A divide between neighboring restaurant owners in San Antonio’s oldest district grew wider Wednesday even as the physical buffer between them might be narrowing.
Rosario’s restaurant owner Lisa Wong submitted architectural designs last year to the Historic and Design Review Commission that involve demolishing much of the former El Mirador restaurant at 722 S. St. Mary’s St. In place of the building she purchased in 2018 will go a larger, contemporary restaurant structure to house her Southtown Rosario’s eatery, moving from its spot at 910 S. Alamo St.
Commissioners gave conceptual approval to the plan in December and, following a delay earlier this month in reviewing the final plans, will consider the application again March 17.
Meanwhile, more than 1,500 people have signed a petition started by Pete Selig to persuade Wong to change her plans.
Selig owns the Maverick Texas Brasserie at 710 S. St. Mary’s St., a restaurant he opened adjacent to the El Mirador site in 2017. Selig complained to the HDRC last week that the 20-foot-tall north wall of the planned Rosario’s restaurant will sit too close to Maverick’s open-air patios, blocking natural light and making half the restaurant’s seating unusable.
When Selig learned through a phone call from Wong that the structure would sit 6 inches from the lot line, not 8 feet as he expected based on previous plans he viewed, he was shocked and disappointed.
“I just said that’s outrageous,” Selig said. “Her response was, ‘Well, that’s what we just had to do’ and it was nothing personal. She didn’t say let’s talk about it or let me show you why. She just said that’s the way it’s going to be.”
Selig and Wong, longtime business partners in the River Walk restaurant Acenar, met Wednesday afternoon to discuss a compromise. None was reached.
Wong’s proposed restaurant plans call for demolishing the one-story El Mirador, save for its historic caliche walls, or Kiva room, which will be preserved along with the site’s King William garden house and a secondary historic house, the F.L. Dixon house, now occupied by Pig Liquors.
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Renderings for the new Rosario’s show a two-story structure with a rooftop terrace, patio seating, and a 27-car surface parking lot facing South Presa Street. The restaurant itself will front St. Mary’s Street.
The north side of the structure will extend into the parking lot now situated between the El Mirador building and Maverick. The F.L. Dixon house will be lifted and moved to the southeastern corner of the 1-acre lot, leaving more room for parking.
Selig renovated the circa-1945 building Maverick occupies, once a sectioned storefront, in 2017 with approval from HDRC. The renovation turned an open air space, along the building’s southern footprint, into a dining patio shielded by a decorative metal trellis.
On March 3, Selig told commissioners he objected to Wong’s proposal “in the strongest terms” as plans show a 20-foot wall only 6 inches away from Maverick’s existing windows and the restaurant’s only outdoor patio.
“It would change the character of the dining experience dramatically,” he said. “I don’t think anyone’s going to sit there, and if the wall also blocks out the light to the interior kitchen dining area, no one’s going to want to sit in an interior room without natural light. So these are major, major concerns to us as an operating business.”
In addition, he feels the building is a “very oversized” restaurant for a historic district.
Wong told the San Antonio Report she has worked hard to come up with a plan that is “sensitive” to the issue, but her commitment to preserving the historic structures on the site forced her to position the restaurant closer to Maverick.
“As much as I enjoy going to Maverick, as much as I respect my neighbors, the entire neighborhood, it wasn’t a matter of being a bad neighbor,” she said. “I have constraints on my property that I have to work around, OK? And it just so happens that on that edge, the Maverick patio looks at a parking lot that will no longer be a parking lot.”
Mickey Conrad, who sits on the architectural advisory committee for the King William Association, said the group first met with Wong about the project last fall. He said committee members were concerned mostly about protecting the historic structures and noise abatement.
But the wall issue is one of zoning, Conrad said. Both properties are zoned “infill development,” which permits zero setbacks between commercial buildings, according to the Unified Development Code. The Maverick building is on the zero lot line.
“So it’s a little tough situation for us – that’s not really our purview, the zoning,” Conrad said. “I hate to see them in this struggle with each other and I hope they can work it out.”
The Conservation Society also commented on the massing and elevation of the proposed new restaurant, saying it is an improvement over the existing building.
Conrad agrees the design fits in with the streetscape of South St. Mary’s and resembles the existing Rosario’s restaurant about two blocks south. “So we have no problem with [it],” he said. “They did make some changes in response to some of our requests and so we really appreciate that they listened to us, addressed our concerns.”
But the Lavaca Neighborhood Association sent a letter to the Office of Historic Preservation on Wednesday stating it does not support the proposal by Wong and Douglas Architects. The letter signed by association President Cherise Rohr-Allegrini states that the massing will dominate the block and the adjacent historic buildings.
“While many of us have significant emotional attachment to El Mirador, what HDRC is focused on is design,” Rohr-Allegrini told the San Antonio Report. “And we have to take the emotion out of it and recognize … how does the design of that space incorporate the historic nature of the neighborhood.”
The Lavaca group recommends a reduction in the overall height of the structure, a change to the materials used on the rooftop terrace, and a plan to use material that treats the north side of Rosario’s “as if it was the south side” with a minimum setback of 5 feet along the lot line to support the adjacent building’s access to daylight and natural ventilation.
The main level of the dining room in the new restaurant will be about 16,000 square feet, Wong said, or about 4,000 square feet larger than the current Rosario’s. It will seat about 300 people, plus more in the garden house, which will be used as private event space, and on the patio and rooftop terrace.
“We have a big following and sometimes table spacing is not as ample as I would prefer,” Wong said. “So this space is just … more comfortable.”
As for the height of the proposed structure closely abutting the Maverick restaurant, Wong is quick to point out it’s not simply a wall.
“It’s the side of my building … it’s a structure,” she said. Plans show a kitchen behind the wall. The proposed structure measures 20 feet tall, about 4 feet higher than the Maverick. The fact that it will block light from Maverick’s patio is an unfortunate consequence of development, she said.
“When we make a decision to develop our piece of property looking out onto an empty parking lot, we have to assume that one day … that parking lot might go away,” she said.
“I’m not a malicious person. But there’s only so many concessions you can make when you make an investment of this magnitude. And I’m willing to work with them in a very sensitive way, but there’s only so much I can give.”
Selig said he asked at his meeting with Wong on Wednesday for the setback to be increased, and Wong suggested that he modify the Maverick patio by raising or removing the roof.
“We don’t want to be oppositional, but right now we have to be,” he said. Wong did not respond to a request for comment.
But a day earlier, Wong said the disagreement won’t affect that relationship, adding they are “both adults.” Maverick Restaurant Group is a savvy, experienced organization, with “other ventures,” she said, including a new restaurant in the works. “I think it’s a decision that we’re just going to have to deal with.”
Wong has leased the 13,000-square-foot building at the corner of South Alamo and South St. Mary’s streets since moving Rosario’s from the building where Asian fusion restaurant Hot Joy resides.
When asked whether her lease was not being renewed, forcing the move, Wong said, “I had options. I chose not to take those options.”
“The master plan was to own a piece of property where I would own it and be able to develop it for what I have termed ‘Rosario’s forever home,’” she said. “I see this as my last move.”