By Ben Olivo & Alyssa Bunting, San Antonio Heron; Lea Thompson, San Antonio Current
This story has been updated.
Weeks after all of the cascarones are cracked, Maria’s Tortillas are consumed, and beers are slammed at NIOSA, one of Fiesta’s oldest and most popular events, La Villita's Maverick Plaza will shut down so preliminary work can begin on its $12 million makeover.
The project, lead by prominent chef Johnny Hernandez, will result in a more open plaza, which is located at the northwest corner of East Nueva and South Alamo streets. The 1970s limestone walls will come down, as will the concession and restroom buildings from the '80s. This will make room for three new restaurants by big-name chefs Hernandez, Steve McHugh of Cured and Elizabeth Johnson of Pharm Table. East Nueva Street will get angled metered parking. The reconstruction of Alamo Street and its sidewalks, a $9 million project from the 2017-2022 bond program that's intended to improve La Villita and Hemisfair's connectivity, will also factor in.
But what the makeover means for the future of NIOSA, which has been held at La Villita since 1947, remains to be seen. Not even officials with the San Antonio Conservation Society, which puts on NIOSA every year as its main fundraiser, know what the popular festival will look like going forward.
"With two years of construction, the changes in North Alamo and Nueva streets, coupled with the footprint of three restaurants in Maverick Plaza, NIOSA will change," Susan Beavin, conservation society president, said in an email.
During the four-day NIOSA, which begins Tuesday and lasts through Friday at La Villita, Maverick Plaza will be home to the western-themed Frontier Town, the most profitable and largest of NIOSA's themed food areas, Beavin said. Around the plaza, a segment of Alamo Street will become the French Quarter, and parts of Nueva Street will shut down for Clown Alley.
A 2017 master plan by Fisher Heck Architects shows renderings and conceptual drawings of the three restaurants and their outdoor patios significantly reducing the plaza's square footage. Outdoor demonstration kitchens, mobile food vendors, and monthly harvest markets would also help activate the plaza.
Unrelated to Maverick Plaza, toward the west end of La Villita, CPS Energy has put one of its River Walk buildings, which serves as a NIOSA entrance, and its circa-1959 Villita Assembly Building, home to the German-themed Sauerkraut Bend, up for sale.
"The sale of the CPS building, as well Villita hall could happen at any time and create an additional challenge," Beavin said.
In an interview with the Heron last year, Hernandez said Hemisfair would be a logical place to grow NIOSA, and other popular events at Maverick Plaza, such as the Dia de los Muertos celebration.
"Great events grow and evolve," said Hernandez, who played in integral role in securing UNESCO’s designation as a Creative City of Gastronomy for San Antonio. "Hemisfair is going to be a great place to see events that have outgrown La Villita."
In a statement to the Heron, the city said NIOSA will always remain at La Villita, and that "construction and restoration work will be coordinated with the San Antonio Conservation Society to minimize any inconvenience." It did not elaborate on what NIOSA's future footprint would look like with three restaurants on the plaza.
In December 2017, the City Council approved a 49-year lease of the plaza to Hernandez' Grupo La Gloria.
The plan is for Maverick Plaza, one of La Villita's four plazas, to become San Antonio's next culinary destination by July 2021.
In November 2018, Grupo La Gloria again hired Fisher Heck, as well as MP Studios Landscape Architects, to move from the master plan to the actual design. Final designs are expected to be completed in November of this year. Between now and then, the city will host two public meetings—the first one is scheduled for 6-8 p.m. Tuesday, May 7, at the Central Library, 600 Soledad St.—to receive community input.
Under the plan, Hernandez will construct a two-story Mexican restaurant styled to look like a hacienda on the southeast corner of the plaza. This is where the '70s walls and restroom building will be razed to make room for the new building. The food will reflect "Mesoamerican cultures of the Maya, meticulously exploring its evolution through the prism of Spanish colonization," according to the master plan.
When we contacted Hernandez in late March, the chef didn't have much more to say about the restaurant, but offered this tidbit:
"Tacos will definitely be on our menu," he said.
The Faville House, which was built in 1855, faces Villita Street. Its rear, which bumps up against the plaza's north wall, will be expanded; the wall will come down for a covered porch addition inside the plaza's current footprint. From the addition, a patio will blend onto the reworked Alamo Street promenade, according to the master plan.
There, Johnson will operate Acequia, a Spanish restaurant she explained as a marriage of the city’s Spanish heritage and ingredients native to Texas. She said it's especially important to highlight San Antonio's Canary Islander influence.
"Spanish heritage is really our Canary Island heritage ... they're two completely different things," Johnson said in reference to the Spanish families who arrived in San Antonio from the Canary Islands in 1731, 13 years after Spanish explorers founded the original settlement, the Mission San Antonio de Valero on San Pedro Creek.
Johnson will pull some of her ingredients from a garden next to the Mission San Juan acequia, a partnership with the Food Bank. She called it the original farm-to-table way of life.
"It's colonial farmland that has been continuously farmed for 300 years and it's fed by the original acequia still to this day," Johnson said. "It feeds from the Mission San Juan. For me the word acequia really represents the veins of agriculture in the new world.
Steve McHugh, a four-time James Beard Award finalist, will replace the plaza’s concession stand with a microbrewery, beer hall and German-style restaurant.
"We are looking forward to delving into the history of Texas barbecue and tracing it back to its German roots," McHugh said. " We're excited to explore how it has grown from the Germans' love of smoked meats into the familiar barbecue we know and love today."
The neighboring Gissi House, 250 King Philip, will also be incorporated into the plans, which include a 94-seat beer garden.
Though it may not look like it, Maverick Plaza is a more modern creation. It was built in the early 1970s as an "outdoor venue for parties, conventions and other gatherings,” according to the master plan. It was walled with limestone to keep with La Villita's tradition of enclosed plazas, which are Plaza Nacional, Plaza Juarez, and O’Neil Ford Plaza.
The goal of the latest revitalization effort is to keep in the spirit of Mayor Maury Maverick’s Oct. 12, 1939 ordinance, which rehabilitated La Villita from the slum it had become. La Villita "shall not and must not be a restoration and reconstruction of the dead past, and a ghost village for the mincing walk and dusty ways of scholars, but likewise for the average living citizen," Maverick said in the ordinance.
For its part, Grupo La Gloria is contributing $7.6 million toward Maverick Plaza. Under the lease agreement, rent starts at $100,000 a year, which funds the plaza's maintenance and programming.
According to the plan, the city and Grupo La Gloria will partner on the plaza's programming to deliver "an authentic San Antonio experience for the public." City officials insist Maverick Plaza will remain in its full control, even with Hernandez as its tenant.
Under the lease agreement, Grupo La Gloria can shut down the plaza and Arneson River Theatre eight calendar days of the year for events. It's uncertain what percentage of the proceeds the group will pocket from those events because an operational and programming agreement, a document separate from the lease, has yet to be signed between Hernandez' group and the city, Kelly Saunders, a spokeswoman for the Center City Development & Operations department, said in an email.
She added the two upcoming public meetings will help shape the operations and programming agreement. She also suggested another entity would be brought in to handle the programing.
"The city would like to identify an operator who can also develop and implement a successful concept that serves as an anchor," Saunders wrote. "The concept needs to activate the plaza during the weekdays, evenings and weekends."
The city is contributing $4.4 million toward public upgrades, which include repaving some of La Villita's streets and adding angled metered parking along Nueva Street, from its Inner City Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ).
Late last year, the Heron requested the group's financial documents to see how much profit it expects to yield over the 49 years of the lease. Grupo La Gloria challenged the request with the Texas Attorney General's office.
What also remains unclear is how much of the master plan, which was put together using "stakeholder" input, the public can influence during the upcoming meetings.
For example, what if the public demands fewer restaurants than the three being proposed? Or more? What if it wants the walls to remain?
"There's going to be a certain level that has to be done to do certain things," said Paul Berry, spokesman for the city's Transportation & Capital Improvements department. "That doesn't mean the entire design is planned out."