A view in La Villita looking south from the Arneson River Theatre entrance. Photo by Gretchen Greer.
A view in La Villita looking south from the Arneson River Theatre entrance. Photo by Gretchen Greer.

La Villita, San Antonio’s oldest neighborhood, is changing. The San Antonio Department for Culture and Creative Development (DCCD), which manages the village, aspires to adapt La Villita to modern demands while retaining its historical integrity. The goal is admirable, and the timing apt given the current redesign of the adjacent Hemisfair Park, but the City has fallen under heavy criticism from artists and in the media for the first stage of these changes.

In March 2014 the DCCD implemented a decision to place an expiration date of July 31, 2015 for all current leases, including some that had been held for decades. They required tenants who desired to remain in residence to submit Requests for Proposals (RFP), along with new vendors interested in moving in.

On April 2, following lease negotiations, the DCCD will recommend to the City Council the first batch of new and renewed tenants (15 at present). Following that, they may issue a second Request for Proposals.

A view of La Villita, looking back towards the Juarez Plaza. Photo by Gretchen Greer.
A view of La Villita, looking back towards the Juarez Plaza. Photo by Gretchen Greer.

The process has left many confused and angry, and fewer proposals were submitted than the City had anticipated. Several structures now sit empty.

While opinions about the changes have been thoroughly documented, the contentious recent steps towards so-called revitalization can only be understood in context of the City’s vision for La Villita’s future.

This future is first and foremost beholden to the village’s past. La Villita’s long history and pre-existing structures are both a burden and a boon to redevelopment. A ground-up redesign, like Hemisfair’s, would be impossible. Many of La Villita’s historical structures are charming, but they’re also small – others are not equipped for running water, much less a fully functioning kitchen.

La Villita’s history goes back to the 18th century, when it was part of the Labores de Abajo — the lower farmlands — of the mission San Antonio de Valero (now the Alamo). The site was once a crossing point for the San Antonio River, and it developed into a small village, called the Pueblo de Valero, which was subsumed by San Antonio in the 19th century.

In 1939, after a protracted period of neglect and decline, mayor Maury Maverick established La Villita as an arts and crafts community. The late San Antonio architect, O’Neil Ford, was brought in to help with its redesign, and artists, including renowned ceramist Harding Black, created materials for the restoration onsite. La Villita was intended to be not only an arts community, but also as a training ground for arts and crafts.

A potted plant decorates the outside of the Equinox Gallery. Photo by Gretchen Greer.
A potted plant decorates the outside of the Equinox Gallery. Photo by Gretchen Greer.

In 1971 this community of artists/teachers moved into the old Ursuline Academy, forming what is now the Southwest School of Art. With them went La Villita’s definition as a training ground. In recent years the artists’ colony has faltered without a unifying purpose, and to thrive, La Villita will need to rediscover one. It needs a unique and compelling draw—as a destination for goods, food, and experiences that cannot be found anywhere else.

The time is right for change. In 2013 former Mayor Julián Castro introduced the phrase “Decade of Downtown” — a plan to revitalize San Antonio’s urban core by 2020. That is the same year Hemisfair hopes to complete much of its dramatic, ongoing redesign.

Andres Andujár, CEO of Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation, said one of their guiding principals is to reestablish connectivity between the park and its surrounding neighborhoods, including La Villita. Thousands of parking spots will open up, thoroughfares will be improved for pedestrian use, and, most importantly, the park will become a gathering place for the community.

La Villita would make a natural and engaging corridor between the park and the Riverwalk. Felix Padrón, director of the DCCD since 2001, said this is a natural time for La Villita to undergo a transformation of its own. 

It’s in need of one. A visit on a Friday afternoon during spring break, when the River Walk was packed with tourists, found La Villita almost empty. The only people there were using it as a thoroughfare to the River Walk.

The empty store fronts were obviously uninspiring, but there were marked exceptions, like the shop internationally renowned jeweller Alejandro SifuentesEquinox Gallery. The restaurants ranged from nothing special to grim. Clashing music (old Taylor Swift and the like) only heightened the disjointed atmosphere. The pavement was patched, uneven, and in need of repair; the planting was sparse; the passageways uninviting. There was little to indicate that it was a coherent place. Much needs to be done to reclaim La Villita’s innate charm and intimacy.

An empty structure across from the chapel. Photo by Gretchen Greer.
A Banquet facility owned by the Conservation Society and run by the Fig Tree restaurant across from the chapel, unoccupied on a recent Friday afternoon. Photo by Gretchen Greer.

Accessibility has hitherto been one of the biggest impediments to La Villita’s renaissance. The Arneson River Theatre is an attractive entryway, but not one likely to be used by city residents. Hemisfair will transform La Villita’s relationship with the city via South Alamo, but the village’s proximity to Southtown also needs to be exploited.

While La Villita may be infrequently visited on a daily basis, it comes alive during its hallmark events, such as the popular Día de los Muertos celebration, the rowdy International Accordion Festival, and the San Antonio Conservation Society’s even rowdier Night In Old San Antonio. It is beginning to attract more third-party events such as the upcoming Maverick Music Festival.

The City of San Antonio has invested $1.7 million in the renovation of La Villita since 2009. Padrón said the San Antonio Conservation Society has partnered with the City to invest in the renovation of old structures, and this year the City Council has approved almost $500,000 to go towards further enhancements.

Strategic improvements have already been implemented, including repairs to the Arneson Theatre and the installation of wifi throughout the village. Plans have been made for a new gateway from South Alamo into Maverick Plaza, which will create a more porous entryway into the village, and realign the portal with the Plaza’s central fountain.

Padrón envisions La Villita as a place where people will want to linger. He identified San Antonio’s burgeoning foodie cultures as one of its greatest assets, and hopes that new restaurants will help to bring in locals and visitors alike. La Villita’s many intimate courtyards and pedestrian streets would be idea for outdoor seating.

The chapel at La Villita. Photo by Gretchen Greer.
The chapel at La Villita. Photo by Gretchen Greer.

However, the focus will remain on the arts. Padrón said they want a balance of retailers, with products in all price ranges. Shops and restaurants both will be exclusively local—no chains. In the words of Don Thomas, technical advisor to the RFP panels, they want shops to be “inspiring.” They are particularly attracted to proposals that express a desire to actively engage with and enhance the community through events such as gallery openings and activities. They are hoping for a balance of potters, metal smiths, jewellery-makers, and visual artists, along with fashion and textile, local traditions, and culinary arts.

Along with this “re-imagining” of the retail variety, Padrón said that improvements to the infrastructure and the programming of public spaces, as well as marketing, will all be equally important in building La Villita’s future. The DCCD have also partnered with the way-finding and environmental graphics firm Dyal and Partners to improve signage. 

It is worth reiterating that La Villita is a city-owned facility, which means that it is supported and run with tax dollars. Padrón emphasized that the department’s foremost duty is to the citizens of San Antonio.

“As tenants, we should be asking what we have given back to the community,” said Sifuentes during an interview last summer.

While tourists contribute to the overall economy, the City wants to make La Villita a compelling destination for locals. The theory is that the tourists will follow.

The village’s decline in recent years seems indicative of an overall change in the nature of travel. With information about cities more accessible than ever, tourists are searching for an experience more authentic than the usual downtown Alamo and River Walk tour: the Alamo may be unique, but the surrounding restaurants and attractions are not.

A desolate Maverick Plaza. Photo by Gretchen Greer.
A desolate Maverick Plaza. Photo by Gretchen Greer.

La Villita gets right to the heart and history of San Antonio’s culture. O’Neil Ford once described it as a place of “cool shady places” with “profuse banks of blossoming native tress and shrubs.” In 1939, a WPA publication imagined it as a place of “unchangeable serenity” with “the seclusion and poise of time itself.”

La Villita is only in the first stages of its renaissance. Gradual change will permit an historically sensitive and organic evolution towards a sustainable future.

*Featured/top image: A view in La Villita looking south from the Arneson River Theatre entrance. Photo by Gretchen Greer. 

Related Stories:

Amid Concerns, City Reaches Higher in La Villita

Conversation: Andrés Andujar Talks About Hemisfair Park Redevelopment

Accordion Festival Puts La Villita in a Mood for Polka

Commentary: La Villita is Vital to Downtown’s Success

Gretchen Greer

Gretchen Greer is a freelance writer and photographer, born and raised in San Antonio. She has lived in France and England, and currently divides her time between Texas, London and Burgundy. You can find...