Pop-Up Success: Hope for Houston Street?

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Melissa Unsell (left) talks to a customer at Canvas. Photo by Page Graham.

Behind the counter, Melissa Unsell (left) talks to a customer at Canvas. Photo by Page Graham.

Page GrahamThere seems to be a new ray of hope for the revitalization of Houston Street. Amongst the restaurants and cocktail bars that have established themselves there, new establishments literally “popped up” in December – albeit only temporarily.

Four pop-up shops, selling everything from furniture to art and wine, were set up for the holiday season. And due to the positive feedback received, two of the pop-ups are continuing operations: Canvas, a wine gallery and art bar, and Joyarte, a jewelry couture shop. Canvas is slated to continue through February 25, while at this time Joyarte only has a commitment through the end of January.

Melissa Unsell (left) talks to a customer at Canvas. Photo by Page Graham.

Behind the counter, Melissa Unsell (left) talks to a customer at Canvas. Photo by Page Graham.

According to Melissa Unsell, one of the proprietors of Canvas, business has exceeded their expectations. A sense of community has built up around the establishment, propelled along by a social media buzz. Many theater goers have been stopping by for a glass of wine and perhaps a nosh before or after shows at the Majestic and Empire Theatres.

In addition, Joyarte has been opening a couple of times a week during lunch hour, giving workers from nearby office buildings a chance to drop in to check out the wares being offered.

Local, handmade jewelry for sale at Joyarte. Photo by Page Graham.

Local, handmade jewelry for sale at Joyarte. Photo by Page Graham.

The pop-up concept was organized by the Center City Development Office, forming the bridge between property owners and prospective tenants. The property owners offer their vacant storefronts rent-free, and the pop-ups take care of insurance and utilities.

The result is a win-win situation: the property owners get publicity for their available spaces, and the pop-ups get a unique opportunity to set up shop downtown, perhaps even with the possibility of staying permanently.

Walgreens is the only retail business to survive through the decades on Houston Street. Photo by Page Graham.

Walgreens is the only retail business to survive through the decades on Houston Street. Photo by Page Graham.

The story of Houston Street is a complicated one. In the first half of the 20th century, it was a bustling street, lined with department stores and other retail establishments. It was common practice for folks to go downtown for the day to go shopping, take in a movie, and perhaps stay for dinner.

Sadly, the rise of the shopping mall and the suburban lifestyle caused the central business district to go into decline. By the 1970s, the writing was on the wall.

In the 1980’s the City of San Antonio undertook the TriParty Project in an effort to revitalize downtown. Instead, the lengthy construction process managed to kill off what few businesses were left. By the early 1990s, all that remained was a Walgreens (which has been rebuilt remains to this day) and a couple of value-oriented stores like Melrose and Payless Shoe Source. The newly widened sidewalks were devoid of the hoped-for pedestrian traffic.

Widened sidewalks may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but it has arguably served to constrain traffic and restrict on-street parking. Photo by Page Graham.

Widened sidewalks may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but it has arguably served to constrain traffic and restrict on-street parking. Photo by Page Graham.

Hope for Houston Street revitalization occurred as the Federal Realty Investment Trust bought many of the buildings along Houston Street. It gradually became apparent that restaurants and bars turned out to be the most successful concept for the street, relying on a mix of tourists and locals alike.

Small, independent retailers found themselves unable to make a go of it. However, a vital downtown needs more than hospitality establishments in order to achieve a vibrant mix of businesses.

Is it impossible for Houston Street to reclaim its former glory?

Robson Street in Vancouver. Visible in the photo are stores like Nike, Gap, and GNC. Could this be the future of Houston Street? Photo courtesy Google Maps.

Robson Street in Vancouver. Visible in the photo are stores like Nike, Gap, and GNC. Could this be the future of Houston Street? Photo courtesy Google Maps.

As an example, let’s travel northwest to downtown Vancouver. There, you’ll find Robson Street. Located just west of the central business district, it is a four-lane street filled with a vibrant mix of shops, like Guess, Gap, Club Monaco, and Lululemon.

Included in the mix are restaurants and bars. Indeed, it’s not unlike The Shops at La Cantera – but on an actual street, with on-street parking actually available (except during rush hour).

The irony is that here in San Antonio, La Cantera includes a faux main street a la Disney’s “Main Street USA” that mimics the real thing.

The downtown San Antonio pop-up shops represent a toe in the water, so to speak. But there are stumbling blocks. According to Colleen Swain, assistant director of the Center City Development Office, many of the vacant spaces are unimproved, making them undesirable for prospective tenants.

Canvas was fortunate enough to secure a recently closed coffee shop, so setting it up as a wine gallery and art bar was a relatively straightforward process. The now-closed Super Fantastic Happy shop, an art and furniture pop-up, was located in a space considered too large for most small retailers.

Canvas is operating out of the short-lived Cafe Punta del Cielo, a coffeehouse chain based out of Mexico City. Photo by Page Graham.

Canvas is operating out of the short-lived Cafe Punta del Cielo, a coffeehouse chain based out of Mexico City. Photo by Page Graham.

There is hope on the horizon for potential small retailers. Acción Texas, a microlender, has secured a $250,000 matching grant from The 80/20 Foundation. Loans will be made to entrepreneurs seeking to set up shop downtown. A properly capitalized business has a better chance of succeeding than an underfunded one.

In addition, Swain said, “Property owners will be able to get space suitable for rent so that local entrepreneurs can make a presence … (and) entrepreneurs are smart – they will adapt to the needs of the customer.”

One of the primary differences between Houston Street and Robson Street is the surrounding population. Vancouver’s West End is a high-density mix of high-rise apartments and condos, along with a few surviving historic homes. Hopefully, ongoing residential development in downtown San Antonio will ultimately provide a critical mass of potential customers who prefer to walk to nearby shops.

But it’s a chicken-and-egg proposition. Nobody wants to start a business if the clientele isn’t there, and many people don’t want to live downtown due to its lack of amenities.

Market on Houston will be opening soon in the former Gunter Bakery location, offering a variety of freshly prepared foods for downtown workers and residents. Photo by Page Graham.

Market on Houston will be opening soon in the former Gunter Bakery location, offering a variety of freshly prepared foods for downtown workers and residents. Photo by Page Graham.

There are also other issues surrounding downtown. Parking is one – suburbanites are used to free, convenient parking – but that’s a subject for another story.

Surprisingly, another problem is “perception of security,” says Chef John Russ of the Lüke San Antonio restaurant, also located on Houston Street. Ironically, according to Swain, the downtown zip code has less reported crime than other areas.

Reinforcing that notion is a strong police presence. As I was leaving Canvas last Tuesday evening, I noticed three officers on bikes and at least two police cruisers downtown. The key word here is “perception,” and it’s important to get that message out to people who are unnecessarily averse to venturing downtown.

Joyarte and Canvas are located in the Book Building at 140 E. Houston Street. This was the location of a McDonalds during the 1980's and 1990's. Photo by Page Graham.

Joyarte and Canvas are located in the Book Building at 140 E. Houston Street. This was the location of a McDonalds during the 1980’s and 1990’s. Photo by Page Graham.

If you’re headed downtown, be sure to make the effort to check out Canvas and Joyarte. They are located side-by-side at 140 E. Houston St. in the Book Building, just west of the Riverwalk.

Canvas is open Tuesdays from 7-11 p.m., and Saturdays from 3-11 p.m.

Joyarte is open Tuesdays and Saturdays from 12-7:30 pm, as well as Wednesdays and Fridays from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m.

And while you’re there, be sure to take a walk along Houston Street while holding the image in your head that perhaps this corridor might one day look something like Robson Street.

 

Page Graham has been a resident of San Antonio – on and off – for over 30 years now. He has moved into the corporate world, making a living developing training materials and Powerpoint presentations and all that stuff we need to do in order to make a living. But now he’s back – aqui en el corazón de San Antonio – enjoying life to its fullest.  The Rivard Report is one place you can follow his trail, as is www.artblogsa.com.

 

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San Antonio: Be Proud to be a ‘Big City, Small Town’

Cheers to Pop-up Dinners, and the Women Chefs who Spawn Them

Twilight on the Plaza: Dining al Fresco in the Shadow of the Alamo

 

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