Have you been to Market Square lately? How about Casa Navarro? The art gallery at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) downtown? How about any of the surprising number of arts and culture attractions on the west end of downtown?
There is a strong impression in San Antonio that these are only for tourists. I’m as guilty as the next person of believing that. Since returning to San Antonio and coming to work for Centro San Antonio, I’ve been involved in a fantastic project that has shown me that this area is for tourists and residents alike.
There is an effort under way to make a large portion of downtown and the near Westside into an area more attractive to locals and to promote arts and culture institutions such as the Alameda Theater, retailers including Marti’s and Penner’s, and restaurants such as Cocina Heritage.
The area, known as El Mercado Zona Cultural, stretches from Main Plaza on the east to the railroad tracks just past UTSA on the west and Nueva Street to the south to Houston Street on the north. It jogs a little north of UTSA, but it is roughly a rectangle that encompasses the west end of downtown and the near Westside.
A group of stakeholders from the area, including Centro San Antonio, are collaborating on an application to the Texas Commission on the Arts for this district to be recognized as a Cultural District. The San Antonio City Council officially recognized this area as a cultural district earlier this year. There are more than 20 TCA districts across the state, including King William, the Dallas Arts District, and Houston Museum District.
The TCA believes that Cultural Districts can result in economic development, job growth, and new housing opportunities, in addition to more recognition for local arts and culture creators and supporters.
The push for the new district designation also comes as Weston Urban awaits city staff's recommendation on its game-changing proposal to build the first new office tower in San Antonio in more than 25 years, a new Frost Bank Tower that would be the centerpiece of an ambitious three-way real estate deal involving Weston Urban , Frost Bank and the city of San Antonio. The deal as proposed by Weston Urban would give the company control over several blocks of western downtown that could be developed for commercial and residential use and spark a rebirth along downtown's western reaches.
The vision for the cultural district has grown as more stakeholders and property owners have become aware of the effort. Jorge Cortez of Mi Tierra, was one of the initial supporters of a unified cultural district and encouraged others to show their support through his enthusiasm for the area. In the last two years this process and district have begun to gain a lot of traction. Centro San Antonio is currently working with advisory and steering committees composed of property owners, residents, artists, and other stakeholders on the strategic framework for the TCA application. We will be submitting the application in June of next year and should know a few months later if the designation is awarded.
Part of the vision for the district is creating a visual distinction from the rest of downtown so that people know when they are in the district. This can be accomplished with wayfinding, street furniture, and other elements in the built environment. On the morning of Saturday, Dec. 13, at the Central Library at 600 Soledad St., the public is invited to help further refine how this district can look. Beginning at 9 a.m., in partnership with AIA, ULI, and the City of San Antonio, we will be hosting a design workshop to gather public input on the new streetscape of West Commerce Street. District 5 Councilmember Shirley Gonzales will be there to provide the opening remarks.
The workshop will cover the connectivity of Commerce Street from St. Mary’s Street to Colorado Street and the streetscape elements of Commerce Street from St. Mary’s to Santa Rosa Street. Both objectives will cover projects that have been partially funded to date by the City, so hopefully what the participants recommend can become a reality in the near future.
Some readers may assume that this is a project geared toward allowing more tourists to walk from Main Plaza to Market Square. I probably jumped to the same conclusion when I started this project in June, but I quickly came to discover that I couldn't be more wrong. Sure, the cultural district contains some of the biggest tourist draws at Mi Tierra, Market Square, and Main Plaza, but there are also ton of other things that locals should be checking out. Here is just a sample of what is happening in the district:
- Casa Navarro: Go when Nano is making pan de campo.
- Cocina Heritage: Delicious southern Mexican cuisine.
- UTSA art gallery: Shows both student and non-student work and rotates on a regular basis.
- Henry Ford Academy: These creative high school students are bringing a new vibrancy to Houston Street and leaving a mark on the rest of downtown.
- Reyes Bar & Sons. Opened in the 1946, this Flores Street bar is one-of-a-kind.
- Public art: The number and variety of murals extends far beyond Jesse Trevino's famous Spirit of Healing mural at the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio, and X Marks the Art has installations throughout the district.
-San Pedro Creek: The improvements will transform how downtown connects to the Westside and SoFlo (South Flores) areas.
This list is anything but exhaustive. Come to the meeting at 9 a.m. Dec. 13 at Central Library to provide input on West Commerce Street and I’ll give you a copy of the list of arts and cultural assets and institutions in the district. Send me an RSVP at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Featured/top image: In addition to its festive decorations, Main Plaza has innovative programming such as the SAGA installation art and Cycle-In Cinema. Photo by Scott Gustafson.