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Decade of Downtown

Will efforts to revitalize the city core draw locals back or simply extend the Disneyfication of the River Walk?

Photo: Photos by Michael Barajas, License: N/A

Photos by Michael Barajas

HemisFair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation CEO Andres Andujar

Photo: , License: N/A

Current plans for HemisFair call for the demolition of the west wing of the Henry B. Gonzales Convention Center, seen here, to make way for a large, open park on HemisFair’s northwest corner.

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Justin Arecchi remembers brainstorming with local developers and pioneers like Hap Veltman and downtown jazz staple Jim Cullum for hours at a stretch at the long-since shuttered Kangaroo Court restaurant and bar along the River Walk. A popular topic was how to make downtown world-class, a vibrant place for locals to live, work, and play. Even during those 1970s-era chats, Arecchi and the gang kept returning to one central issue, one that still swirls about today’s discussions as millions in taxpayer dollars pour into another round of planning to revive downtown. “We’d each get on top of our soapboxes to make our pitch,” Arecchi said. “And what was clear is that even back then, we all thought we just needed more people living downtown.”

Compared to the corporate-chain explosion of the River Walk that has since engulfed much of downtown proper, Arecchi, one of the few local business owners still operating on the River Walk, has witnessed the continued migration of locals out of the city core. “We used to be a real city long ago. [Today,] it’s so much different. It’s very corporate: very big, very touristy. … There were real people downtown back then, you know. That was HemisFair time.”

Decades after those Kangaroo Court sessions, Mayor Julián Castro stepped into the ring, delivering his own vision for the city’s future informed by extensive community input and packed work sessions known as SA2020. On an overcast Saturday in late March before a crowd stacked with a Who’s Who of local business and political leaders at UTSA’s downtown campus, Castro announced the dawn of the “Decade of Downtown.”

“This is not a list of projects, it’s not even a strategic plan. It is a set of aspirations for our city, the dreams we have for ourselves,” he said.

At the apex of these aspirations is the resuscitation of HemisFair Park, a celebrated achievement of its day that still hosts the icon of San Antonio’s skyline, the Tower of the Americas. But to dominant interests in the city, this prime real estate has long sat ignored and underutilized. Recognizing this, the city embarked on a lengthy, and costly, “visioning” process to discern what the park, first unveiled for the 1968 World’s Fair, should be in the decades to come. In fact, Castro christened the HemisFair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation shortly after taking office. And having now invested $3.3 million toward developing a master plan for the park, city leaders like Castro are hoping HemisFair’s transformation will be the spark that reignites local interest in downtown San Antonio.

With the plan to revamp HemisFair soon to take its final shape, the process of actually remolding the 80-acre stretch of land is still largely in the infantile stages. But soon the City of San Antonio will pitch its largest ever bond program, estimated at nearly $600 million, to local voters. City officials have been quick to note that downtown got less than 3 percent of the funding from the last bond issuance, 2007’s $550 million, and increasingly hint that they want downtown to see a larger slice this time around with projects that have “city-wide” impact. To push plans for HemisFair from dream to reality, the city will need to use cash generated from that 2012 bond, said HemisFair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation CEO Andres Andujar. “Some of the things we’re talking about with HemisFair may not happen for four or five years even. In its totality, this is probably a 20-year project,” he said. “It’s a multi-generational project — the total cost is almost irrelevant.”

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