Shop owners at Market Square want upgrades, but not at their expense

by Ben OlivoJune 19, 2019
Market Square tenants held a rally Monday evening, June 17, 2019. Photo by Kara Hawley | Heron contributor

As the City Council prepares to vote on new leases for Market Square tenants on Thursday, shop owners are concerned changes to the agreements portend their eventual displacement from one of San Antonio's most historic gathering places.

They worry about the outcome of a 2-3 month master planning process for Market Square, which begins this week, that will consider new capital projects, programming and potentially design changes to better connect the shopping district to surrounding areas, such as Milam Park, as well as incoming development.

"We're looking at what's going to be a white wash of the Mexican market in the future," said Yvette Ramirez, president of the San Antonio Farmers Market Plaza Association, which represents the 56 tenants that occupy the brick building along South San Saba Street. "This is gentrification of minority small businesses. They're going to gentrify us out of here."

In an interview this week, District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño disagreed.

"I couldn't be clearer: We're not trying to kick them out," Treviño said. "We don't want to displace anybody. We want this to be a place that is enhanced by these efforts."

Treviño and city officials say now is the time to move on a plan for Market Square because west downtown is changing rapidly. The new Frost Tower will open this summer. San Pedro Creek Culture Park continues its evolution. Plans to rehab the Alameda Theatre are progressing. Major street reconstruction, via the last two city bond programs, have already started on Commerce Street. There is the Zona Cultural Revitalization Plan. More private development, primarily from Weston Urban, is on the horizon. And the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) is set to open three schools in the area sooner rather than later.

"We know Market Square plays a pivotal roll in how we continue to plan for all the growth that's happening in our city," Treviño said.

The tenants support the visioning process. They say, for example, Market Square desperately needs more shade and places for people to sit. They also say they've been asking for meetings with Treviño for at least two years, and that now the plan is moving a little too fast. Their current contracts expire at the end of June.

"We do want to move forward and progress, but not be ramrodded with it so fast," said Greg Pena, president of El Mercado Merchants Association, the group of 33 shop owners that occupy the long turquoise building. "We tried to start this thing almost three years ago."

The council will consider a four-year lease agreement with the tenants with the possibility of another four years—for a total of eight years. During negotiations this month and last, the tenants had first asked for 10-year agreements.

But the second half of the agreement only kicks in with City Council approval. If council was to renew the leases for another four years, then the shop owners would be granted the first right of refusal. What worries Ramirez, and other tenants, is the fact that the city is not guaranteeing they'll remain in the same spot, nor are they setting rental rates.

"The only thing we have is a right of first refusal," said Ramirez, who owns stores Tejano Lou's and Market General Store. "If we come back, we come to you. But that's if."

Treviño said he cannot make assurances because the outcome of the visioning process is unknown—nor can anyone predict the other developments and projects that could happen in the next four years. If there were capital upgrades at Market Square, such as the demolition of buildings, and the construction of others, there's no way to tell, he said. He said the city is eyeing the 2022 bond program for funding.

The lease agreement is designed to give the city options and flexibility, he said.

"We need to build in that ability to grow Market Square, to provide a way to ride the wave that is happening in downtown San Antonio," he said.

El Mercado at Market Square. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

Another sticking point for tenants is a requirement to report their sales either quarterly or monthly. The city says it needs the data to be able to better market and manage Market Square.

"We're asking them to help us understand what their revenues are so we know how it's being impacted and how we can adjust," Treviño said. "We believe it actually helps them."

For Ramirez, she doesn't see the need, especially because the city takes no percentage from their sales.

"Why are we giving you this report, unless you're trying to use it for future public-private partnerships," said Ramirez, adding that she believes the future operator of Market Square, hypothetically speaking, will use the data to raise rents or take a percentage of sales during Fiesta in April, their most successful month.

Also, under the new agreements, tenants will no longer be able to assign their leases to someone else. Currently, tenants have the ability to essentially sell their leases to another tenant. By terminating this option, the city says it will have greater control over who sells what at Market Square.

"We want to know the people we have leases with are those that are going to be occupying those spaces," Treviño said. "Lease assignments don't happen anywhere else in the city."

Ramirez said lease assignments offer older tenants the ability to essentially sell their leases as a form of retirement.

"A lot of people have invested all of their savings (into the businesses)," she said.

Under the new rules, if a tenant doesn't want their lease anymore, they'll give it up, and the city will enter a selection process called a request for proposal to find a new tenant. The practice is the same carried out at La Villita.

The visioning recommendations for Market Square are expected to be completed in September or October, and then forwarded to the council shortly after for a vote.

A steering committee of about a dozen people—composed of Market Square stakeholders such as the Cortezes, the owners of Mi Tierra and other restaurants there—will craft the plan. Ramirez and Pena will represent the shop tenants, but they said the owners should have more representation on the committee.

While the steering committee meetings aren't open to the public, the city said it will host an open house later this month, as well as post surveys through SASpeakUp, and hold focus groups.

At the cost of $100,000, the city is hiring think tank Project for Public Spaces, and Mario Schjetnan of Grupo de Diseño Urbano, to help lead the process. The city is tapping into a fund composed of Market Square rent revenue to pay for half of the cost, while Centro San Antonio is chipping in the other half. The city is also hiring the local AIA San Antonio Latinos in Architecture chapter, for $5,000, to assist.

Treviño said Market Square will stay under city ownership.

"We're trying to keep Market Square as it is, while giving ourselves the opportunity to open up ways to improve the place," he said. "No, there is no desire to try to change Market Square, at least by a single person and managed by a separate group other than the city."

He also didn't rule out the idea of a conservancy overseeing Market Square, similar to the one that manages and operates Hemisfair, an idea that came up during negotiations with the tenants.

Contact Ben Olivo: 210-421-3932 | ben@saheron.com | @rbolivo on Twitter

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