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The New
Main Plaza

Revitalizing The Center City

By LEIGH BALDWIN
Illustritations COURTESY OF THE CITY OF
SAN ANTONIO

Although I had been following the progress of Mayor Phil Hardberger’s initiative to revitalize historic Main Plaza downtown, it wasn’t until I tried to follow Main to Durango and found it closed that the project became a reality.

As we go to print, Main Avenue is now permanently closed, and portions of Market and Commerce will be temporarily closed. The redevelopment, expected to be completed in March of 2008, will eventually result in less traffic access but more beauty and green space for the city.

Main Plaza has existed in a fairly consistent format since the 1730s, when the Canary Islanders arrived, the town of San Antonio was surveyed, and construction began on San Fernando Church. One hundred years later, the church played a vital role in the Siege of Bexar as the location of Santa Anna’s flag of “no quarter.” Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, Main Plaza was San Antonio’s business and military focal point, and the expansion and dedication of San Fernando Church as a cathedral supported Main Plaza as a powerful religious center.

In a golden age of public improvements to San Antonio, the 1920s and ‘30s saw streets widened and landscaping updated for Main Plaza, including the construction of a bandstand. Longtime San Antonio residents may remember Main Plaza not as the busy, exhaust-filled postage stamp of green we negotiate around today to get to the cathedral or Bexar County Courthouse (or, if you’re me, Central Park Pizza), but as an oasis of calm, a place where fewer than 50 years ago a family could take a picnic and listen to live music. This Main Plaza of the past seems closest to the redevelopment plans currently in the works.

According to the mayor’s office and news reports, once Main Avenue and Main Plaza Streets — the north and south borders of the plaza — are closed, the area will become a true urban park, filled with expanded green space, clean public restrooms, local food vendors and ample cafe-style seating. Construction will include improved irrigation and drainage (the plaza flooded twice, in 1913 and 1921) as well as paving for new pedestrian walkways and added lighting.

A large fountain and formal garden will serve as a focal point, and the new Main Plaza will have direct access to the River Walk, connecting it to the bustle and flavor of one of San Antonio’s jewels. The Drury Plaza hotel, located in the original Alamo Bank building nearby, will construct a pedestrian bridge from the property across the river.

Much of the impetus to revitalize Main Plaza comes not just from recent support by Mayor Hardberger, but over a decade of interest in executing visionary plans such as the Downtown Master Plan, Downtown Neighborhood Plan and the Historical Civic Center Master Plan. While the project has not lacked in controversy — several public meetings were held to allow citizens to voice their opinions, the plan lacked support from two downtown city council members, and eventual modifications included closing only two of the proposed four streets — public feeling in 2007 is enthusiastic. Local conversations have already begun comparing the project to Chicago’s famed Millennium Park, and hopes are high that a successful new Main Plaza will influence improvements to other downtown green spaces, including Milam and Travis Parks and even HemisFair Park, celebrating its 40th anniversary next year.

With the recently revived commitment to expansion of the River Walk northward on the museum reach, and southward to the missions, Main Plaza’s revival will be a welcome and fitting addition to a new urban San Antonio.

 

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