I was just 10 years old when I attended HemisFair in 1968. I remember the fair with rose-colored glasses, a place full of magic and color and exciting food.
My imagination was particularly captured by the IBM Pavilion, where a computer (probably with less computational power than my watch has today) could take the date of your birth and produce a list of the total number of years, months, weeks, days, hours and seconds you had been alive. As simple as that sounds today, to a child in 1968 it felt like magic.
The fair was a resounding success. During the six months of the fair, more than 6.3 million people attended it and helped place San Antonio on the international map as a great place to visit. The fair was effectively the beginning of San Antonio’s powerful and hugely beneficial downtown tourism and hospitality industry.
The flip side of that coin, however, is that the land that once held a vibrant World’s Fair then sat for years without a clear plan for what was next.
Fast forward 40 years. Seeing this central city site languishing and fairly neglected, yet recognizing its potential, then-Mayor Phil Hardberger formed a 13-member ad hoc committee to study and recommend best practices for its rebirth.
After months of discussion and study, this committee recommended a compelling vision and guiding principles for Hemisfair. In short, the vision was to create a vital mixed-use area centered on a city park, revitalize the historic buildings in the park, reconnect the park to the adjacent neighborhoods, and provide new mixed-use development around the park to activate the edges and help make it safe and secure.
As the vehicle for realizing this vision, the committee recommended the creation of a local government corporation with a board whose members possess clearly defined qualifications and areas of expertise (commercial real estate development, multifamily housing development, real estate investment /finance, downtown neighborhoods, downtown business, civil engineering/architecture/landscape design/park design/urban planning, and historic preservation) to provide focus and professional expertise to the endeavor.
Following the advice of the ad-hoc committee, in late summer 2009, then-Mayor Julián Castro led the creation of Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corp., a local government corporation commonly referred to as HPARC. One of the myriad early undertakings by HPARC was to create a master plan for the area.
After extensive planning with numerous consultants and public outreach involving thousands of citizens and stakeholders, a master plan for the redevelopment of the district was finalized and approved by City Council in 2012.
With a master plan in place, the first phase of the work could begin. The decision was made to start with a new play park along South Alamo Street and Cesar E. Chavez Boulevard.
On Monday, this new 4-acre park, Yanaguana Garden, celebrated its first year of operation. In this time, about 500,000 people have visited the park for daily activities, special events and cultural celebrations.
This makes Yanaguana Garden the second-busiest park per acre in Texas, after Klyde Warren Park in Dallas. That’s amazing!
Considering that Hemisfair will eventually have more than 19 acres of parks — three times the amount of usable, dedicated parkland that existed before HPARC was formed — these numbers will only continue to grow.
Through surveys conducted by staff and volunteers at Yanaguana Garden, we’ve learned that the park is common ground, a near-perfect cross section of our city’s diversity, with visitors of all ethnicities and income levels coming from all areas of the city — literally, all areas of the city. If you haven’t yet visited Yanaguana Garden, please come. I’m certain that you’ll be amazed and delighted, particularly if you have children or grandchildren.
Mayor Ivy Taylor now has the reins and continues to guide the effort to build the great downtown parks district that San Antonio has earned. It’s taken three generations of mayoral leadership and many more changes to City Council, but the hand has remained firmly on the wheel.
That’s a commendable commitment to long-term vision that is all too rare in what can feel like a very politically divided world. But Hemisfair is a special place in the center of a special city, and it deserves attention to quality and detail. It isn’t cheap and it isn’t fast, but quality — the quality that the people of San Antonio deserve — takes time.
I’m biased, but I believe that Hemisfair is one of the most exciting things happening in our city today. It’s an ambitious and transformational project, emblematic of the community’s desire to amplify the culture that makes San Antonio so great.
That’s why I hope you’ll join me Tuesday for a year-in-review with Hemisfair staff and visitors. We’ll meet at Magik Theatre (420 South Alamo) at 6 p.m. for a presentation on the last year and the exciting things to come.
We also want to hear from you: A moderated Q&A will give you a chance to ask questions and learn more about how you can get involved. Hemisfair belongs to everyone — we hope you’ll add your voice to the conversation.
Whether or not you can make it to the meeting, I hope you’ll take some time to visit Yanaguana Garden if you haven’t already. It is, after all, “Where San Antonio Meets.”
Bill Shown, Silver Ventures editorial for MySanAntonio.com (Express News)