Scott Ball / Rivard Report
City Council on Thursday unanimously approved a $12.6 million redevelopment plan that would add three locally owned restaurants and infrastructure improvements to Mayor Maury Maverick Plaza and the La Villita Historic Arts Village by 2021.
“We’re going to bring life to that area, that I believe will spill all the way to the river, and everyone will benefit from it,” said Chef Johnny Hernandez of Grupo La Gloria, who led the consortium of partners spearheading the effort.
Hernandez will open a Mexican-themed eatery, Chef Elizabeth Johnson an indigenous food restaurant named Acequia, and Chef Steve McHugh an Alsatian beer garden. Combined the three concepts aim to interpret San Antonio's culinary history and add a culinary destination to the city's map. All will include outdoor seating areas in the plaza.
The plan features significant upgrades to the plaza’s current structures and surrounding areas, including repavement of Villita, Old Alamo, and King Philip streets, and the plaza itself. Nueva Street will receive improvements and metered, angled parking.
A key element of the plan hinges on programming meant to activate the plaza throughout the year. Hernandez will contribute $100,000 per year for programming in exchange for a 49-year ground lease for the restaurants. The City will add $600,000 over a seven-year period, funded through Inner City Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) contributions approved by the TIRZ board on Dec. 8.
La Villita has been the “center of rich cultural diversity for about 500 years,” said Deborah Sibley, president of the La Villita Tenants Association. She applauded the creative vision and architectural sensitivity of the plan, but cautioned that the two-year construction period would cause disruption to the businesses in La Villita.
Sibley asked the City to address these concerns mainly by increasing the historic arts village's visibility from the heavily-trafficked River Walk.
Susan Beavin of the San Antonio Conservation Society raised concerns over potential impacts on the annual A Night In Old San Antonio festival, which “provides over $500,000 annually to the City,” she said.
Over the span of 10 years, NIOSA has contributed $2.3 million to the San Antonio Police Department and $1.8 million to the La Villita Preservation Fund, she added.
She asked the City to “move forward in good faith" and with full knowledge of the society's concerns.
The plan received vocal support from representatives of several chambers of commerce and center city organizations.
Approval for the new restaurants comes on the heels of UNESCO designating San Antonio as a Creative City of Gastronomy, a charge Hernandez helped lead.
Chef Will Thornton of St. Philip’s College, who has worked closely with Hernandez, Johnson, and McHugh on culinary education programs, said the community college originally was located in La Villita, “so for us to be associated with this project is coming home again, coming back to our roots.”
Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) asked Assistant City Manager Lori Houston who would control the programming, and whether small businesses and other independent operators would have opportunities to submit programming ideas.
“We welcome that input,” Houston said. The City will manage the programming, but “we want the community to own this project,” she said.
The restaurateurs will work with Fisher Heck Architects to renovate existing historical structures and add new additions to the buildings.
La Villita is “a very challenging site,” Hernandez said, citing accessibility and curb appeal as issues. “We have to transform the space,” he said, so that it “pulls people ... from all over the city, all over the state.”
Community outreach and limited “test programming" will begin in 2018, according to the plan presented by Houston, and construction is slated to begin in January 2019.
“It’s a momentous day for all of us, we’ve worked so hard,” Johnson said. “But it’s just beginning.”