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This story has been updated.
Limestone walls that for many years enclosed Maverick Plaza in La Villita are gone, and where a fountain and several structures once stood now heavy equipment and heaps of infill herald the start of a project city officials and others hope will make the area more welcoming.
A rehabilitation project that began with the city seeking bids in 2016 got underway in August with construction to bring upgraded utilities to the historic site along with a new fountain, landscaping, pavers, and lighting.
When complete, the plaza will be transformed through an agreement with chef Johnny Hernandez of Grupo La Gloria into a culinary experience showcasing San Antonio’s designation as a Creative City of Gastronomy, named so in 2017 by the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
“It fits with our mission of strengthening San Antonio’s culinary legacy as a confluence of cultures,” said Colleen Swain, director of the World Heritage Office. “It will focus on the preservation of our culinary heritage [and] there will be the opportunity to do chef exchanges. It’s utilizing a key space within downtown that’ll make it more of a destination.”
The plaza will serve as a way to share San Antonio’s history through food and cultural events, said Hernandez, who is leading the project and dishing out $7.7 million to fund it.
The city is contributing $5.8 million from Inner City Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone revenue. In June, the City Council approved a contract with Davila Construction to do the work.
Improvements to the plaza and Alamo Street are expected to take a year. In addition to removing the limestone walls that separate the plaza from other parts of La Villita, fencing and a cedar arbor have come down. Also being removed are the planters along Alamo Street, and buildings housing a restroom and concession were demolished to make room for the new restaurant concepts.
The design plan calls for both the fountain and Mayor Maury Maverick statue to be relocated within the plaza and tile pavers to be replaced. Sycamore trees will be planted and 22 live oak trees will be retained. Repairs are planned for the foundation and porch of the historic Faville house.
A new entryway to the plaza will be constructed at the corner of South Alamo and Nueva Street and lighting installed. Also new to the plaza will be a demonstration kitchen with public restrooms, a kiosk that will serve as a permanent food booth, and two smaller mobile kiosks near the fountain.
Hernandez said all the financing was in place to start the project in March 2020, but the advent of the coronavirus pandemic caused a delay. “Let’s wait a few months,” he said at the time. “A few months turned into a year.”
In August 2020, the Historic and Design Review Commission approved the proposed changes to the historic La Villita. At the time, many residents and the Conservation Society of San Antonio expressed concerns about losing usable space for the annual A Night In Old San Antonio (NIOSA) event and diminishing the charm of the little village.
The city is committed to preserving the rich historic and cultural heritage already present at La Villita, Swain said.
“The revitalization of downtown created a unique opportunity for La Villita to expand on and complement the catalytic work that is already underway, including the addition of new housing as well as the nearby Hemisfair redevelopment,” she said. “The new culinary business within Maverick Plaza will reenergize La Villita and draw locals and visitors by creating an even more welcoming and vibrant hub of cultural activity.”
Hernandez said work on the restaurants is still in design phase and construction will start when the city has completed its part of the project. He is hopeful it will not be delayed by any significant archaeological finds uncovered during the site work.
Those aren’t his only worries for the future success of the project.
“Alamo Street improvements are a real concern,” he said. “Both the hotel and the commercial retail across the street [in Hemisfair] can also really hurt if construction does not line up for us properly.”
The work to make $9 million worth of improvements to South Alamo, from Market Street to East César E. Chávez Boulevard, is set to begin in July 2022 and be completed in March 2024, according to city documents.
In the meantime, Hernandez is holding fast to his vision for the plaza.
“There’s nothing more important than us connecting La Villita to the river in a very powerful way in the engagement of restaurants and culinary and the amphitheater and dinner theater,” he said in February. “It is an important part of our history and we want to make sure that everything that is there is part of that story, part of that history, and part of teaching.”