It's been about two years since Centro San Antonio contacted the Texas Commission on the Arts about how to best approach the application for a new Cultural District in San Antonio. City, County, and Centro officials celebrated the official designation of Zona Cultural on Monday night that signaled the continuation of revitalization efforts in downtown's near-Westside.
"The Zona," as it's called, is comprised of 44 contiguous blocks that include San Pedro Creek, Main Plaza, San Fernando Cathedral, Plaza de Armas, the Spanish Governor’s Palace, Market Square, and Alameda Theater, among many other historic structures and places. It recently joined the King William Historic District as the only other TCA Cultural District in San Antonio. There are now 28 districts in the state.
Since the Cultural District Program began in 2007, there has been no direct funding or monetary award tied to an official designation from TCA. Typically, the designation helps municipalities and communities apply make their case through other local, state, or federal grant programs. This year, however, the Texas Legislature allocated $5 million for TCA to divide up between worthy projects in Cultural Districts across the state. Zona Cultural is not on the list of the 39 applications for the first round of grants – only 20 of which will be selected for funding next week – but will likely apply for the second round in June.
TCA Deputy Director Jim Bob McMillan, who presented DiGiovanni with a plaque outlining the Zona's designation Monday at Texas A&M University San Antonio's Centro de Artes, said the new district is a "strong candidate" for a grant. "It's a marketing tool at the end of the day," but state funding makes the district designation more competitive.
Despite The Zona's wealth of historic and cultural assets, they remain disconnected from each other – separated by concrete canyons created by one way streets and poor planning for pedestrian amenities. Main Plaza and Market Square are both, for instance, islands of human activity largely surrounded by avenues designed with cars in mind – not people.
As San Antonio prepares for the 300th anniversary celebrations planned for 2018, the area will receive even more attention. Life in San Antonio began at San Pedro Creek, in and around the Zona, said Roberto Treviño (D1).
"This is that part of downtown that has been left out of economic development in the past," he said. "It's almost like we saved the best for last. ... This is the encore for downtown."
An improvement project slated for a section of West Commerce Street, a main thoroughfare through the district, is currently in the community visioning stage, but more projects like this will need to kickoff soon if they are to be completed by the Tricentennial celebrations.
Pat DiGiovanni, Centro president and CEO, said the nonprofit downtown development advocacy group will likely hand over the stewardship reigns of Zona Cultural to a nonprofit that is yet to be established but will continue to work closely with the City and private partners as a plan develops. Centro and a consultant firm will finalize a revitalization plan for the district later this month or in early 2016, he said.
"We're working with a national nonprofit developer (Artspace) on evaluating some of San Antonio's existing buildings in order to retrofit them into artist live-work space so that we can assure that there won't be displacement someday when this area becomes popular," he said.
The designation ceremony was attended by elected officials including Council members Shirley Gonzales (D5), Rebecca Viagran (D3), Roberto Treviño (D1), Mayor Ivy Taylor and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff. Jorge Cortez, the patriarch of the Cortez family that owns and operates the iconic Mi Tierra restaurant in Market Square, was also on hand to see the effort he said his family has been encouraging for more than 35 years come to fruition.
Mayor Taylor and others emphasized the confluence of public and private investment in and around The Zona including the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project, the Weston Urban/Frost Bank office tower, VIA Transit Center, residential projects, new restaurants, Geekdom, and the Children's Hospital of San Antonio expansion.
“These projects will fundamentally change the attractiveness and quality of life in our city and will create a hotspot for current residents and those new San Antonians that will inevitably come,” Mayor Taylor said.
Councilwoman Gonzales said she's hoping that the momentum of investment will spread to District 3 and the near Eastside, specifically to the West Commerce Street bridge. She's seeking $10 million from the 2017 Bond Program for the bridge that she said could serve as a gateway to the Westside from downtown.
"It's a really obvious extension of this whole Zona Cultural (project)," Gonzales said. "Making it walkable is short term, but then there is going to be a lot of (economic and multimodal) activity in the area that we need to prepare for."
*Top image: Jorge Cortez of Mi Tierra Café raises his arms as he was called out by a speaker. Photo by Scott Ball.