San Antonio, TX–A half-century ago, the city of San Antonio made a huge mistake. To prepare for the 1968 World’s Fair, it used eminent domain to destroy an entire neighborhood. The Fair came and went, and some longstanding uses were built, but much of the area has festered ever since. Now, in an atonement of past sins, the city is making the space usable again–and rebuilding a core piece of downtown–by opening Hemisfair Park.
Before becoming the site of the 1968 World’s Fair, the strategically-located area just southeast of the central business district was a low-brow but intensive neighborhood full of homes, restaurants and churches. It butted up against the city’s famed River Walk, and redeveloping it for the Fair struck local leadership as an essential strategy for metro-wide growth. The Fair, after all, would be a way to advertise San Antonio as a gateway into the Americas—hence the name the 1968 Hemisfair. So they condemned 147 acres, demolished two-dozen blocks, and displaced 1,600 people, sparing only a smattering of historic structures.
The fair, which took place during a summer of political turmoil, following Robert Kennedy’s and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassinations, had lower-than-expected attendance at 6 million. And while it did leave a physical legacy, including the Tower of the Americas and a convention center, it turned what was once a neighborhood into mostly parking lots.
The city left it this way for four decades.
Finally in 2009, the San Antonio city council, under then-Mayor Julian Castro, passed a major redevelopment plan. The city formed a non-profit called the Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation to transform the 92-acre portion into a mixed-use parkland facility. The vision was to create a central gathering spot for locals—much as the River Walk now is for tourists—that housed music festivals, community celebrations, and Sunday pick-up soccer matches. But the park would have additional attractions—such as a large playground, and a renovated, less clunky convention center—that brought people into the less-intensive areas. It would even lease some of the old buildings to local businesses, and allow high-rise residential construction along the edges.
Fast forward to 2016, and Phase 1, featuring the children’s playground, is already complete. The park’s other two phases should be ready in several years, and are being funded as part of a $30 million municipal bond measure. But the authority’s goal is to make the park’s $6 million operating budget financially self-sustaining by 2020 through numerous revenue streams, ranging from philanthropy, to tax increment financing, to the leasing of space.
Hemisfair Park will be a strategic piece in the puzzle, because of its location. The park’s northern border is Commerce Street, which is the de facto main street of downtown San Antonio. When the Spurs have a big win, for example, people drive down Commerce blowing their horns. The park’s southern border is Cesar Chavez Boulevard, which people cross to get into the bars of Southtown. Rather than dividing the two areas, as Hemisfair has long done, the park is meant to bridge them.
“Just as Pearl creates a gateway to the north,” said Juan Cano, Hemisfair’s real estate manager, by email, “Hemisfair connects to Southtown and the Southside, while remaining a destination unto itself.”
Key to this will be redesigning Alamo Street, which runs north-south between the two areas, along the western edge of Hemisfair. It will go from a multi-lane automobile passage to a “complete street” defined by medians and crosswalks. When the overall project is finished, it should enhance the aesthetics, residential population numbers, and overall usability of San Antonio’s core, reversing the destruction first caused by the city.
Scott Beyer, Forbes