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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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Apart from demolishing half of the Convention Center, the defining feature of the new direction for HemisFair is a mixed-use residential corridor stretching along the park’s southern edge. Andujar insisted that if it’s done right, “the new Durango” idea could catch fire and help reshape the rest of the boulevard stretching west. “Downtown, land may equate to 20 percent of a developers project cost. We could use that value to lower the cost of projects, which would then allow us to reduce rent rates,” he said. “I have heard directly from the mayor that he feels it important that we consider workforce housing for that area.”

As the city looks to boost the concentration of affordable housing in and around downtown, the San Antonio Housing Authority, with some strategically placed properties, is hoping to become a key player in that larger plan to draw residents back to downtown, said Kathy McCormick, SAHA’s development and revitalization officer. Two of the most notable residential developments that have sprouted up downtown in recent years are SAHA projects hanging off HemisFair’s southeastern edge. The Victoria Commons, home to HemisView and Refugio Place, two SAHA developments built in the footprint of the now-demolished 600-unit Victoria Courts housing project, contain nearly 300 market-rate apartments, along with a mix of public and affordable housing. SAHA also has a vacant two-and-a-half-acre chunk of land next to its Victoria Commons property. “At this point our thinking is that the location is a great live-work mixed-use type of development,” said McCormick. “So that would be a combination of residential with neighborhood-serving businesses, like a coffee shop or dry cleaners or sandwich shops and that kind of thing,” she said. “Here you have SAHA who has some very good strategic locations downtown. … We know that at least some of that housing will be priced affordably for people who want to live downtown and hopefully work downtown.”

But the more immediate vision SAHA has planned for its remaining Durango property is setting up a farmers market, which McCormick said will launch in September. SAHA also owns a piece of land near the corner of Leigh and Labor streets, where McCormick said the market would eventually fold into a planned community center of sorts. Once a school was adjacent to SAHA’s Durango properties, but it closed when the Victoria Courts were razed, McCormick said, and is now being used as an SAISD administration building. “In our conversations with the school district, they’re leaving their options open. Should all that development in that area take off and run as so many people are hoping that it will, including the HemisFair area, it is very possible the building could go back to its use as a real school again,” McCormick said.

HPARC CEO Andujar insisted the next year could be crucial to whether HemisFair rises or stagnates. “This is such a huge plan. You have to prove yourself with little successes along the way, or else [public support] drops off,” he said. One of those early successes he’s hoping for is 2012 bond money to fund a complete redesign of the park space around the Tower of the Americas — “Showing how this can actually become a real park. … Right now, this is not a real park.”

Whether the city is serious about repopulating HemisFair a half-century after it gave 1,200 families the boot — or whether the emphasis is really on the near-half-billion Convention Center demo-upgrade — is something that will only unfold in chapters.

Councilman Bernal, for one, believes the goals to be equitable.

“There’s this importance we’ve placed in HemisFair and the role that it will play in the overall trajectory of downtown. I mean, it’s the first real piece of that vision. … The key is that now, maybe really for the first time ever, the focus is on a downtown for residents.” •

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