The Essex Festival's main event will take place on Saturday, May 11th.
The Essex Music and Art Festival is scheduled to take place on Saturday, May 11. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

A new festival located on the site of a long-delayed mixed-use housing development is offering refunds for Saturday’s event after headliner Snoop Dogg was replaced with Ashanti.

The site of the future development, named Essex Modern City, still has old loading docks from its previous life as a pallet factory that now hold canvases for murals. The planned Pearl-like development was scheduled to break ground this spring, but has since postponed construction. The owner of the Essex Street property, Sacramento-based real estate investment company Harris Bay, is hosting the inaugural Essex Music and Arts Festival at the empty site to familiarize community members with its vision for Essex Modern City.

Snoop Dogg, who was originally scheduled for a DJ set at the festival, was recently removed from the lineup and replaced with Ashanti, according to organizers on the official Essex Modern City Facebook page. Essex Fest organizers promised to give ticket refunds to anyone who no longer wanted to attend the festival.

“There was a scheduling conflict, and due to circumstances out of our control, we had to change our headliner,” event organizer Jon Leonardo said Tuesday. “We’re looking forward to Ashanti coming out to do a [live] performance and bringing it.”

The Essex Festival's main event will take place on Saturday, May 11th.
A new mural with letters spelling out “ESSEX” was created across the street from the development site. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Leonardo, artist and co-founder of Los Angeles-based events company Treehouse Agency, started envisioning Essex Fest when he first partnered with Harris Bay co-founder Jake Harris to put together live art events at the Essex Street site in 2017.

Harris Bay bought the site in July 2016, but architects halted the design process last March.

Architect Kris Feldmann, design principal for Creo, said the obstacle to resuming Essex Modern City’s development is getting confirmation of a railroad crossing quiet zone. The development site sits next to a railroad line cutting through Denver Heights, and there are six railroad crossings between the Alamodome and Carolina Street. Union Pacific is doing a preliminary engineering assessment on how to ensure safety at the railroad crossings nearby if trains do not sound their horns to signal their approach.

“This quiet zone is not just about Essex,” Feldmann said. “It’s about all the economic development for the area.”

CREO Design Principal Kris Feldmann.
Creo Design Principal Kris Feldmann. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Feldmann said the Union Pacific assessment and approval process may take a few months. As soon as he and Harris Bay have firm commitments from the City of San Antonio and Union Pacific that a quiet zone will be implemented, the design and development process will restart. Feldmann said he thinks that groundbreaking could happen in the next year.

Harris estimated that after breaking ground, building infrastructure – pipes for water, electrical connections, and plumbing – would take a year to complete. After that, developers can begin building up. He guessed that the first round of units available for rent would be ready in two to three years, but finishing the whole project would take much longer.

“We anticipate this will take many, many years,” he said. “It could be a decade or more of continuing to layer on new projects.”

To build enthusiasm for the project, Leonardo and Harris began hosting Second Saturdays. Every second Saturday of the month, artists paint murals on the site of the future development while community members are invited to watch, drink free beer, and ask architects and developers of Essex Modern City questions.

Leonardo and local company JLen Events conceived Essex Fest as a bigger way to bring San Antonians from all over the city to experience the Eastside neighborhood of Denver Heights and specifically the site of the future Essex Modern City.

“I met Jake a couple years ago [in California]; we were producing events and curating murals,” Leonardo said. “He said, ‘Hey, I have this empty space. I want to find a way to build community around it, so that when we start building it’s not like we’re coming out of nowhere.’”

Essex Fest is scheduled for Saturday from noon to midnight. Dozens of musical acts and mural artists will bring their talent to 51 Essex St. Local musician Alyson Alonzo said she’s excited to see a project that highlights local talent.

“I think they’re trying to integrate all media, art, music into this big thing, and they’re doing it right,” she said. “You book the talent and make the space for people. It definitely gives way for more stuff like that. People don’t get the idea until they go and say, ‘This is cool, we should do this.’”

Leonardo said he thinks people who decide to attend Essex Fest will still enjoy themselves, with or without a big-name musical guest.

“We’re doing something to build community and bring excitement and energize the area,” he said. “Yes, we had [Snoop Dogg as] headliner, but we still have dozens of mural artists, we still have food trucks, the BMX showcase. It’s so much more than that one human being.”

Harris said he wanted the festival to be part of Harris Bay’s effort to build a community where the mixed-use project eventually will be.

“A building is a building,” he said. “What makes an impactful site is the people that live there, work there, and enjoy their time there.”

Tickets cost $30 online and $50 at the gate. VIP tickets start at $89.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.