Scott Ball / Rivard Report
The La Villita Historic Arts Village and Mayor Maury Maverick Plaza play host to many events, including the recent Diwali Festival of Lights, Dia de los Muertos celebrations, and the forthcoming Coffee Festival in 2018.
By 2021, the village and plaza could also host three restaurants focused on local cuisine and run by respected San Antonio chefs, adding a new dimension to the city's oldest neighborhood, according to the latest plan to advance the continuing revitalization of La Villita.
Assistant City Manager Lori Houston presented the new Maverick Plaza Culinary Concept and Program Plan to the City Council's Arts, Culture, and Heritage Committee on Nov. 21, detailing costs, a construction schedule, new events programming, and anticipated economic benefits.
The committee’s quorum agreed to advance the plan for consideration by the full Council. The design phase is scheduled to begin in January.
According to the plan, the new restaurants
are expected to generate 210 jobs, more than $500,000 in tax revenue, and $350,000 in property taxes over 10 years. Enhanced programming for the plaza, led by Chef Johnny Hernandez of Grupo La Gloria, will also produce additional sales tax revenue throughout La Villita primarily by attracting local residents on a regular basis, the plan further states.
“We really want to make sure we’re capturing activation that locals want to see and experience,” Hernandez said of new programming for the plaza.
Hernandez will invest $7.6 million in the three restaurants, and the City will pay for $4.4 million in infrastructure improvements through its Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone, initiated in 2000 to spur economic growth in downtown and Eastside areas. Hernandez will be granted a 49-year ground lease for the restaurants in exchange for $100,000 in annual contributions toward new programming for Maverick Square.
An additional $300,000 annually, from a consortium including the Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone, Centro San Antonio, and the La Villita Preservation Fund, will pay for further planned programming “that delivers an authentic San Antonio experience,” according to the project plan. Funding sources will include money from rentals and sponsorships.
Hernandez and fellow restaurateurs Elizabeth Johnson of Pharm Table and Steve McHugh of Cured would each take the helm of one new restaurant in Maverick Plaza, should the renovation plan receive approval.
At a Nov. 1 news conference announcing San Antonio’s designation as a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy, Johnson described her new restaurant concept, called Acequia, as focused on native, regional foods like mesquite beans, prickly pear, and bison, and said McHugh’s Alsatian beer garden restaurant will recall San Antonio’s Germanic history. Hernandez’s as-yet-unnamed new restaurant will continue his innovations in Mexican cuisine.
Acequia will occupy the Faville House, currently in use as the La Villita History Center and storage facility. Concession and restroom buildings will be removed to make way for Hernandez’s restaurant, and McHugh’s beer garden will occupy the Gissi House, the current location of pop-up retailer Camel Corps.
“We’re really excited about the project,” said Deborah Sibley, president of the La Villita Tenants Association and owner of Camel Corps, after the meeting. Tenants generally approve of the renovation plans, she said, despite the fact that her own store would have to make way for McHugh’s new restaurant.
“I have always considered San Antonio to be the center of the Americas,” Sibley added, which is “proven to us every day as visitors come to us from all corners of the world. What we haven’t been able to do is draw the locals."
Based on daily tracking of visitors to La Villita, she estimates that 92 percent are tourists and 8 percent are local residents.
Council committee chair Roberto Treviño (D1) and members William "Cruz" Shaw (D2), Rebecca Viagran (D3), and Greg Brockhouse (D6) generally were enthusiastic about the plan, but asked questions about oversight, costs, and how the City plans to attract residents from outside the downtown district.
“I’m happy to support it,” Brockhouse said of the overall plan, agreeing that the city should not rely solely on tourism to “build our core.” However, he voiced concern about how the new restaurants and related programming might “bring in people from other parts of the city.”
Brockhouse issued a “challenge to not forget the people who are not predisposed to … naturally head down to La Villita to have a meal,” and that the City needs to track from which parts of the city visitors come.
The need for responsive programming in Maverick Plaza is essential to finding out “what your community would like to see,” Shaw said. Viagran emphasized that planners also need input from the current tenants of La Villita, who run the art galleries, craft shops, and restaurants already present throughout the historic arts village.
“The community engagement piece is paramount,” said Eddie Romero, vice president of marketing and community engagement for Centro San Antonio, after the meeting. “We need to start [getting community input] immediately at the beginning of the year,” he said regarding programming at the plaza, then “let Johnny [Hernandez] do his thing.”
“We have been included in the process," Sibley said, representing the 24 shop owners and artisans of La Villita. "We see it as very positive impact."
The only negative aspect, she said, will be disruption during the two-year construction phase.
After the meeting, Sibley spoke with Romero to suggest including an information station and docents along the River Walk, who would introduce visitors to La Villita’s location, purpose, and history, possibly making use of Centro's downtown ambassador program.
“Enhanced hospitality and ambassador services” will be included in the new programming, Houston assured the committee.
Barry Clark, co-owner with wife Tanya of La Villita Café and the Scentchips shop in the village, said he has invested in exactly such public ambassadors to promote La Villita in the past, and would welcome City participation.
Clark shared concerns similar to Sibley's about the impact the two-year construction phase will have on current tenants.
“I’m for the change,” Clark said of the renovation plan. "I think issues and concerns are ... about making sure that we get proper flow of traffic" during construction, he said. "I think it’s critical that during construction, we have it completely mapped out before they turn the dirt over," he said of plans for alternate signage, traffic routing, and parking.
The key, Clark said, is communication between tenants and the City. "All success happens through great communication and being proactive, not reactive," he said. "If we can plan properly and communicate in a proper format, we all win."
Sibley and Clark, along with other tenants and constituents, will have the chance to provide input on the plan at two public meetings: the Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone board meeting on Dec. 8 at the Department of Planning, 1400 S. Flores, and the City Council meeting on Dec. 14 at Municipal Plaza.
The plan for a renovation of Maverick Plaza originated in February 2016 with a City request for “programming concepts” and new “culinary concepts” for three buildings in Maverick Plaza. Houston said the City received two proposals, and Hernandez’s was advanced to the planning stage.