Transforming Freeways into Parks
In 1968, San Antonio celebrated its 250th birthday with HemisFair ’68, a six-month international exhibition that took years to build and attracted 6.4 million visitors. It was built on a 92-acre site on the southwestern edge of downtown that had previously been a residential area with historic homes and small shops. Some streets were removed, creating long superblocks. The fair included temporary exhibits, a convention center and 750-foot-tall Tower of the Americas with rotating restaurant on top.
After the fair, some structures were demolished, others left vacant. The tower remained and the convention center was significantly expanded to the east—both are important parts of the downtown, key to the city’s economy. The fair grounds area is ostensibly a park, but 80 percent of it was paved. And in the 1980s, the new I-37 freeway provided faster, higher traffic flows down to the coast, but its many on/off ramps dissected this area of downtown in two. The area was not thriving.
In 2010, the community decided to heal the area. They wanted to demolish the original, aging convention center’s western side—freeing that up for a park—and expand by a similar amount on its east side. But the east side land was crisscrossed by the three freeway on ramps to I-37 and two streets that allowed traffic to flow at 50 miles per hour. With lots of unused, barren land between them.
The solution was to consolidate the on ramps, reduce Tower of America Way from four lanes to three lanes, reduce the width of the lanes from 14 feet to 11 feet, reduce the speed to 35 miles per hour, and add a two-way bike lane on the west side of the road. That change consolidated the travel lanes and left a large open space where the convention center could both expand and add a new hotel. It also resulted in three times as much parkland to the west and south, and bicycle and pedestrian connections to and through the park and to the River Walk.
It may take cars an extra few seconds to access I-37, but the community agreed that was a small price to pay for all the benefits.