It’s 11 a.m. on a Saturday and I’m walking across Cesar Chavez Boulevard toward La Villita, the historic arts village nestled between Alamo, Nueva, Presa and Villita streets.
I’ve been to La Villita before to visit the art shops with family, take pictures for paintings or simply to visit. Today, however, I’m here to talk to some of the shop owners about the city’s plans to change La Villita to attract more San Antonio artists and residents and the anger it has provoked among some of the long-term tenants.
In March, the city’s Department of Cultural and Creative Development (DCCD) — created in 2013 out of the former Office of Cultural Affairs — issued a request for proposals from the public for the 25 buildings located at La Villita, presenting the proposal to the Council’s High-Profile Contracts Committee and the San Antonio Conservation Society later in March, followed by several meetings with stakeholders and the public before the Committee’s approval of two proposals in June.
The 1939 proposals, city leaders contend, visit Mayor Maury Maverick’s ordinance establishing La Villita as an arts and crafts village contributing to a Renaissance of the culture of the Southwest.
“We issued the two RFP's to achieve the original goal of Maury Maverick,” said the Sebastian Guajardo, DCCD program manager. “We’re trying to refocus on his original vision to have it be an arts and crafts village.”
The projected high for the day is 95 degrees. A city bus honks as it turns left, stirring up a rack of dust and hot exhaust, and I see the pedestrian light change to walk through the haze. There’s a bus stop offering a little shade, but there’s no one waiting there — only a black plastic trash bag filled to the brim.
After passing two parking lots and a quaint red brick apartment complex, I’ve worked up a healthy sweat and am happy to see the familiar dome of the Bexar County Courthouse off to the left and the colorful yellow siding of one of the adobe houses encasing the village ahead to the right.
I enter La Villita off Presa Street through a gate guarded by cannons and plaques commemorating the site’s historical significance as an early settlement. The heavy brick walkway winds up through Plaza Benito Juarez, offering a glimpse of the buildings tucked within. I can feel the atmosphere immediately, like the hints of jasmine clothing the garden beds and limestone walls of the San Antonio River Walk below.
“There are a lot of arts and crafts on display now, but some of the shops are selling mass-produced items,” said Guajardo. “We want the arts and crafts to be handmade and hand-produced.”
Under the city’s plan, more than half of the buildings at La Villita would be revised for new uses. City planners envision nine spaces for working artist studios, eight spaces for galleries and five retail shops.
City planners also want to see three new restaurants added to La Villita, as well as a restaurant in a smaller concession building in Maverick Plaza. Visitors can currently dine at the Guadalajara Grill, the Fig Tree Restaurant, the Little Rhein Steak House and the La Villita Café.
One of the proposed restaurants in planning would be housed in a building that is now art gallery space.
In order to meet the city’s criteria to be one of the new working artist studios slated for the village, 90 percent of the work on display must be hand-produced and 50 percent of the work must be created in the studio, though not all the work has to be created by a local artist.
My first interview of the day is with a jeweler. He is hard at work in his studio when I enter, but he is delighted to talk.
“As tenants, we should be asking what we have given back to the community,” said Alejandro Sifuentes, owner of Equinox (see top photo). “We are very lucky to be artists with shops in La Villita. We should be thinking about ways we can make this place for everyone. We as artists grew the annual El Dia de los Muertos celebration to attract 20,000 people here each year. We should do more to restore the consciousness of this space.”
Outside the shop, a guitarist is playing music in the square. Two cats amble around the storefronts, staring bemusedly at passersby.
As I talk to some more shopkeepers, they stress there’s been a management problem at La Villita. There haven’t been signs available around to lead people inside and the marketing program hasn’t showcased what the shops have to offer. In addition, poor parking around the space is making it difficult for people to access the shops without walking a long way.
“I’m OK with the plan — I just wish the city had been upfront about it,” said one working artist who asked not to be identified. “We’ve had problems here for years that haven’t been addressed. La Villita is a ghost town after 6 p.m. unless there is an event being hosted here.”
The Conservation Society, which hosts the Night in Old San Antonio (NIOSA), an annual event held at La Villita each year during Fiesta, seeks to match funds to the La Villita Historic District Preservation project for other events to be hosted within the plazas, among other initiatives.
Jerome Stowe, whose family operates the Casa Manos Alegres gift shop, offering crafts from Mexico as well as San Antonio, said they cater to tourists and that the city must acknowledge that market at La Villita.
“It can’t be all high-end galleries — there has to be something for the tourists, too,” he said.
He added the city has been negligent in addressing the La Villita Tenant Association’s concerns, instead spending money on studies and issuing proposals that do not address immediate issues.
The City worked in cooperation with some tenants to establish a visitors center at the historic Cos House, increase village staffing and hire retail experts as advisors during the proposal selection process. A new La Villita website highlighting its shops and history is in planning, Stowe noted.
Karen McCauley, an artist at the Little Studio Gallery, said the city lease and studio gallery space has made it possible to set affordable prices and work with familiar people and that while the gallery would reapply for the RFP, she was unsure how much attention completing the contract would demand.
Some La Villita artists and craftsmen have studios in other locations and say La Villita has been a great place for them to showcase art forms other than painting on site.
“La Villita is the front door of San Antonio,” said Walt Glass, a pottery maker who operates the Village Gallery. “During art shows, we set up outside the shop and gear our artwork toward children. It’s difficult because as a potter, you don’t have a kiln here, but you work with what you have.”
“Not everyone is going to come to La Villita, but it’s been a fair place to try and make a living,” he added.
As a public-private partnership, the city will lease working artist studios at $1 per square foot, $1.15 per square foot for galleries and $1.25 per square foot for retail and restaurant space. The city is stipulating that La Villita’s shops stay open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day.
The new plan requires tenants to report on their sales and on how they display their merchandise in their stores. Galleries must have a minimum of four exhibits throughout the year with an opening reception and an artist-oriented activity.
Under the new RFP, tenants will receive points based on their proposals. Retail, galleries and working artist studios and restaurants will receive 40 points for their business plan and 20 points for their experience, background and qualifications. There also are points awarded for participation in the Small Business Economic Development Advocacy Program and for veterans.
I make my way down Villita Street, passing an alley leading to the Arneson River Theatre. I can hear music and dancing on stage as I walk through Maverick Plaza toward Alamo Street. To the left of a block of pastel shops, the Hilton Palacio Del Rio juts into the sky. Straight ahead is the gate of Hemisfair Park with the Tower of the Americas beyond.
City leaders say they want to pair La Villita with the Hemisfair Park Redevelopment Plan, which includes three urban parks, hidden parking and multi-use streets bordered by vendors and cafes and in line with former Mayor Julián Castro’s Decade of Downtown.
Re-entering La Villita through a gate off Nueva Street, I pass a bright white fountain as I cross Plaza Nacional. Down a long, shaded brick walkway in the center of the village, I glimpse the quiet profile of the Little Church of La Villita, whose food assistance program has been salvaged after public meetings were held.
Leases on the buildings expire on July 31, 2015 and shop owners are working to meet the Oct. 10 deadline for the retail shop, gallery, and working artist studios proposal. Restaurants have a Nov. 21 deadline.
There will be separate evaluation committees established to read proposals in each of the categories, with officials from the San Antonio Area Tourism Council, the Rivercenter Mall, contract managers, gallery owners and artists on the panels.
By the end of the day, it’s hard to say exactly what the future holds for La Villita. Both sides say the other has connections, and it might be true. I order an ice cream cone at the café and go outside, looking for a place to sit. I see a little boy drop a small ceramic on the ground in one of the shops.
People have arrived from all over, braving the heat in sun hats and sunglasses, in flip-flops and pushing baby strollers to enjoy their day in a historic setting. I think about the people I’ve talked to, wishing I could have visited more of them, but I’ve run out of time.
I’m still thinking about it all when I look down and see my ice cream cone has melted in my hand.
For a copy of the RFP proposal, scroll down to the La Villita entries on the Bidding and Contracting Opportunities webpage.
*Featured/top image: Alejandro Sifuentes, owner of Equinox, stands in front of his shop in La Villita. Photo by Katherine Nickas.