After a delay of more than two years, the construction of Hemisfair’s Civic Park is finally imminent, it appears.
A groundbreaking ceremony is scheduled for sometime in January after the City Council approved last Thursday a $27.9 million construction contract for Skanska USA Building.
The groundbreaking will kick off what’s expected to be a flurry of construction activity in the coming years on the fenced-off field on the southeast corner of East Market and South Alamo street, where the bulk of the former Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center once stood before it was razed and expanded east five years ago to make way for the Civic Park.
The 7-acre park, and the development of a hotel, apartments, shops, restaurants, and perhaps other uses, must be completed by the NCAA Men’s Final Four in 2025, Hemisfair CEO Andres Andujar said in an interview last week. Although the Heron failed to ask why, it’s presumed that the new park will be used for events just as the current field was used in 2018 for events during the NCAA Men’s Final Four and the city’s Tricentennial Celebration.
The Civic Park, which will cost more than $50 million, is being built in two phases.
Civic Park’s first phase, five acres at the cost of $39 million, will include a 1.3-acre greensward capable of holding up to 15,000 people for everyday recreation or large events, a promenade that connects this section with the rest of Hemisfair, and a tiered fountain area called “the shallows”—with some 200 trees planted throughout.
It’s being funded with $21 million in voter-approved dollars from the 2017-2022 bond package, and $18.1 million in debt the city is taking on for “utility infrastructure” approved by the City Council in 2016 that will be paid back using cash flow from long-term ground leases at the park.
Civic Park’s second phase will cost $18 million and includes the “source plaza”—roughly the size of Main Plaza, this is the area visitors will approach and enter as they walk from the direction of the Torch of Friendship—the “zocalo” area, a collection of shops and outdoor seating; and the mural plaza, which will connect the park with the Convention Center area down by the River Walk where Juan O’Gorman’s “Confluence of Civilizations” mural looms above.
The $18 million has been allocated in the 2022-2027 bond, which still must be approved by City Council early next year, and ultimately by voters in next May.
Private funds are being collected as well, including $1 million from the Mays Family for the creation of a garden that will line the southern edge of Civic Park.
[ Related: Hemisfair’s Civic Park construction now scheduled to begin this fall | Jan. 16, 2021 ]
The design for the first phase was approved on Oct. 29 by the Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC).
“The scope of work includes utility work, paving and landscaping, water features, landscaping and the preservation and incorporation into the park design of the Acequia Madre de Valero,” according to documentation submitted to the HDRC.
GGN of Seattle has been the landscape architecture since since 2014. Part of the City Council action last week was to amend GGN’s contract by roughly $1 million for a total of $6.3 million, because the scope of work changed during the pandemic, when Hemisfair planners split the Civic Park execution into two phases, Andujar said.
[ Related: Hemisfair Civic Park gets encouragement from City Council, despite delays | Feb. 11, 2021 ]
The Civic Park is considered to be the cornerstone of the revival of the land where San Antonio’s World’s Fair was held in 1968. Hemisfair planners envision this to be the place where San Antonio gathers for its largest celebrations, similar to Millennium Park in downtown Chicago.
Hemisfair’s reboot first took off with the completion of the Yanaguana Garden play and recreation area in 2015 on the northeast corner of South Alamo and East César E. Chávez Boulevard.
A year later, the old Convention Center was demolished. And in 2017, Zachry Corp., which built the Hilton Palacio del Rio across the street for HemisFair ’68, was chosen as the developer of the buildings that would face Alamo and Market, and that would frame and enclose the park.
Construction was supposed to begin in 2018, but there have been delays.
Andujar and other Hemisfair planners have yet to fully explain the delays, even before there was a pandemic. But the pandemic didn’t help matters, either. In an interview in January, Omar Gonzalez, Hemisfair’s former director of real estate, said building something as ambitious as a large park framed by multi-use development is complex.
“Design evolves over time,” Gonzalez said. “The more you think about something, the more it changes. I wish it was that easy to say, ‘Here’s the one factor why it’s delayed,’ but the truth is, it’s just really complicated. You’ve got a number of different partners, a number of different types of commercial real estate development, different design teams that are coordinating, you have utilities, and how do you work with CPS (Energy) and SAWS, and how do you coordinate between a park and a (public-private partnership).”
He continued, “At the beginning, we just may not have fully understood that complication results in delay, so we may have been aggressive in a lot of our early schedules.”
Andujar told the Heron earlier this year that Hemisfair, also known as the Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corp., or HPARC, was amending its 2017 lease agreement with Zachry Corp. In an interview last week, Andujar said those negotiations are ongoing.
The pandemic has impacted the real estate and financial markets, Andujar said, which has thrown the development’s uses up in the air. Just how many hotel rooms, apartments, restaurant and shop space, etc., remains to be seen. A design drawn up in 2018 by Overland Partners, for Zachry Corp., showed a 14-story hotel, an eight-story office building, a food hall, 70,000 square feet of retail space, and an apartment tower atop a 800-space underground parking garage. The underground parking garage concept has been scrapped, Andujar said, because it was too expensive, so planners have pivoted to designing an above-ground garage.
At one point, NRP Group had been selected to build the housing. And developer David Adelman, who built The ’68, Hemisfair’s first apartment building, in 2019, told the Heron in 2020 he was in negotiations to build the apartments. But Andujar said just who will build the housing is also up in the air.
Although they’re working on the 2025 Final Four deadline, an exact timeline is also being renegotiated, Andujar said.
Beyond Civic Park, future phases at Hemisfair include remaking the areas around the Tower of the Americas, and extending Hemisfair Boulevard, the small segment of road behind The ’68, which connects with Chavez, east past the tower to Interstate 37 and Montana Street.
[ Related: Hemisfair opposes city’s plan to rehab vacant building as Park Police HQ | Sept. 21, 2021 ]