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San Antonio's New Front Porch

DALLAS — More than 40 years after it hosted the 1968 World’s Fair, San Antonio’s HemisFair Park is targeted for the largest redevelopment project in its history.

The total cost of redesigning the park is yet to be determined, but the use of bonds is already a key element in the plan. Officials have earmarked about $20 million for the project so far, including $17.6 million in existing bond authority remaining from a 2007 issue.

The HemisFair Park Area Redevelopment Corp., which oversees the project, also expects to share in a 2012 bond issue.

“We’re starting now,” said Andres Andujar, chief executive of the redevelopment corporation. “We expect to be under construction in 2012. By 2018 we would imagine a substantial portion of the project complete.”

The first step is what Andujar calls “humanizing” two of the streets that border the HemisFair campus, Durango and Alamo. Wider sidewalks, more shade trees, benches and crosswalks will make the streets more pedestrian-friendly, he said. That project will start next year and be financed with existing bond capacity.

A consultant’s long-range plan, presented at a public hearing last week, calls for creation of streetcar lines around the park, relocating a section the city’s ­convention center and moving one of the original pavilions, the Institute of Texan Cultures, to another area of the campus.

“Just the convention center alone will be hundreds of millions of dollars,” Andujar said. “That will be paid through hotel occupancy tax.”

The overall goal of the plan is to create more open green space at the entry to the park, which now features broad stretches of pavement and an assortment of buildings.

“The idea is to give the community a front porch,” Andujar said. ”We don’t have currently a significant gathering spot for the community. We do have the River Walk, which is a linear park but not a large gathering area.”

Andujar was hired in March as chief executive of the corporation, created in 2009 to lead the project. The agency is also considering public-private partnerships as a financial tool.

“We will also look at a tax-increment finance zone,” Andujar said. “We’ve got a couple of dozen funding sources, including private donations. We are also looking at a public improvement district that will help with the management of the park.”

Bexar County, of which San Antonio is the county seat, could help finance drainage-related projects. The county is heavily involved in extensions of the River Walk north to the city’s museums and parks and south to the historic Spanish missions.

The 78-acre downtown HemisFair Park, identifiable for miles by its 750-foot Tower of the Americas, is a key factor in San Antonio’s important convention and tourism industry and is connected to the River Walk. With the nearby Alamo as its major draw, San Antonio attracts more than 20 million visitors each year.

During the decade of planning for the 1968 exposition, officials mapped out various plans for the facilities and land after the HemisFair ended. In the decades since, the site has been the subject of numerous development schemes that never included a master plan.

“After HemisFair ’68, there was no full-on plan for the park,” Andujar said. “The original plan was to make it the campus of University of Texas at San Antonio. But that changed when there was a major land donation to UTSA at another location.”

UTSA still operates on the site, managing the Institute of Texan Cultures adjacent to the convention center. The most likely scenario would have the institute demolished and relocated to another section of the park. That would allow more open space along the River Walk.

In October 2003, at the request of the City Council, city staffers began to develop a plan that outlines recommendations and strategies for future development, building uses, and connections to surrounding areas and neighborhoods.

Included in the plan are 24 historic homes in the park that could be used for information centers, bed and breakfast inns or other purposes, Andujar said.

One redevelopment goal involves bringing more housing to the area and possibly removing some buildings such as the circular U.S. District Courthouse that served as the United States pavilion during the fair.

“Protection of historic buildings within HemisFair Park is mandatory,” according to one of the objectives outlined by city officials. “However, the strategic removal of non-historic or temporary buildings may be considered.”

To open the park to the river, the plan calls for removing a section of the convention center and building an extension on the other side. The convention center was last expanded in 2001 with a $215 million bond issue.

By the time construction of the addition would begin, the city would have additional debt-service capacity from the hotel occupancy tax, according to Andujar.

To avoid hurting the city’s convention business, “we’re not going to tear anything down until we have something new in place,” he said.

The Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, named for the late San Antonio congressman, hosts more than 300 events each year with over 750,000 convention delegates. Built as part of the HemisFair and expanded three times since, the convention center covers 1.3 million square feet.

Citywide hotel bookings for meetings and conventions, which began declining in the previous two years, began to increase significantly in 2010.

Based on booking trends, the Convention and Visitors Bureau anticipates 2011 will be a stronger year.

Opening just five days after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., HemisFair opened in the last year of President Lyndon Johnson’s administration and was designed to enhance San Antonio’s image throughout the world.

The fair, which had an announced cost of $156 million, was financed through public and private funds.

Public funding included $12.2 million from the U.S. Housing and Home Finance Agency for acquiring and clearing the site, $11 million in publicly approved city bonds for construction of the convention center and arena, and $5.5 million in general revenues from San Antonio for construction of the Tower of the Americas.

The state chipped in $10 million for the construction of the Texas State Pavilion and the U.S. Congress provided $7.5 million for the United States pavilion.

Pavilions were also built by Eastman Kodak, Ford Motor Company, General Electric, General Motors, Humble Oil (now ExxonMobil), IBM, RCA, Southwestern Bell (now AT&T Inc.), Frito Lay, Pepsi-Cola, Coca-Cola, American Express, Chrysler, 3M, the LDS Church among others.

Although HemisFair attracted 6.3 million people, attendance never matched estimates and the event lost $7.5 million.

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