When San Antonio businessman Jerome K. Harris first proposed a 1968 World’s Fair, the area now known as Hemisfair was still a dense neighborhood.
Texas had not yet hosted an international exposition and Harris envisioned a grand-scale event that not only celebrated San Antonio’s 250th anniversary but also recognized its multiple cultures in a way that drew visitors from around the globe. His enthusiasm was contagious for many but met with deep skepticism by others. Known in 1959 as part of the “old city,” the multi-acre site where HemisFair would take place held around 120 structures, including a grocery store, a church and dozens of homes where families had long since established roots. Harris and other organizers wanted to raze the majority of the property and build a 750-foot tall tower in its place plus a convention center, a pavilion and the Institute of Texan Cultures. And there was less than 10 years to finish the project.
Harris—along with Congressman Henry B. Gonzalez, Bill Sinkin and other leaders—pressed on. With nearly $20 million in federal funds, $11 million in city bonds to construct a convention center and more than $15 million in other funding, design and construction began. All but 22 of the historic structures were demolished. The restaurant and deck for what’s now the Tower of the Americas was built on the ground and then lifted foot by foot over 20 days until it was secured at the height of the tower. In April 1968, HemisFair opened. By October, more than 6 million had visited the grounds.
For the staff and board members at the Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation (HPARC), the site’s development history serves as inspiration for the future. The nonprofit organization charged with reimagining Hemisfair into a modern park that reintroduces some of the neighborhood that was lost 40-plus years ago knows their task is gargantuan. They also know it can be done. “It’s crazy, but so was building HemisFair,” says Drew Hicks, communications manager for HPARC. “We’ve done crazy before here. We can do it again.”
The first phase of their “crazy” endeavor is almost near completion. Yanaguana Garden—a just more than 4-acre park that will include a splash pad, bocce ball court, retail spots and plenty of green space that was created through an $8 million capital bond investment—is scheduled to open October 2-4. Meanwhile, planning and construction are in motion on the second and third phases, a 12-acre Civic Park to open in 2018 and Tower Park, scheduled for completion in 2020, which is also the end of the 10 years former Mayor Julián Castro declared the Decade of Downtown. “Great cities have great parks,” says Andrés Andujar, HPARC CEO. “I don’t know too many people who’ve been to New York City and not gone to Central Park. If you want to be great, you have to check off a few boxes and a great urban park is one of them.” Plus, says Castro, now secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, great parks can help spur vibrant downtowns. “Hemisfair will be a tremendous catalyst for additional housing and commercial development in the years to come,” he says.
Making Hemisfair great has been about more than just redesigning the decades-old park. Andujar says while the original HemisFair was aimed at honoring San Antonio while establishing the city as a tourist destination, the new Hemisfair is all about locals. “Everything we do, the first question is, ‘Will it attract us?’” Andujar says. “If the answer is ‘no,’ then it’s not a priority. It’s not that we don’t want visitors; we will get them.”
Creating a vibrant space for locals means having a place where they can live and play, similar to what’s developed at the Pearl Brewery complex. “It’s extremely important to bring life and use to the park that’s there every single day,” says HPARC Board President Bill Shown, who led the development at Pearl. “Having shops and restaurants and bars and businesses—active edges—is what helps it come alive.” To that end, HPARC is aiming to have private developers add around 2,000 units of housing and already has started the process to bring in retail and commercial space. “We want to put back the density that we took out for `68,” Andujar says. This time, though, it will be added in multi-story, multi-use facilities. Some of the historic homes that remain on site will be used for those initial retail spots—including four in Yanaguana Garden that will by early 2016 house Paleteria San Antonio, Revolucion Coffee + Juice, Con Safos and San Antonio Brewing Company. Like those first four, Andujar says they want all future retailers to be local.
For too many years since the 1968 World’s Fair, Andujar and Shown say the park has been underutilized. It’s packed for special events and La Villita certainly has its draw. But the potential has always been larger. To take advantage of the sheer area Hemisfair takes up downtown—more than 30 acres—nearly 19 acres will be dedicated to green space. Expect a massive lawn for major events and concerts, small spaces for yoga sessions, winding pathways that lead visitors from one end to the next and innovative playgrounds, water elements, places to sit and locally designed public art pieces.
City-funded bonds paid for the initial planning and construction but the park’s fundraising arm, Hemisfair Conservancy, also is gathering philanthropic support and the commercial, parking and housing planned are meant to generate revenue that will have the park paying for itself by 2020, Hicks says. A plan for Civic Park was approved and presented in late 2014 but the final vision for Tower Park and many of the private developer-run elements, such as housing units and even a potential hotel space, are still in the works. Like Harris did in 1959, Andujar asks San Antonians to stay with them. Change may not be immediate but the end result will be transformative. And this time, he says, it will last for generations. “HemisFair ’68 was an amazing moment for San Antonio. It really put San Antonio on the map,” he says. “Now, this will be a park for all ages.”
Kathleen Petty, San Antonio Magazine