A yearlong overhaul of La Villita designed to bring more visitors into San Antonio’s oldest neighborhood is causing short-term headaches for the village’s merchants, most of whom were already reeling from the decline in tourism caused by the pandemic.
In August, a major reconstruction of La Villita’s Maverick Plaza began turning a formerly tranquil public square along South Alamo Street into a field of dirt and debris. The goal is to remake the plaza into a hub of culinary culture and enhance the visibility of the village, which also includes artisan shops and galleries.
Completion of the work on the plaza is set for summer 2022, which will mark La Villita’s 300th anniversary. While the construction is underway, bold signs and feather flags installed at entry points to La Villita Historic Arts Village remind potential visitors that the rest of the village is open for business.
“It takes a hardy soul to see all of the construction out front and to still make their way through the village to shop or explore,” said Deborah Sibley, president of the La Villita Tenants Association and owner of Capistrano Soap Company.
Sibley’s company also sells products online and has contracts to supply hotels and other places; those helped her to remain afloat when La Villita closed for almost six months in 2020.
“The City was wonderful in giving us rent concessions during that closure, but I know that it was incredibly difficult for some of the tenants because their entire business is wrapped around the retail sales within that store, and it’s been difficult,” she said.
None of the shops went out of business, but some had not fully recovered when the restoration work began. The village’s 23 tenants have mixed feelings about the timing of the construction, Sibley said.
At folk art gift shop Casa Manos Alegres, Patty Henry said the project and its barricades have created a maze customers must navigate in order to find her shop.
“I have dealt with the grief of this demolition and am sitting in limbo waiting for visitors, tourists, and potential customers to find us through the fences,” Henry said in an email. “We are all very hungry for business and will be here during this process of demolition and repurposing.”
Sibley called it growing pains, acknowledging that the construction affects foot traffic and profits, but the prospect of new restaurants in the area is welcome. “We feel the crunch at the moment but we’re also excited about what will ultimately be here,” she said.
“The transition will lead to something greater,” said Sarah Yates, the City of San Antonio’s general manager of La Villita.
The first time Sibley set foot in La Villita Historic Arts Village was to work a booth at A Night in Old San Antonio (NIOSA) in 1974. She went on to serve as chairwoman of the event several times, then returned to the village four decades later to open her own shop.
“My family started the soap-making business in 1929,” she said of her grandfather Ignatz Kyrisch, a Polish immigrant who lived near Mission San Juan Capistrano and sold his soaps in El Mercado.
Ready for a career change in 2011, Sibley remade Kyrisch’s soap recipes into an all-natural product and opened a pop-up shop in La Villita to sell her Acequia bath and body brand.
In 2014, she moved the business into a quaint La Villita home built in 1870, one of 27 original structures preserved through an ordinance introduced by then-mayor Maury Maverick and passed in 1939.
It was Maverick who had the vision to turn La Villita into an artisan village on the banks of the San Antonio River, Sibley said, preserving and sharing the uniqueness of San Antonio’s mix of cultures.
Since 2009, the city has undertaken a series of efforts to enhance La Villita by renovating the area, attracting new tenants, and staging events in addition to the signature NIOSA during Fiesta. The remake of Maverick Plaza is the latest step in those efforts.
To help La Villita’s tenants weather the construction, downtown San Antonio’s business organization, Centro SA, has posted a representative in the area to help direct visitors, and the city and the La Villita Tenants Association also are planning seasonal events to attract people to the village. One will mark the return of a popular event that hasn’t been held since October 2019, a three-day Day of the Dead event Oct. 29-31. That will be followed by a first-ever Christmas in the Village event Dec. 4-5.
Store owner Alejandro Sifuentes had a shop in Alamo Heights when the opportunity arose to resettle in La Villita. He tossed previous plans to relocate to New Mexico and moved his jewelry-making studio and Equinox gallery into the 1873 Tejeda House.
“This is where the arts began in San Antonio,” Sifuentes said.
The yearlong construction in La Villita isn’t a concern for him, he said. “My biggest challenge is to stay true to the vision and mission of our statement, to continue programming … to better represent our mission and vision of handmade goods and design of exhibitions.”