A bar and restaurant owner with some cachet locally has begun working on three new concepts at La Villita with the hopes of bringing more foot traffic to the sleepy arts district.
Sam Panchevre, owner of Sam's Burger Joint and the Aztec Theatre, is now leasing the buildings that once housed the Little Rhein Steak House and the Fig Tree. He's also taking over the adjacent Dashiell House. All three are owned by The Conservation Society of San Antonio.
Panchevre said he felt the three buildings, in particular the tiered outdoor seating areas that sit above the River Walk and under the shadow of the Hilton Palacio Del Rio, had been underused.
"If you walk on the side of the river, it's a beautiful area and you can't help but look at the terrace and imagine sitting there and enjoying a meal and drink and watch what's going on," said Panchevre, who described the three renovations as a "substantial investment" when asked how much it’s costing. "I have always taken spaces all my life and transformed them."
This week, workers concentrated on renovating the Little Rhein's former home, or, the circa-1855 Otto Bombach residence and store, which has entrances from South Alamo Street and the River Walk.
Panchevre has partnered with Terry Corless, CEO of the Mad Dogs Restaurant Group, to transform the former steakhouse into a German beer garden to be called Little Rhein Prost Haus. They anticipate to open the beer garden and restaurant in March.
In 2013, Corless opened BierGarten River Walk, a Bavarian-style beer garden at 126 Losoya St., at the Paseo Del Alamo, which connects the Hyatt Regency to Alamo Plaza.
However, Corless felt the Oktoberfest concept his company brought from their time spent in Munich to their own beer garden in downtown San Antonio hasn't reached its full potential.
"We have had success in our small venue, but we felt like we haven't been able to put out an authentic product that displays all the elements from the Oktoberfest concept we saw in Munich," Corless said.
"I have spent years trying to find the perfect location for a beer garden, so this opportunity with Little Rhein allows us to see whether we could develop the full manifestation of this concept, and be in a building that was renowned as German," he said.
Inside the Otto Bombach building, one room will serve as the main restaurant area, while another will serve as a beer room with more than 20 drafts either imported from Germany or originated from German-authentic recipes. Corless says they will also add a patio to the front of the building.
The Little Rhein and Fig Tree restaurants, along with the Dashiell House event venue, were previously leased by long-time restaurant owner Moe Lazri. Last March, Lazri closed the doors to the restaurants due to Covid-19, and decided not to renew his lease in December.
In April, Panchevre hopes to open the Dashiell House, 511 Villita St., as a restaurant and bar that will feature comfort foods and cocktails, along with a happy hour.
Panchevre says their menu is still evolving and food and drinks have not been decided, but people can expect a high-energy restaurant that will offer live music outside.
"We hope to bring out more locals to our new restaurant-bar and be a catalyst to increase the foot traffic at La Villita," Panchevre said. "We plan to still do private events if needed, but we want to rejuvenate this historic building and bring more people to this side of the river."
He says he is still in the process of developing a new concept for the former Fig Tree building, also known as the Gray-Guilbeau House.
The Fig Tree location, 515 Villita St., was a fine-dining staple on the River Walk that had been open for five decades and known for its upscale cuisine, formal dining area and River Walk terrace.
Panchevre plans to re-open the former Fig Tree as a fine dining restaurant in May.
The master lease to Panchevre comes as another major restaurant project at La Villita appears to be stalled. The city has leased Maverick Plaza to chef and restauranteur Johnny Hernandez so he can build three new restaurants, and better connect the plaza to the South Alamo promenade. The Conservation Society has objected to the plan because it says the amount of public space will be significantly reduced, therefore hurting its ability to maximize the space during A Night In Old San Antonio.
Panchevre also gave an update on Aztec Theatre renovations. Two years ago, he had planned to add a rooftop bar and a 1,500-square-foot terrace on the second floor that overlooked Crockett Street and the River Walk.
"We have the rooftop bar concept on hold, but we were able to add the terrace and office spaces that will be available for tenants to lease for their businesses," he said.
Heron Editor Ben Olivo contributed to this report.
Rocky Garza Jr. is a freelance journalist in San Antonio. Follow him at @r0ckssss_ on Twitter
In response to the potential for more unrest, city officials have announced a nightly curfew for downtown and Alamo Plaza through Sunday, June 7, according to a press release. The central business district will be closed from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., while the plaza will close between 7 p.m. and 6 p.m.
"The city will assess the situation to determine if closures are necessary beyond the weekend," the press release says.
The measure is in response to recent protests and gatherings downtown every night since Saturday, as they are in every major American city, in response to the death of George Flloyd in Minneapolis two weeks ago. On Saturday night, a crowd of about 5,000 peacefully marched downtown. Afterward, dozens of agitators vandalized downtown buildings and streetscape, and loots some businesses. The protests since have largely been peaceful, not reaching Saturday's chaos.
The curfew began last night, but did not dissuade another large group of protestors. Police officers allowed the protest and march to proceed, according to media reports.
Yesterday, Alamo officials announced temporary fence made of four-foot tall chain link on top of water-filled plastic barriers that will remain in place "as long as events indicate it is needed," according to an Alamo release. A 15-foot wide access point will be available for people walking on Alamo and Houston streets.
According to the city's release, "a violation of the temporary curfew is a misdemeanor offense punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and up to 180 days in jail."
The City of San Antonio announced Alamo Plaza will be closed every night this week, from 8:30 p.m. to 6 a.m., through Sunday.
"The closure is a precautionary measure to minimize the possibility of civil disturbance and damage to sensitive structures," according to a press release.
On Saturday, a peaceful protest of about 5,000 people, the largest non-Spurs championship gathering downtown in recent memory, coalesced at Travis Park and police headquarters following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week. Later that night, downtown became a scene of chaotic when agitators began vandalizing buildings, streetscapes and landmarks.
Tuesday morning, during a press conference about downtown businesses recovering from Saturday night's damage, Mayor Ron Nirenberg said that should unrest return to downtown streets, San Antonians should carry the message of peace forward.
"God hope we have seen the last trouble in our city so we can get back to the important message that's trying to be carried," Nirenberg said. "Make sure you remind our folks ... out here that this city belongs to all of us, and the way we lift all of us up for justice and equity is that we further the message of peace and nonviolence."
City officials said they will reassess the closures later this week.
"The San Antonio police department will increase staffing in the downtown area to mitigate any potential disturbances," the release said.
This story has been updated.
Alamo Plaza was more packed than usual this week with Spring Break.
The Alamo reports that attendance doubled, at least in the beginning of the week, compared to last week. On Monday, the shrine saw more than 6,000 visitors—which translates to about a 20-minute wait to enter the church—whereas it received about 3,000 visitors the previous Monday, March 4.
So what kind of a bump did the plaza's attractions and other businesses receive?
Numbers specific to this week weren't available. But the owners of some of the businesses on the plaza recently got together and did a little economic impact study on themselves. They represent 18 businesses either in or near state-owned properties on the plaza—namely the Crockett, Palace Theater and Woolworth buildings, which are slated to become the Alamo museum by 2024.
Collectively, the businesses employee 468 people, have a combined $6.1 million in annual payroll, and attract 3.5 million visitors annually, they say.
By comparison, the Alamo's annual attendance is 1.7 million visitors, the Alamo confirmed this week.
Davis Phillips, owner of three of the attractions, and a member of the Alamo Citizens Advisory Committee since it was formed in 2014, added up the numbers.
He did so to prove a point. The businesses have a place and purpose in downtown San Antonio, he said. The one part of the Alamo master plan, which was approved by the City Council last October, that was barely discussed last year was the entertainment district. This is the mystery piece of land where these businesses will be relocated to in order to make room for the museum.
He describes the state (which serves as the landlord for the businesses in the aforementioned buildings), the city (which is involved in finding a location for the entertainment district) and the Alamo Endowment (which is paying for most of the $450 million plan) as having a lack of focus on the businesses their future.
Some of the businesses that would be uprooted from state-owned buildings include Jimmy John's, two T-shirt shops, City Sightseeing San Antonio, Moses Rose's Hideout, and Jimmy John's. Others, such as Ripley's Believe It or Not! Odditorium, which occupies the former H.L. Green five-and-dime store, aren't included in the Alamo master plan, either.
Phillips said the leases on his company's attractions—Ripley's Haunted Adventure, Tomb Rider 3D ride and the Guinness World Records Museum—are good through 2028. He said leases for Ripley's Entertainment, which operates three attractions on the plaza, go "well beyond that." A call to Ripley's Entertainment ownership was not returned.
"To be fair, the city has had discussions with us," said Phillips, CEO of Phillips Entertainment Inc. (Assistant City Manager Lori Houston) "has done what she can do at this point. The next step needs to be that the state gets involved with the city with the same tenacity and focus that they did with the Alamo plan. If that happens, I think we have an opportunity to make things work. Up until this point, that has not occurred."
In an interview late last year, Phillips told the Heron that a buyout from the state wasn't an option.
"That's not an option," he said. "There's not enough money. That doesn't take care of our company. It doesn't allow us to have the cash flow that we need to survive. I've got family and a small investment group ... I still have employees to take care of."
In a text, Houston said the city, the Texas General Land Office and the Alamo Endowment have been committed to finding a location for the entertainment district. She said the priority now is selecting an architect to design the museum. The design of the museum, she said, would better "clarify the timing for the relocation."
"We are being thoughtful and want to do this right," Houston said via text. "It takes time and planning. This project will be catalytic and the partners are sensitive to the concerns of the businesses and want them to be successful wherever they are located. These attractions further diversify our tourist offerings and help us remain competitive in the market."
The big question is: Where will the entertainment district go?
As you would expect, nobody is answering that question, not even Phillips, who's been involved in some of these meetings, nor District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño.
"That doesn't mean we're not looking at places—yes, we're looking at places," Treviño said. "We can't show all our cards for obvious reasons. Yes, we're committed to this (entertainment district) and the city wants this. I've been working very hard. Lori Houston has been working very hard. We're all working."
Treviño said the hiring of a person or firm to create a timetable for all of the Alamo Plaza elements was discussed at the last Alamo Management Committee meeting. The elements include the entertainment district, the museum design, traffic in and around the plaza, and commercial loading zones in the area.
"There's also a lot of things we can't say just yet, because there are so many moving parts and so many people connected to this," Treviño said.
The selection of an architect to design the museum has not been announced.
However, John G. Waite Associates Architects of Albany, N.Y., has been selected to assess the "integrity and the value historically" of the Crockett, Palace Theater and Woolworth buildings. According to Treviño, Waite has already started his work, having made a visit to San Antonio last week. Treviño didn't know how long Waite's assessment would take.
"We don't want to put so much pressure that he can't get the job done that he needs to get done," he said.
In December, four preservation groups—San Antonio Conservation Society, San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum (SAACAM), Westside Preservation Alliance, and Esperanza Peace and Justice Center—formed the Woolworth Coalition, whose purpose is to save the 1921 Woolworth building from demolition. The Woolworth at Houston and Alamo streets was one of several lunch counters in San Antonio to desegregate on March 16, 1960—the first to peacefully do so in the U.S.
Though Alamo planners haven't said the Woolworth and its neighboring Crockett and Palace Theater buildings would be demolished, they also left demolition as a possibility. Read more here.
The Texas General Land Office did not return an interview request.
Early Sunday evening, people brought 32 little Christmas trees and clustered them together on the very spot where downtown's official tree stood for more than 30 years. The gathering was a protest of sorts of the decision last year to relocate the H-E-B tree from Alamo Plaza to Travis Park.
Monreal, the gathering's organizer, had hoped for 300 small trees to occupy the plaza in celebration of San Antonio's tricentennial.
"I'm kind of bummed," Monreal said. "It's not what we had hoped for."
That said, he was happy to bring some joy to those passersby who stopped to take photos with the trees with the Alamo in the background, just as they would if the 50-footer was standing there.
"That alone is enough," said Monreal, who clustered the trees together because the wind kept knocking down some of them.
Last year, officials with the city, H-E-B and Centro San Antonio decided to relocate downtown's largest tree. They said Travis Park fit more people, and it also offers a better setting for continuous holiday programming—such as movie nights, Santa visits, etc.—throughout the season around the tree.
"The move to Travis Park created an action packed holiday season with holiday activities and entertainment, and we will continue to offer exciting programming for all ages this year in Travis Park," said John Jacks, director of the Center City Development and Operations department.
The tree would have to move in upcoming years anyway, because of impending construction to Alamo Plaza, they said.
But city officials decided to bring back the tree to Travis Park because, they said, last year was such a success.
District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño said it's too early to tell if the main 50-foot tree will return to the plaza after renovations are completed in five years.
"All those things will be under the consideration of the new board that will be formed for the Alamo Plaza,” Treviño said.
This year, H-E-B has purchased a 20-foot Christmas tree for Alamo Plaza, which will be installed Monday, city officials said.
The company made the same offering last year, and eventually, Alamo Plaza received a tree. But for Monreal, the move didn't come fast enough.
Monreal, a server at a downtown restaurant at the time, stepped in by placing a small Christmas tree on the plaza. It wasn't a protest so much as Monreal wanted to fill what he described as a feeling of emptiness. The Christmas spirit that usually filled the plaza, he said, wasn't there anymore.
By the time the Travis Park tree was lit the day after Thanksgiving, a few others Monreal's tree via social media, and contributed their own.
View this post on Instagram
View this post on Instagram
On Sunday night, Monreal, and most others who gathered around the miniature winter wonderland, spoke solemnly and said they believe this kind of social gathering will be lost after the multimillion-dollar Alamo Plaza renovation is completed in 2024.
"We might not be able to have this anymore," said Monreal, as strangers stopped to take photos and kids whipped around the plaza on scooters.
During public meetings this year on the Alamo Plaza master plan, city officials insisted that the plaza would remain a public space. The plan, which was approved by the City Council in October, will rail off the plaza using some type of barrier and convert the plaza into a kind of open-air museum. During museum hours, visitors—locals and tourists, alike—would enter through one main entrance around where the visitors' center is currently located in the Crockett building oppose the shrine. During non-museum hours, six entrances would open up, and people would be able to access the main space in front of the Alamo, officials said.
"This has always been a very special time for me," said Patricia Varela, 52, who contributed four trees Sunday night along with her husband and three sons. "I'm just really upset that they're doing this. They city is doing things without asking anybody."
When asked whether her family had visited Travis Park this season, Varela's husband, Ted, chimed in.
"Probably not," he said. "We'll go down to the River Walk to see the lights. But, no, we won't be going to Travis Park."
On the @downtownsanantonio Instagram account, the Heron's sister site, more people seem to be in favor of Alamo Plaza as the location for downtown's primary Christmas tree.
"Its just not as magical as when it was by the Alamo"—@shawnerz588
But the Travis Park location has its supporters, as well.
"The tree looks so much better at Travis Park. More room and more decorations! The Alamo already has the Alamo. The same people against this move are the same people that want to keep downtown caca brown with short little buildings." — @fryguy2008
Here is the tree ceremony the way it used to look:
This year's tree ceremony at Travis Park:
Setting It Straight: An earlier version of this article incorrectly estimated the number of mini Christmas trees that were placed in front of the Alamo Sunday night. There were 32.
City officials, including District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño, say it's too early to plan future Alamo Plaza traditions and programming, and that includes the Christmas tree lighting celebration.
"Elements like a Christmas tree—all those things will be under the consideration of the new board that will be formed for the Alamo Plaza," Treviño said. "It’s just way too early to really predict what ... some of these traditions (are) and (how these) events will occur."
Here's how the last Alamo Plaza lighting went in 2016:
Last year, officials gave the public several reasons justifying the move.
In an interview with the Heron, Treviño pointed to a combination of anticipating the multimillion dollar Alamo Plaza reconstruction, and the space that became available at the center of Travis Park after the Confederate monument was removed in the dead of night on Sept. 1. Both decisions were criticized, but the tree relocation drew the most public outcry.
Still, construction at Alamo Plaza, an estimated $250-$300 million effort that was approved by Council on Oct. 19—to much protest by various groups—has yet to begin.
Some people, including Steven Monreal, a downtown restaurant worker who started a mini Christmas tree movement last year, wonders why the 50-foot tree at Travis Park couldn't be switched with the 20-foot tree that's going on the plaza.
Treviño and city officials said the H-E-B Christmas tree returned to Travis Park this year because of the success of last year's ceremony and continuous programming at the park throughout the holiday season.
"The move to Travis Park created an action packed holiday season with holiday activities and entertainment, and we will continue to offer exciting programming for all ages this year," said John Jacks, director of the Center City Development and Operations department.
View this post on Instagram
It begins with the 34th Annual H-E-B Tree Lighting Celebration, which is scheduled for 3-6 p.m. Friday. The tree lighting will take place at 6:20 p.m.
H-E-B is providing a 20-foot Christmas tree for Alamo Plaza, which is scheduled to be installed and lit on Monday (Nov. 26), weather permitting, Jacks said.
At 7 p.m. Sunday, the day before the 20-foot tree is to be placed on the plaza, Monreal will lead a mini tree party. The goal: to fill up Alamo Plaza with 300 mini trees in celebration of San Antonio's birthday.
It's an expansion of the tree protest last year, when Monreal placed a mini tree at Alamo Plaza during a period of time when there was no Christmas tree presence there. He also placed mini trees at San Fernando Cathedral, Arneson River Theater, Hemisfair, and the Hays Street Bridge.
Monreal said he placed the trees to bring hope to Alamo Plaza when it had no tree presence.
"Just feeling like we didn't have any hope," said Monreal, who now works at Tomatillo's on Broadway. "Sometimes when you're holding on, what's going to happen ... I'm not going to have enough money to pay the bills, and then you go outside and find a 100 bucks on the grass."
"That little tree was the 100 bucks."
Last year, others saw Monreal's efforts on social media, and they joined in.
View this post on Instagram
Here are some other downtown Christmas tree-related events:
» Fantasyland at Milam Park, Saturday (Nov. 24): Friends of Milam Park host this ode to the old Joske's department store set up with a tree lighting at dusk, Flamenco dancers, arts and crafts vendors, classic cars and a visit from Santa. Noon-7 p.m. Read more.
» Alamo Christmas Tree Celebration 2018, Dec. 15: This is Texas Freedom Force is hosting its own Christmas celebration at Alamo Plaza, which, like Monreal's mini tree efforts, is in protest to the city moving the largest tree. Santa will be on hand to hand out toys to girls and boys at no cost on a first come, first serve basis. Elves and others will hand out cookies. 7-9 p.m. Read more.