plans for HemisFair from dream to reality, the city will need to use cash generated from that 2012 bond, said HemisFair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation CEO Andres Andujar. “Some of the things we’re talking about with HemisFair may not happen for four or five years even. In its totality, this is probably a 20-year project,” he said. “It’s a multi-generational project — the total cost is almost irrelevant.”

Over the past three decades, millions have been spent on projects aimed at revitalizing downtown, some more successfully than others. We’ve seen the Alamodome built, the expansion of the Convention Center, millions spent reviving Houston Street, and plenty of tax abatements along the way paving the route for the hotel-centric thoroughfare that now runs through the heart of downtown.

But the mayor, and those involved in the HPARC planning process, now say the pitch to revive HemisFair is altogether different from past efforts, the chief goal being to draw San Antonians back to the city center. One notable piece of the plan for HemisFair is the goal to build at least some 1,200 residential units within the park’s footprint — the number of residential properties razed when HemisFair was first built in 1968. “We ought to at least come up with a replacement of those properties with housing throughout HemisFair,” Andujar said. “It was a modest neighborhood. What we build should reflect that.”

But 2010 U.S. Census data accentuates the challenges ahead. Over the past decade, residents have flocked away from downtown, moving instead to the city’s edges, where the city’s main job engines have also set up shop — notably with higher-paying jobs outside of downtown’s mainly service economy. Heralding downtown improvements, like HemisFair and the new Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff has noted that San Antonio’s migration north and northwest to the city’s fringes is unsustainable as demand for county services rise.

Drawing more residents, not tourists, into the city center is a frequent theme buried in the plans for refashioning HemisFair, and it’s a line now central to Castro’s mission for downtown. But to achieve that, a number of obstacles must be overcome. First is the availability of affordable rentals in the downtown market, since what exists now is sparse and in high demand. As it stands, the city only has some 2,800 residential units downtown.

And, as newly elected District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal, who represents much of what’s in and around downtown, put it: “I do believe there is an appetite for living downtown, but a lot of people complain there just aren’t the amenities to actually live there.” Among those amenities, residents have long been clamoring for a nearby grocery store, and Castro and City Manager Sheryl Sculley have openly pushed hard for one.

Clifton McNeel, a board member with the San Antonio River Foundation, criticized past large-scale efforts to revamp downtown in the 1990s and 2000s as a boon for hotel developers — parts of which HPARC’s Andujar, then with engineering firm 3D/International Inc., helped spearhead.

“One of the things that really bothers me is that we’ve concentrated so heavily on the convention and tourist trade, and everything’s catered to that now,” said McNeel, whose family once owned a jewelry store across from Houston Street’s Majestic Theatre. “We’ve abandoned downtown to the tourists. … Most San Antonians have given up on it.”

Arecchi, owner of downtown shop Justin’s Ice Cream, opened his first River Walk business, a local nightclub called the Garter, the same year locals and tourists alike converged on the newly built HemisFair Park in 1968. He eventually opened his ice cream parlor on the river in 1981, where he stayed for over two decades, watching downtown change before his eyes.

It’s what Arecchi aptly called “the chainification of downtown” that lost him his River Walk spot in 2004, when Houston-based chain Landry’s Restaurants came in and gobbled up a host of downtown properties. A Saltgrass Steak House eventually moved in and booted Arecchi from his place along the river, though he found his way back in 2009 — ironically, near another Landry’s establishment: downtown’s Rainforest Café.

“I think for a while there was a lax attitude about what type of development we want to see downtown, an ‘any development is good development’ type thing,” Arecchi said. “I think it was some dumb-ass politicians that started to open the doors to let these people in, these chain restaurant people,” he said. “I’ll tell you what I’m afraid of when we talk about downtown — it’s more hotels coming in and buying up properties down here, bringing in their corporate restaurants, their cafes, their bars, and wiping out small, local business.”

In 2004, the city turned HemisFair’s iconic tenant, the Tower of the Americas, over to Landry’s for a 15-year agreement to manage and operate the property, and the chain opened up its own restaurant, bar, and gift shop inside HemisFair.

“When we look at HemisFair, it does bring up that question: Who will this downtown plan be catered to? That’s really been a big concern for me,” Bernal said. “For those of us who grew up here, who saw how the city grew in the ’80s and ’90s, we understand that downtown hasn’t really been for residents. Most don’t go downtown.”

Downtown rental units, especially affordable ones, are still notably sparse even while large swaths of downtown office space have sat empty for years. Notably, when AT&T’s lease expired on its former downtown headquarters early this month, the open space hit the market and spiked downtown office vacancy to roughly 29 percent, compared to the 17.7 percent vacancy rate outside the central business district, the highest downtown vacancy rate in decades, according to Kim Gatley, senior vice president at NAI REOC San Antonio, a commercial real estate firm.

A downtown renewal with locals in mind will likely require the conversions of long-vacant downtown office space into residential apartments. Still, save for a few notable exceptions like the Vistana’s 14-story apartment complex downtown, developers have yet to line up behind conversions to market-rate rentals downtown. “We have seen a few successful conversions of older downtown office buildings for residential, but more often than not we see conversions to hotel space,” Gately said.

The city created the HemisFair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation in the summer of 2009, and by 2010 the group had hired Los Angeles consultants Johnson Fain Inc. to help drive the visioning process for the park. The city has already doled out some $3.3 million for the visioning process. On top of that, HPARC CEO Andujar takes in an annual $200,000 salary for leading the effort.

With the groundwork complete, HPARC is now preparing to deliver its final master plan for HemisFair this fall. City Council members have already thrown their weight behind the idea of a broad transformation for the park, but only some $20 million has actually been funneled to the project, far short of the vast sums likely needed to accomplish the sweeping plan. And while HPARC has said it has modeled the HemisFair roadmap after the city’s Mission Verde initiative, the plan calls for some serious bulldozing. The priciest piece of the plan is the razing of the west wing of the Convention Center, first built in 1968, and expanding the newest wing of the center eastward.

The city last expanded the Convention Center in 2001, spending over $200 million to essentially double its footprint to 440,000 square feet, said Michael Sawaya, director of the city’s Convention, Sports and Entertainment Facilities department. By 2007, the city again started looking at further expansions and renovations, hiring an outside consultant that “basically recommended that investments in that western section be minimal” and that it should be replaced as soon as economically feasible, Sawaya said.

In its most recent plan, presented before City Council in May, HPARC insisted the demolition of the northwest end of the Convention Center is needed to open up HemisFair, clearing the way for a massive 12-acre open park connecting HemisFair to the rest of downtown. In their presentation to the city, planners drummed up images of well-known public spaces like Chicago’s Millennium Park as inspiration for the HemisFair face-lift.

“We do know it won’t be cheap,” Andujar noted, though he said HPARC has yet to come up with its own ballpark estimate. Still, an August 2010 report by consultants Rider Levett Bucknall tagged the total cost for a similar plan to expand the east wing of the Convention Center at $376 million.

Like the last Convention Center upgrade, the bulk of the money for the demolition-expansion would likely come from the city’s hotel occupancy tax, a notion that worries some within the hotel and lodging industry, said Bill Brendel, general manager at the Crockett Hotel and former president of the local hotel and lodging association. Of the city’s 16.75 percent tax, 2 percent is still funding debt from the 2001 expansion of the center, he said. “I don’t know that we as an industry could consider increasing that tax, ours is already one of the highest rates in the country,” Brendel said. “We’re certainly supportive of doing great things at HemisFair … Right now, people just aren’t going there. There’s nothing that’s drawing people.”

Councilman Bernal said he understands the price tag may make some nervous. “I just don’t think anybody can really look at those numbers and feel that comfortable,” he said. “I know that people find it scary and troubling that we’d have to essentially demolish half of HemisFair, and I’ve asked [planners] if there’s a cheaper or different way to do this. They’ve repeatedly told me there’s not.”

The plan for the park also stretches outside HemisFair’s footprint. Among other things, it calls for a virtual reinventing of the Durango Boulevard and Alamo Street thoroughfares, or as the plan puts it, “humanizing” those streets by removing medians and widening and landscaping sidewalks to make the area more pedestrian-friendly. The city’s currently gathering proposals for plans to completely redesign the streets around the park, and in one recent presentation, planners interspersed photos of Durango’s current state with the street view of a pristine Parisian boulevard. The HemisFair plan will also aim to reinstate Goliad Street as an artery snaking through the heart of HemisFair Park, emptying out eastward and running underneath I-37.

The concept for HemisFair fits into the puzzle of another, similar dream for downtown — the one laid out by VIA early this year to revamp the city’s transit system. Planners are hoping VIA’s own goal to institute streetcar lines running north-south and east-west across downtown could help connect and draw people to HemisFair. The plan calls for one of those lines to hang east onto the new Goliad Street, running through the park and ending at the Robert Thompson Transit Center near the Alamodome. That plan also ties into another of VIA’s goals, to reconnect other parts of the city to downtown — a multimodal transit hub proposed for the west side of downtown. VIA’s is another big-ticket plan that would hinge on serious community buy-in. The agency projects streetcar lines would cost at least $20 million per mile, while light rail, another option VIA says it’s considering, is tagged at $50 to $90 million per mile. VIA’s board plans to vote on its own long-term plan next week.

As it stands, Durango Boulevard and a line of buildings that cross along the south end of HemisFair effectively act as a barrier separating the Southtown and Lavaca neighborhoods from downtown, planners noted. Local stakeholders involved in HPARC’s visioning identified a list of problems with the park’s setup, chief among them being a disjointed layout that isolates the park, and a lack of green space. Parking woes also dog the park, according to the planners — a chief complaint after Luminaria was relocated exclusively inside the HemisFair this year.

According to the most recent plan, the line of federal buildings, including the courthouse, along HemisFair’s southern edge would eventually vacate. Planners also hope to relocate UTSA’s Institute of Texan Cultures somewhere else inside the park, likely forming a cultural center comprised of the institute and two other current HemisFair occupants, the Instituto Cultural de México and the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. That plan is still relatively hazy.

Apart from demolishing half of the Convention Center, the defining feature of the new direction for HemisFair is a mixed-use residential corridor stretching along the park’s southern edge. Andujar insisted that if it’s done right, “the new Durango” idea could catch fire and help reshape the rest of the boulevard stretching west. “Downtown, land may equate to 20 percent of a developers project cost. We could use that value to lower the cost of projects, which would then allow us to reduce rent rates,” he said. “I have heard directly from the mayor that he feels it important that we consider workforce housing for that area.”

As the city looks to boost the concentration of affordable housing in and around downtown, the San Antonio Housing Authority, with some strategically placed properties, is hoping to become a key player in that larger plan to draw residents back to downtown, said Kathy McCormick, SAHA’s development and revitalization officer. Two of the most notable residential developments that have sprouted up downtown in recent years are SAHA projects hanging off HemisFair’s southeastern edge. The Victoria Commons, home to HemisView and Refugio Place, two SAHA developments built in the footprint of the now-demolished 600-unit Victoria Courts housing project, contain nearly 300 market-rate apartments, along with a mix of public and affordable housing. SAHA also has a vacant two-and-a-half-acre chunk of land next to its Victoria Commons property. “At this point our thinking is that the location is a great live-work mixed-use type of development,” said McCormick. “So that would be a combination of residential with neighborhood-serving businesses, like a coffee shop or dry cleaners or sandwich shops and that kind of thing,” she said. “Here you have SAHA who has some very good strategic locations downtown. … We know that at least some of that housing will be priced affordably for people who want to live downtown and hopefully work downtown.”

But the more immediate vision SAHA has planned for its remaining Durango property is setting up a farmers market, which McCormick said will launch in September. SAHA also owns a piece of land near the corner of Leigh and Labor streets, where McCormick said the market would eventually fold into a planned community center of sorts. Once a school was adjacent to SAHA’s Durango properties, but it closed when the Victoria Courts were razed, McCormick said, and is now being used as an SAISD administration building. “In our conversations with the school district, they’re leaving their options open. Should all that development in that area take off and run as so many people are hoping that it will, including the HemisFair area, it is very possible the building could go back to its use as a real school again,” McCormick said.

HPARC CEO Andujar insisted the next year could be crucial to whether HemisFair rises or stagnates. “This is such a huge plan. You have to prove yourself with little successes along the way, or else [public support] drops off,” he said. One of those early successes he’s hoping for is 2012 bond money to fund a complete redesign of the park space around the Tower of the Americas — “Showing how this can actually become a real park. … Right now, this is not a real park.”

Whether the city is serious about repopulating HemisFair a half-century after it gave 1,200 families the boot — or whether the emphasis is really on the near-half-billion Convention Center demo-upgrade — is something that will only unfold in chapters.

Councilman Bernal, for one, believes the goals to be equitable.

“There’s this importance we’ve placed in HemisFair and the role that it will play in the overall trajectory of downtown. I mean, it’s the first real piece of that vision. … The key is that now, maybe really for the first time ever, the focus is on a downtown for residents.” •


Since 1986, the SA Current has served as the free, independent voice of San Antonio, and we want to keep it that way.

Becoming an SA Current Supporter for as little as $5 a month allows us to continue offering readers access to our coverage of local news, food, nightlife, events, and culture with no paywalls.

Join today to keep San Antonio Current.

Scroll to read more Decade of Downtown articles

Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.