Friday, March 29, 2013

Banning Hemisfair Park Hotels | Casey's Last Word

Finally, nearly 45 years after Hemisfair and after uncounted studies, we have a plan to make the fair’s grounds into a major asset for the city.

The plan recognizes an important fact about downtown parks.

Unless large numbers of people go to the park, nobody goes there.

The reason is, urban parks without a lot of people feel dangerous.

So the plan doesn’t attempt to turn Hemisfair into a giant park.

Instead, it would use some of the land for parks and large parts of it for people who would join others in using the parks.

It would transform the hodgepodge that is misnamed Hemisfair Park into an integrated neighborhood of housing, commercial space and a variety of parks.

This would include one, at the corner of South Alamo and Market streets, that would be big enough to host citywide events.

Parts of Hemisfair that are now technically designated as parks but poorly designed for that purpose would be replaced by better-positioned parts now not designated as parks.

To help the plan along, State Rep. Mike Villarreal and Sen. Leticia Van de Putte are carrying identical bills that would exempt Hemisfair from a state requirement that voters must approve any conversion of parkland.

The mayor and others pushing for the park renewal believe individual elections for a number of different parcels would be burdensome and unpredictable.

Villarreal said he was uncomfortable removing voters from the process, but dealt with his discomfort with two provisions.

One is that the new version of Hemisfair must include 20 acres of park, five acres more than currently exist.

The other is that no new hotel can be built on Hemisfair grounds.

The reason?

“This is public land. It should be used for the citizens,” said Villarreal.

A few people have raised objections to taking the voters out of the process, but Villarreal said the bigger danger is strong opposition from San Antonio’s powerful tourism industry to the provision barring new hotels in the park.

There are reasonable arguments against the provision.

One is that a small, high-class boutique hotel would not take away from the urban neighborhood ambiance.

What’s more, it would provide revenue to the city to maintain the parks and subsidize rents for what is being called “workforce housing.”

The other is that land use is traditionally and should be a matter of local control.

The city owns the land and can best decide how it should be used.

Villarreal showed little patience for the first argument, saying a hotel would displace housing.

“San Antonio has done a great job of supporting the tourism industry,” he said. “It’s time to do more for our citizens.”

As for local control, you can’t blame him for lacking full faith in City Hall on this issue.

Fifteen years ago the Spurs tried to get city officials to back a plan that would increase hotel and car rental taxes to pay for a new arena.

The city would have loved for the arena to be downtown where, for good reasons, most cities have built sports facilities in recent times.

But the tourism industry nixed it.

So county officials, whom the tourism lobby had never needed to woo or water, had no problem with taxing tourists.

That’s why the AT&T Center sits out on the East Side and why the Spurs are exiled every time the rodeo comes to town.

Villarreal shows no interest in compromising on the hotel ban.

“If the industry kills this bill, it will demonstrate their willingness to jeopardize something that’s good for the whole city in order to serve their own interests,” he said.

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