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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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Over the past three decades, millions have been spent on projects aimed at revitalizing downtown, some more successfully than others. We’ve seen the Alamodome built, the expansion of the Convention Center, millions spent reviving Houston Street, and plenty of tax abatements along the way paving the route for the hotel-centric thoroughfare that now runs through the heart of downtown.

But the mayor, and those involved in the HPARC planning process, now say the pitch to revive HemisFair is altogether different from past efforts, the chief goal being to draw San Antonians back to the city center. One notable piece of the plan for HemisFair is the goal to build at least some 1,200 residential units within the park’s footprint — the number of residential properties razed when HemisFair was first built in 1968. “We ought to at least come up with a replacement of those properties with housing throughout HemisFair,” Andujar said. “It was a modest neighborhood. What we build should reflect that.”

But 2010 U.S. Census data accentuates the challenges ahead. Over the past decade, residents have flocked away from downtown, moving instead to the city’s edges, where the city’s main job engines have also set up shop — notably with higher-paying jobs outside of downtown’s mainly service economy. Heralding downtown improvements, like HemisFair and the new Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff has noted that San Antonio’s migration north and northwest to the city’s fringes is unsustainable as demand for county services rise.

Drawing more residents, not tourists, into the city center is a frequent theme buried in the plans for refashioning HemisFair, and it’s a line now central to Castro’s mission for downtown. But to achieve that, a number of obstacles must be overcome. First is the availability of affordable rentals in the downtown market, since what exists now is sparse and in high demand. As it stands, the city only has some 2,800 residential units downtown.

And, as newly elected District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal, who represents much of what’s in and around downtown, put it: “I do believe there is an appetite for living downtown, but a lot of people complain there just aren’t the amenities to actually live there.” Among those amenities, residents have long been clamoring for a nearby grocery store, and Castro and City Manager Sheryl Sculley have openly pushed hard for one.

Clifton McNeel, a board member with the San Antonio River Foundation, criticized past large-scale efforts to revamp downtown in the 1990s and 2000s as a boon for hotel developers — parts of which HPARC’s Andujar, then with engineering firm 3D/International Inc., helped spearhead.

“One of the things that really bothers me is that we’ve concentrated so heavily on the convention and tourist trade, and everything’s catered to that now,” said McNeel, whose family once owned a jewelry store across from Houston Street’s Majestic Theatre. “We’ve abandoned downtown to the tourists. … Most San Antonians have given up on it.”

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