During recent meetings about San Pedro Creek Improvements Project and the Weston Urban/Frost Bank/City of San Antonio office tower and land swap deal, yet another new development in downtown’s northwest quadrant was consistently cited as a boon to the cultural and economic health of this historic area: the El Mercado Zona Cultural.
These developments will certainly draw more attention to the area – locals and visitors alike – but Zona Cultural organizers, including several business owners, want to make sure growth and improvements are made in a cohesive, thoughtful way. Hence the creation of the district locally and its current ambition to become officially recognized by the state.
“The stars are really aligned for things to happen in this part of downtown,” said Centro San Antonio President and CEO Pat DiGiovanni.
Centro San Antonio and local restauranteur Jorge Cortez (of Mi Tierra fame) have been the driving force behind establishing the district that aims to promote arts and culture institutions such as Market Square, the Alameda Theater, Main Plaza, Milam Park, Texas A&M University’s Education and Cultural Arts Center (formerly Museo Alameda), retailers including Marti’s and Penner’s, and restaurants such as Cocina Heritage. The district also includes some vacant buildings, cavernous streets, and dangerous intersections that most pedestrians avoid. The district designations, which will bring an added layer of legitimacy to requests for funding/projects in the area, aim to change that last part.
The San Antonio City Council officially recognized this area as a cultural district, somewhat quietly, in early 2014. Now it’s the Texas Commission on the Arts (TCA) designation that’s in organizers’ sights.
After several public input meetings, Centro submitted the Zona Cultural application to TCA in Austin early last week. Click here to download the application, which includes a video by IMG Studios:
“This application reflects more than a year’s worth of time, energy, and effort in which the Centro San Antonio held dozens of meetings with hundreds of stakeholders and the general public,” stated DiGiovanni in the application’s introduction letter.
“It’s all about placemaking,” he said Tuesday. “If we organize a community around the (cultural) arts, entertainment, and live/work amenities, we can’t go wrong … We want to bring it up to a place where people want to be.” That includes visitors and locals.
The application will be reviewed over the summer by TCA reviewers and a decision will be made in late August or early September.
The district has a boundary 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 expands slightly north of UTSA, but the two phases are roughly a rectangle and a Tetris piece that encompass the west end of downtown and the near Westside.
Within the Zona Cultural is a section of West Commerce Street that will receive a “complete street” update, transforming the concrete canyon into a multi-modal street that connects downtown to 60 “cultural assets” identified in the cultural district. The City is devoting $9 million to revitalize the street and hopes to finish by 2017.
“We always think about San Antonio as having been (developed) around the Alamo and that’s true as well – there was life at the Alamo, but that was very much about the Missions and the first peoples who lived here. But the rest of San Antonio lived over here,” said Claudia Guerra, cultural historian at City of San Antonio Office of Historic Preservation during a public workshop in April.
Even before the Spanish arrival, the area was called Yanaguana, place of refreshing water, by the Coahuilatecan group known as the Payaya people. What was attractive to the natives also was attractive to the Spanish soldiers.
While the area around the Alamo remained a largely rural agricultural compound in 1836, the bustling markets and activities took place in the Zona. The original Chili Queens set up shop in Military Plaza.
“When the Canary Islanders came, they were given land grants here,” she said. “These are the beginnings of San Antonio … life again centers around here (within the Zona). When we talk about the Zonal Cultural, we talk about the heart of the city. This has always been a cultural district. This is not something that has just happened, this is not something that happened just because we designated it.”
The application and designation process is really just a formality in the modern era to draw attention – and funding – to such areas.
Felix Padrón, director of the Department for Culture and Creative Development, applauded the work done to compile the Zona Cultural’s history, cultural assets, and future into the application. He also lives and works within the district.
“Cultural districts really are about setting up these assets as an economic engine, a place that if managed well it will sustain the cultural history and also encourage more businesses to come in … that will respect what the footprint really calls for,” Padrón said.
The district has been neglected by the City, Padrón said, left to the devices of a tourism and visitor-focused economy. Public and private sector recognition of these assets is critical to the future of the district. While Market Square thrives, empty store fronts on West Commerce Street attract graffiti.
“(The TCA designation) is honorific in one sense … but having the state give an official seal to it would add to the area from both branding and funding standpoints,” DiGiovanni said.
The Centro team, which will continue to promote and partner with the district, is reviewing options with a consultant on how the district should be managed long-term. He said it’s likely that a separate entity needs to be formed, something “that can focus on programming and activities in the district – festivals, art shops – somebody that will do that everyday.”
In addition to what’s there, there also is a lot that is not there and coming there – mainly an increase of residents. Cattleman Square apartments will bring 242 units, the recently opened Peanut Factory Lofts nearby has brought 102 units. In addition to all the existing businesses, residents, too, will play a big part in the future of the Zona Cultural and can be found on the Zona Cultural’s steering committee. Plans for the cultural district will evolve as it’s informed by the committee and stakeholders.
“They along with other stakeholders helped write the strategic plan found in the letter of intent (to apply for the TCA designation). We have continuously engaged with the committee throughout the process,” said Scott Gustafson, Centro San Antonio project manager.
The steering committee is comprised of 12 members including Jesse Trevino, artist; Katy Silva, artist; Jorge Cortez, business owner; Heather Monroe, downtown resident and business owner; Gus Starkey, former Zona resident and architect; Suzanne Scott, general manager of SARA; Jane Pauley Flores, director of Main Plaza Conservancy; Nano Calderon of Casa Navarro; Harvey Mireles, former director of San Anto Cultural Arts; Eduardo Garcia, former Zona resident and architect; Silvia Alcaraz, business owner; and Tomas Ybarra-Frausto, former resident and social historian.
“When I grew up (1940s), this was the heart of the Mexican downtown – Commerce and Houston Street. There were all the things that people needed – theaters and book stores, bars, restaurants,” Ybarra-Frausto said in April. “I could walk six blocks to The National Theatre to see a (Spanish-language show) in the morning and then walk to the Majestic Theatre to see Ester Williams in the afternoon. It was a real bicultural nexus.”
The cultures came together, but there was still a distinct separation, he said.
Moving forward, “there is a great need for affordable housing, that should be the number one priority,” Ybarra-Frausto said. “We have to make spaces for creative types to come where they can afford to live … they will bring in all the things that we want.
“We shouldn’t be just thinking about the past,” he concluded. “Culture is always changing, it’s a mixture of strange combinations. … How you balance tradition and change (in the Zona Cultural) is a really key question.”