La Villita signage. Photo courtesy of the City of San Antonio.
La Villita signage. Photo courtesy of the City of San Antonio.

The City of San Antonio has embarked in a new direction to make La Villita Historic Arts Village a real shining star. The City’s commitment is to invigorate this historical destination by preserving its history dating back to the founding of our great city while making the experience one that is relevant to the 21st century.

Recent news articles have provided a reflection on the passionate discourse brought about by proposed improvements to enhance La Villita. At the heart of the conversation is the mutual agreement that La Villita is a valuable civic asset in need of substantial transformation to realize the site’s full potential.  The City recognizes that key to this transformation is striking a balance between history and culture, and creating a modern-day business model that provides a unique experience for visitors to La Villita and creates a viable economic generator for tenants of the site.

When the Department for Culture and Creative Development (DCCD) assumed management of La Villita and other cultural facilities, we committed to lead the development of creative strategies to improve these cultural assets.

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La Villita is an artisan village, and a place that can give creative types the opportunity to produce and sell their goods and services. This vision was anchored in 1939 and continues to be at the center of the DCCD’s focus for La Villita. We have championed and shared this vision with stakeholders and current tenants since assuming management. The conversation has been transparent from the onset that our goal is to positively address the issues presented in La Villita as indicated in reports commissioned by the City since 2006 with the Destination SA study, then the 2008 Retail Management study, and then the Trinity University report in 2013.

All reports concluded that re-imagining the retail mix and the quality of goods and services, improving infrastructure, programming public spaces, and better marketing were equally necessary. In short, La Villita is a historic treasure, but much is needed to bring it up to 21st century retail standards. We agree.

The City recognizes that the Request for Proposal (RFP) process is just one piece of the puzzle for reaching success. This fiscal year alone, San Antonio City Council approved close to $500,000 to begin filling the rest of that puzzle. On the way are a marketing plan, a new interactive website, various projects to improve access to La Villita and other physical enhancements. We have also increased La Villita’s management staff to enhance operations and augment events to generate more excitement among locals and visitors to our city.

It must also be noted that the City has invested $1.7 million to renovate La Villita facilities since 2009. The San Antonio Conservation Society has partnered with the City to invest $585,000 since 2000 to make other significant enhancements. The City has and continues to allocate time and resources to increase marketing and events for all four cultural facilities – La Villita, Historic Market Square, Spanish Governor’s Palace and Mission Marquee Plaza. Last year La Villita generated numerous events, increasing foot traffic and stimulating opportunities to improve retail sales.

The RFPs 

Last year, the City Council High Profile Contract Committee gave City staff the green light to issue two RFPs seeking proposals from local artists, retail ventures and local restaurants. Since then, we have received 24 proposals from potential La Villita tenants, 11 of which were current tenants – many of the current tenants opted not to apply. This is disappointing considering the City especially encouraged all current tenants to present their own proposals as part of this process.

Karen McCauley paints and exhibits at the Little Studio Gallery with other artists who work in jewelry, sculpture, oils, watercolors, acrylics, collages and more.
Karen McCauley paints and exhibits at the Little Studio Gallery in La Villita with other artists who work in jewelry, sculpture, oils, watercolors, acrylics, collages and more. Photo by Katherine Nickas.

The RFP process should not be coined as a daunting one, but as an opportunity for assessing the quality and validity of doing business with the City. That is why panels comprised of diverse professionals who are familiar with the facility and subject matter experts have been assembled to evaluate the received proposals.

We have been transparent with our goals to renew an artist-centered retail mix that could attract more locals and tourists. These goals were outlined in the RFP, including re-purposing certain buildings to stimulate synergy between restaurants, galleries, artist studios and outdoor programming.

The question was raised: why not first issue an RFP only for vacant buildings? This goes against the general mandate of improving the facility as a whole, and to provide equitable opportunities for all interested creative individuals in an open manner.

The City knows that all RFPs have flexible outcomes. We understand that a variety of options for the retail mix may be considered now that only a few proposals were received or potentially selected. More importantly, change does not happen overnight, nor is it stagnant.

Concert goers gather at La Villita for the 2014 Maverick Music Festival. Photo by Taylor Browning.
Concert goers gather at La Villita for the 2014 Maverick Music Festival. Photo by Taylor Browning.

Quite often, new and bold initiatives generate divergent and passionate opinions, especially when a unique resource like La Villita is center stage. We believe everyone’s goal is the same. Residents and visitors alike deserve a great place to shop, dine and enjoy a unique experience. La Villita has a tremendous potential of becoming a dynamic destination exclusive to downtown San Antonio and a sought-after point of interest for locals and visitors.

The City is committed to stimulating growth and vitality at one of our community’s historic gems – La Villita. But first, we must give change a chance.

*Featured/top image: La Villita signage. Photo courtesy of the City of San Antonio.

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Felix N. Padrón

Felix N Padrón is an artist and arts management professional with over 25 years of experience. He is the former Executive Director of the City of San Antonio Department of Arts and Culture; and maintains...