By Sanford Nowlin | San Antonio Current
The city of San Antonio is assessing the potential danger the COVID-19 virus presents during Fiesta on an event-by-event basis, Metro Health Director Dawn Emerick said during a Texas Public Radio appearance Monday.
The 10-day citywide festival, scheduled to kick off April 16, is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of people to more than 100 events. Many of those attract packed crowds.
"You have to look at the entire environment," Emerick said. "You have to look at the event itself. How big is the event? Where is it going to be held? Is it indoor? Is it outdoor? So, all of those things are going to be taken into consideration."
Emerick told TPR the arrival of COVID-19 test kits could help officials decide whether to cancel or postpone Fiesta events. However, she added that no single factor that would prompt a decision to shut down the festival.
"All the things my smart staff do, we just don’t have that data," she said. "So, I do think, over the next several weeks, we could have some data to make those determinations."
Fiesta is one of the largest such festivals in the United States. Planning for the party is underway as other Texas cities cancel large-scale events including Austin's SXSW festival and the Houston Rodeo.
This article is republished with permission from the San Antonio Current.
The San Antonio Current, San Antonio’s award-winning alternative media company, has served as the city’s premiere multimedia source of alternative news, events and culture since 1986.
In what is the largest gathering of San Antonians every year, hundreds of thousands of people lined downtown streets for the 71st Fiesta Flambeau Parade on Saturday.
The weather could not have been better for the 128th annual Battle of Flowers Parade, which began next to the Pearl and before making its way down Broadway, in front of the Alamo, and down Commerce Street. The parade, Fiesta's signature event, typically draws upwards of 300,000 people to downtown.
The $12 million plan to revamp La Villita's Maverick Plaza, one of downtown's most popular event spaces, drew a mixed reaction from Fiesta regulars who attended Night in Old San Antonio on Wednesday night.
Under the plan, prominent chef Johnny Hernandez, whose Grupo La Gloria signed a 49-year lease on the plaza last May, will add three restaurants to the plaza using new construction and the reuse of two current buildings. The '70s-era limestone walls that divide the plaza from Alamo and East Nueva streets will be razed, as will the 1980s restroom and concession buildings. Outdoor kitchens and food kiosks will dot the plaza.
Each restaurant, according to a 2017 master plan by Fisher Heck Architects, will have patios that swallow significant portions of Maverick Plaza, which spans roughly 130 by 225 feet.
"I know that change happens all the time, but when you've lived in San Antonio your whole life and you've been coming to NIOSA for half of that life already, that would be a huge change," Vanessa Rivas, 41, said while standing next to the "Fast Draw Suds" beer booth situated around the fountain in the center of the plaza, which becomes Frontier Town during NIOSA. "I don't think I would like that change."
"As it is, it's already compact," said Ruben Rivas, Vanessa's husband, 41, who said they've been coming to NIOSA since they were "drinking age," "and if you start adding restaurants here and (the patios are) going to expand out here, you're making that space even smaller."
Robert Enriquez, 39, who was in Frontier Town with friends, waiting for the rest of his crew to show up, welcomed the plan.
"I think it's going to bring more business to this area," Enriquez said. "Right now, it's busy. It's not always like this, bro. If you have restaurants here, more people are going to come through here and see the historical value of this area. It's prime real estate."
His friend, Joseph Corona, 43, chimed in, "I think it would be good to bring people here—"
"—without having to have Fiesta," Enriquez said. "I've never been here except for NIOSA."
The San Antonio Conservation Society, which puts on NIOSA every year at La Villita as its main fundraiser, has expressed concern about NIOSA's future. The Maverick Plaza renovation coupled with the imminent sale of two CPS Energy buildings, including the 1959 Villita Assembly Building, home to Sauerkraut Bend, means NIOSA's footprint will change.
"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," conservation society President Susan Beavin told the Heron recently.
The City of San Antonio on Thursday responded to concerns from Beavin and Heron readers who chided the plan on social media in response to our update on Tuesday.
"NIOSA will change beginning in 2020, but exactly how is still being determined," city spokeswoman Laura Elizabeth Mayes said in an email.
The three restaurants will be operated by Hernandez, Elizabeth Johnson of Pharm Table and Steve McHugh of Cured. Hernandez will run a Mexican restaurant in a new hacienda-style building on the southeast corner of the plaza. Johnson will operate a Spanish restaurant in the 1855 Faville House. And Steve McHugh will run a German restaurant and microbrewery next to Hernandez's Mexican restaurant, while also using the Gissi house.
Alamo Street will be reconstructed via $9 million from the last bond program and, with the walls removed, will blend into the plaza. Throughout the plaza, according to the master plan, outdoor kitchens and food kiosks will be situated. The city envisions programming taking the form of cooking demonstrations, harvest markets and cultural events.
"Maverick Plaza and La Villita will continue to be a place for events and celebrations," Mayes said in an email. "We see La Villita as the preferred gathering place for community and cultural events."
Hernandez' Grupo La Gloria and the city have yet to determine how the programming will work. That agreement, which is referenced in the lease, has yet to be signed, said Kelly Saunders, a spokeswoman with the city's Center City Development and Operations department.
In her statement, Mayes insisted the city will continue to manage programming at the plaza, which was built in the 1970s, and include Grupo La Gloria, the conservation society, and other "partners" in the process. However, according to the lease, Hernandez is allowed to shut down Maverick Plaza and Arneson River Theater eight calendar days of the year for private events.
The city declined an interview request for this report.
The city will host the first of two public meetings on the Maverick Plaza plan, scheduled for 6-8 p.m. May 7 at the Central Library, 600 Soledad St.
Afterwards, preliminary construction may begin as early as June, city officials said. The public will get one more opportunity to sound off on the plan with a second meeting in late summer or early fall, officials said, before the design is completed later this year. The plan is for construction to begin in 2020 and be completed by July 2021.
The City Council approved the 49-lease to Grupo La Gloria in December 2017, and a master plan was created using "stakeholder" input, city officials said. It's unclear what aspects of the plan the public will get to provide input on, or influence, going forward.
Mayes said the city has been meeting with the conservation society on the project since 2017, and that the restaurants' outdoor spaces will be available for NIOSA.
The encroachment of the restaurants on the current space still bothered one NIOSA attendee Wednesday night.
"I think that's a horrible idea," said Erika Juarez, 35. "This plaza is known for the space and it's known for all the events. Not just Fiesta, we also do Light the Night here, we do a bunch of events here, and we volunteer for all those events."
Christian Smith, 31, Juarez's friend, offered a rebuttal.
"It depends on how open they are to events, you know?" Smith said. "Outside of the events, it will bring more attention the plaza."
"If that's the case, taco trucks will bring more business to the plaza," Juarez said. "You don't even have to knock down a damn building. You can park a taco truck here."
"People want to be able to go a restaurant," Smith said.
"Then you go to a restaurant on the River Walk," Juarez said. "So you're going to build shit here to take away from the River Walk? Now it's all contradictory."
Local real estate broker Allen Lu, 26, said he was looking forward to the new restaurants. He said he didn't see less plaza space being an issue.
"Yes, you will maybe take a couple of more feet in, but you still bring in so much more people and more awareness to it," said Lu, whose parents were married at the Little Church of La Villita, a stone's throw away from the plaza. "Let (the restaurants) use their facilities and use their patio seating to host these (NIOSA) vendors, and still have that open space for them. Because they want to obviously support this culture and support their own businesses."
Lu suggested NIOSA has outgrown La Villita, and that it could be expanded to Hemisfair, when it's completed in a few years.
"The amount of people (moving to San Antonio), we're going to have to grow it," Lu said. The amount of people who love Fiesta, there's out of town people who come just for this. So we're going to have to expand it at some point anyway."
» Download the La Villita lease agreement between the city and Grupo La Gloria signed in May.
» Download the 64-page "Master Plan for a Culinary Concept in Mayor Maury Maverick Plaza," Oct. 7, 2017 (10MB)
Editor's note: Heron reporter Gaige Davila is a Fiesta newbie. This is his impression of Cornyation.
"Have you ever been down there?” Ray Chavez, Cornyation co-founder, asks me and the photographer. He had just strapped us with wristbands, and checked us off “the list.” I said no, telling Chavez the last time I was at the Majestic Theatre was for a Lewis Black show. He laughed, told me good luck, and to go wherever I wished.
"Down there” were the dressing rooms for both the Empire and Majestic theaters, a hallway labyrinth covered in hand-painted show posters and signatures from current and past performers, lying below the stage. It was 45 minutes until showtime and performers were getting ready, walking in and out of dressing rooms in full costume, full makeup, or no costumes, no clothing, no makeup, and so on.
Fiesta Cornyation is deemed the “black sheep” of Fiesta, says Mindy Miller Hill, who is this year’s King Anchovy (LIV, to be exact), after 10 years of performing in the show. She’ll be presiding over the 15 skits—eight before intermission and six after, for two shows a night for three nights—representing the Court of the A-corn on a throne made from a bell cart, an allusion to Hill’s director of destination sales position at the JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa.
Each of the performances satirizes current local, state, national and international events on stage. I figured that. When I walked backstage, I was greeted by cardboard cutout of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh being burned at the stake.
Each group designs their own costumes and writes their own music for their skit, raising money to fund their performance through sponsorships. All the performers are volunteers.
Fiesta Cornyation is a nonprofit charitable organization, too, donating money to the San Antonio AIDS Foundation (SAAF), Beat AIDS (Black Effort Against the Threat of AIDS), and Thrive Youth Center, a center for homeless LGBTQ youth. The show dates back to 1951 as a spoof of the Coronation of the Queen of The Order of the Alamo, the annual high-class pageant of Fiesta royalty.
The skits "are very easy to identify with, if you watch the news at all,” Hill said.
Back to the Kavanaugh cutout: Rick Gipprich, co-designer for Gipprich-Garcia, are performing the “I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell” skit, satirizing the Brett Kavanaugh hearings with the House Judiciary Committee, in the theme of “American Horror Story: Coven," with Queen Ruth Bader Ginsburg burning Kavanaugh at the stake. The performance focuses less on the accusations against the Supreme Court justice and more about female empowerment.
“This is more about empowering women to take a stand and to come together as women,” Gipprich said. “And Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the shit. Why not make her a queen?”
San Antonio politics wasn’t left out, either.
In “The Duchess of Sheryl’s Super Fund,” Rivard Report senior reporter Iris Dimmick satirizes former City Manager Sheryl Scully and her $475,000 salary, wearing a skirt with overlapping rows dollar bills of varying amounts. Overall, the skit satirizes the interviews for San Antonio’s city manager held in January.
The performance is modeled like a pageant, Ashley Smith, who's performing in the skit, explained, where each “contestant” comes out and is judged slash interviewed.
"We're going to be doing the interviews for city manager that you never saw," Smith said, commenting on the city’s closed-door interviews for Sculley replacement.
The four baboons that escaped the Texas Biomedical Research Institute last April made it into this year’s Cornyation, too.
“The Duchess of the Primate Prison Break” will chronicle the baboons’ journey from the research center to downtown San Antonio, climbing to the top of the Tower of the Americas. The group, Orange is the New Baboon, have been working on the skit, which will also satirize “Orange is the New Black” and “Prison Break,” since February.
Ines Visconti is in this group, and it’s her first year performing in Cornyation. She says she wanted to participate because of the show's support of San Antonio’s HIV/AIDS organizations, and the scholarship program, awarded to four students interested in creative arts annually.
“It’s just a great way to give back to the community and help people as well,” Visconti said. “That’s really why I’m doing it. And (the group is) so much fun."
Dominique Gonzales-Kinkaid, who’s been performing in Cornyation skits for the last 10 years, said she tells herself every year she won’t perform again, but always finds herself back on stage. She says the dedication and camaraderie of the performers keep her in Cornyation.
“So many people donate their time to do all of this,” Gonzales-Kinkaid said. “This takes months and months of preparation for just four minutes (on stage).”
I recognized the camaraderie, too, as my photographer, Jack Myer, and I were welcomed into this maze, with performers in varying stages of undress, as if we had been walking these halls with them every year, and we were all part of one large theater company.
Hill called Cornyation the "edgiest" Fiesta event, but I'm calling it the most honest with itself. There's no judgment towards anyone that doesn't deserve it, and the performers’ self-awareness to the absurdity of it all is much more truthful than any other Fiesta event I've seen.
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."
A windy, humid morning turned into a breezy, sunny afternoon in time for Fiesta’s official opening event, Fiesta Fiesta, Thursday at Hemisfair.
Through the crowd of a few tens of thousand and fluttering confetti were local groups and national businesses giving away or selling Fiesta medals; beer stands and paleta carts; meandering kings and queens of Fiesta (official or self-proclaimed); towering flower crowns; and, of course, people eating the much-loved chicken-on-a-stick.
More noticeable than the bass thumping from the stage at Nueva and South Alamo streets were the clanging of Fiesta medals. Some patrons wore more than a hundred on a single sash or Spurs jersey. Though you can never exactly discern whose medals in the crowd were making noise, the 3-foot-high hats some wore were likely a good place to start.
Life-long San Antonio resident Teresa Gonzalez wore a hat adorned with yellow and pink flowers and ribbons.
"I love seeing other people’s creativity," Gonzalez said. "I think San Antonio has a lot of creative people."
Gonzalez’s hat was made by Rebecca Medina, artist and owner of Rebecca Medina Dolls.
"There's all types of culture," said Medina "All walks of life enjoy Fiesta, whatever Fiesta means."
Medina’s hat, which she made in six hours, featured a Bud Light can, an avocado, a miniature bottle of Tajin spice, and a papier-mâché doll smoking a thin cigarette whose smoke was made of cotton, while holding a chicken on a stick.
At one point, two Chick-fil-A cows danced defiantly while wearing sandwich board signs that read "Koma Más Poyo." Earlier in the day, the City Council considered a re-vote on the portion of the San Antonio International Airport concession contract that barred Chick-fil-A. But the council ultimately decided to stick with its original decision.
Mike and Rosario Monreal watched as children and parents played in Yanaguana Garden. The couple volunteered at Fiesta events for nearly 30 years, including many A Night in Old San Antonios. Between the two, they have more than 2,000 medals. These days, they've dialed it down a few notches—they come only to enjoy Fiesta events with just a few medals on each of their shirts.
"We’re done volunteering," Rosario said laughing. "We’ll let the new kids take over."
Fiesta continues through Sunday, April 29. View the full schedule here.