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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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The city created the HemisFair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation in the summer of 2009, and by 2010 the group had hired Los Angeles consultants Johnson Fain Inc. to help drive the visioning process for the park. The city has already doled out some $3.3 million for the visioning process. On top of that, HPARC CEO Andujar takes in an annual $200,000 salary for leading the effort.

With the groundwork complete, HPARC is now preparing to deliver its final master plan for HemisFair this fall. City Council members have already thrown their weight behind the idea of a broad transformation for the park, but only some $20 million has actually been funneled to the project, far short of the vast sums likely needed to accomplish the sweeping plan. And while HPARC has said it has modeled the HemisFair roadmap after the city’s Mission Verde initiative, the plan calls for some serious bulldozing. The priciest piece of the plan is the razing of the west wing of the Convention Center, first built in 1968, and expanding the newest wing of the center eastward.

The city last expanded the Convention Center in 2001, spending over $200 million to essentially double its footprint to 440,000 square feet, said Michael Sawaya, director of the city’s Convention, Sports and Entertainment Facilities department. By 2007, the city again started looking at further expansions and renovations, hiring an outside consultant that “basically recommended that investments in that western section be minimal” and that it should be replaced as soon as economically feasible, Sawaya said.

In its most recent plan, presented before City Council in May, HPARC insisted the demolition of the northwest end of the Convention Center is needed to open up HemisFair, clearing the way for a massive 12-acre open park connecting HemisFair to the rest of downtown. In their presentation to the city, planners drummed up images of well-known public spaces like Chicago’s Millennium Park as inspiration for the HemisFair face-lift.

“We do know it won’t be cheap,” Andujar noted, though he said HPARC has yet to come up with its own ballpark estimate. Still, an August 2010 report by consultants Rider Levett Bucknall tagged the total cost for a similar plan to expand the east wing of the Convention Center at $376 million.

Like the last Convention Center upgrade, the bulk of the money for the demolition-expansion would likely come from the city’s hotel occupancy tax, a notion that worries some within the hotel and lodging industry, said Bill Brendel, general manager at the Crockett Hotel and former president of the local hotel and lodging association. Of the city’s 16.75 percent tax, 2 percent is still funding debt from the 2001 expansion of the center, he said. “I don’t know that we as an industry could consider increasing that tax, ours is already one of the highest rates in the country,” Brendel said. “We’re certainly supportive of doing great things at HemisFair … Right now, people just aren’t going there. There’s nothing that’s drawing people.”

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