The city is at odds with one of its offspring, the nonprofit Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corp., or HPARC, over its plan to renovate a vacant building near the Tower of the Americas into a headquarters for its Park Police department.
The building in question—a two-story beige-brick structure known only as Building 277—is utterly forgettable amid the 19th-century casitas and space-age architecture that abounds in Hemisfair. A 2019 report commissioned by HPARC, which City Council created in 2009 to manage Hemisfair’s redevelopment, called for its demolition to create more “connectivity” between other buildings such as the distinctive John H. Wood Jr. Federal Courthouse.
The city says that its Park Police department, which patrols parks and trails, has outgrown its current headquarters, an 8,000 square-foot building with a host of maintenance issues. So it wants to relocate the department to the 24,000-square-foot Building 277, which it owns right next door.
But the relocation wouldn’t jive with HPARC’s plan to develop the area south of the Tower of the Americas into a 5.5-acre park known as Tower Park, surrounded by sites that could be turned over to developers to build retail and apartments, similar to what the nonprofit is working on now with Zachry Corp. at Hemisfair’s northwest corner.
Cara DeAnda, the chair of HPARC’s board of directors, sent a letter to council’s Public Safety Committee on Monday declaring that the board did not support the city’s plan because it would divide Tower Park in two and would make it more difficult to form a partnership with developers. The committee received a briefing on the plan Tuesday morning from Razi Hosseini, director of the city’s Public Works Department.
Developer Steve Yndo, who serves as the board’s treasurer, told the committee that putting the headquarters in Building 277 would violate one of the prime directives of urban development: “You don’t locate your lower value uses on your most valuable real estate.”
He accused the city of devising the plan with “little or no public input.”
“Locating the Park Police in Hemisfair is emblematic of some of the poorest decisions made in San Antonio’s past,” he wrote in prepared remarks that he was not able to give due to time constraints. “Instead of an urban park that rivals those of other great cities, we would have yet another example of an expedient solution that results in a mediocre and underperforming public space as collateral damage.”
Hosseini disputed the charge that there has been little opportunity for public input. The plan was discussed in a council meeting in December and in two meetings of council’s Audit and Accountability Committee last year, he said in an emailed comment.
The city became aware of HPARC’s opposition to the project only two weeks ago, he said at the meeting.
“To be very frank, they weren’t crazy about the project, but they weren’t against the project either,” he said of HPARC’s input this year.
HPARC spokeswoman Thea Setterbo declined to elaborate on the nonprofit’s opposition beyond what DeAnda said in the letter.
“We are going to work with city staff and City Council on a solution,” she said.
Relocating the headquarters would cost $4.8 million, of which about $504,000 has already been spent or committed, according to a presentation given by city staff at the Tuesday meeting.
The city originally planned to combine the Park Police headquarters with a new substation for the San Antonio Police Department (SAPD). The project was included in its 2017-2022 bond program, which voters approved in May 2017.
But after struggling to find a suitable site for the facility that would allow it to meet its budget of $20.6 million, the city decided to split the project, building a new substation on St. Mary’s Street in Tobin Hill while relocating the Park Police headquarters into a larger building at Hemisfair. The two-acre property on St. Mary’s is too small to include both uses, Hosseini said in a comment.
In April, the city solicited proposals to renovate Building 277 for the new headquarters. The construction contract will go before the City Council in November, with work expected to begin in December and wrap up about a year later, according to the staff presentation.
At the Tuesday meeting, some council members criticized the plan and the way it was formed. District 2 Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez said he is “not supportive of this plan.”
District 3 Councilwoman Phyllis Viagran said that the project’s budget seemed high considering that only 137 staff would occupy the headquarters. She suggested combining it with a new SAPD substation in her district.
“I am concerned, and I would like to see more conversation about what happened, the breakdown of communication that happened between HPARC and city staff and council members,” she said. “We are $500,000 into this process… for us to be told that HPARC voiced their concerns now is troublesome.”
HPARC is finally preparing to break ground on Civic Park, which has been plagued with delays caused in large part by difficulties finalizing the design and raising the financing for an accompanying mixed-use development by Zachry Corp. The nonprofit has selected a contract from a construction firm to build the park and hopes to present it before council in October, Setterbo said.
The timeline for Tower Park depends on when HPARC can raise the funding, which includes $13.5 million to rehabilitate historic homes and $15 million to build the park itself, Setterbo said. So far, it has raised about $201,000 for its conceptual design.
Richard Webner is a freelance journalist covering Austin and San Antonio, and a former San Antonio Express-News business reporter. Follow him at @RWebner on Twitter