The El Mercado Snack Bar
The El Mercado Snack Bar at Market Square. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Several Market Square tenants and supporters attended a City Council committee meeting Tuesday to voice their discontent with what they say is a disconnect between what the City wants and what they want for the future of the historic downtown area.

Nine public commenters condemned the City’s upcoming lease renewal for Market Square tenants during a session in which the planning of Market Square’s future was discussed. The City had previously offered the tenants a four-year lease with a one-year renewal option. After some discussion, the City returned to the tenants with a longer lease option: four years, with the option to extend another four. However, the extension does not guarantee vendors the same location if changes are made to Market Square.

Yvette Ramirez, president of the Farmers Market Plaza Association, said that the Market Square tenants would not sign the new lease agreement, which City Council is scheduled to vote on Thursday. The City owns the Farmers Market Plaza, which has food and retail vendors, and El Mercado, which features retail vendors only.

“We will go with a month-to-month lease until we have a contract reviewed by both sides,” she said.

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) said he wanted to acknowledge that there was a fear of change, but that planning for Market Square’s future is good for everybody.

“We had a visioning effort before, 10 years ago,” Treviño said. “Did that displace anybody?”

“It did not,” said Veronica Garcia, assistant director of the Center City Development and Operations Department (CCDO).

“Do we anticipate this visioning to displace anybody?” he asked.

“We do not anticipate displacing anybody,” Garcia said.

Earlier in the council session, Garcia briefed the Arts, Culture, and Heritage Committee about the visioning process that City staff wants to start with Market Square stakeholders. CCDO wants to begin collecting survey responses from visitors to Market Square this month, while summer brings peak attendance, Garcia said. After conducting surveys to get feedback on Market Square and its offerings, the committee hopes to hold a session to discuss potential plans for the area, host a trip to Mexico for inspiration, and present a final report in September.

Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) said she was wary of what kind of changes stakeholders would recommend. She warned that she did not want to see a Starbucks or McDonald’s pop up in the Market Square area when the University of Texas at San Antonio’s downtown campus nearby expands.

“I don’t want to see a social re-engineering of Market Square,” Viagran said. “That is where … our Mexican-American, Latino, Tejano culture thrives, for local and visitors alike.”

Garcia reiterated CCDO’s commitment to preserving the cultural authenticity of Market Square. The steering committee for the visioning process already held its first meeting Tuesday morning, she said, and stakeholders gave feedback that would allocate more time toward designing and planning, and delay a finalized vision report.

“We talked through the scope of what our visioning process is,” Garcia said. “We took that as an opportunity on how to improve the visioning process. We’ve already made some adjustments to our timeline and other recommendations based on that.”

Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) said she was not comfortable with the balance of stakeholders comprising the steering committee. The stakeholders represented include the City, Centro San Antonio, Market Square tenants, the San Antonio Arts Commission, UTSA, the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio, the Vistana apartments, property owners of Market Square, and the Friends of Milam Park group.

“Why have a visioning process at all if … it comes from all of these people?” she asked. “Even regarding the Children’s Hospital – why would they be one of the steering committee members? I recognize that they’re across the street, but when you visit the hospital you’re fairly contained and you don’t stick around and hang out.

“When I’m looking at what was presented today, [Market Square tenants] have two representatives for the [business] associations at Market Square, but you have an equal voice for other institutions,” she added. “[Market Square tenants] have the most to lose in the visioning process.”

Treviño said that the visioning process is merely a method to inform the City on how to move forward with Market Square.

“It’s just the beginning, and certainly nobody is saying there’s any preconceived notions about what’s going to occur,” he said. “That’s what a visioning process is: it’s to inform us. We may do nothing at all. That is highly doubtful as this is a growing city and … we have a responsibility to do something on behalf of the City to move this forward and we believe we are doing the right thing by beginning the visioning process.”

Gonzales said she intended to call Mayor Ron Nirenberg and ask him to pull the new Market Square contracts from City Council’s Thursday agenda. She said there was clearly too much dissatisfaction from the Market Square vendors, who would be most affected by any changes to the area.

“There’s no doubt we need investment in places that have historically not been invested in,” she said. “But we don’t need to change things that are good the way they are.”

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.