Shopping for a Future at La Villita

When he retired as a sheet-metal worker, Melvillyn Adame’s father opened Villita Stained Glass in the historic arts village of La Villita in 1982. The family occupied two other buildings in the downtown historic district before they moved into the store’s current location in building 1 near the west entrance, complete with a studio and a large front window for natural lighting. 

For years, Adame’s father handcrafted kaleidoscopes, mosaics, stained-glass sailboats and stars in the back workroom of the shop, until he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and lost the ability to make his art. Because she had worked in the store already, Adame took over the shop, making her own handcrafted glass beads and jewelry, and exhibiting other artists’ stained-glass work. Adame recently celebrated her family’s 32-year anniversary at La Villita. Two glass stars her father made in the 1980s still hang in the studio.

“La Villita is just a part of us,” Adame said. “When you’ve been there 32 years, that’s a long stretch of time.”

Adame’s lease on her building ends next July, as the City is reimagining the look and feel of La Villita. Earlier this year, as part of an overall improvement effort spurred by the greater Downtown San Antonio revitalization plan, the Department of Creative and Cultural Development, which oversees La Villita, announced that it would be terminating all current leases and putting out a request for proposals. Current tenants as well as other local artists and restaurant owners were invited to apply to rent space in the village. Other changes and signs of new investment are coming as well, including better marketing and accessibility to the site’s quaint walled-off streets and low buildings. DCCD Director Felix Padron says the changes are all outgrowths of retail management studies that concluded the area needed significant marketing improvements and more consistent merchandise. 

“Something needs to be done to make locals and visitors aware that this is a gem of a facility,” Padron said. 

No one can argue that La Villita needs more attention. Foot traffic has decreased over the years, even as nearby hotels, the convention center and the San Antonio River Walk draw tens of thousands of visitors and tourists annually. The wall surrounding part of the village makes it difficult to find the tiny shops and people often overlook the village entirely because of a lack of signs. When I invited my friend who has lived in San Antonio for years to join me on a weekend visit, she didn’t even know what La Villita is. Many locals seem aware of it only in the context of NIOSA, the annual Fiesta event.

Historically, it’s been geared toward tourists, but now City officials envision both locals and visitors enjoying the space.  

It’s ironic that when Mayor Maury Maverick codified La Villita as a historic artistic village in 1939, he wrote that not only would the area be “for the preservation of worthwhile things of the past,” but would also “be flexible enough to be adapted to the needs of generation after generation.” Some 75 years later, the City and shop owners are grappling with how to execute that change, ensuring a balance between historical preservation of a quaint, undoubtedly significant area that business owners have depended on for decades and the modernization of downtown San Antonio. What’s La Villita’s purpose? What need is it fulfilling in the heart of downtown San Antonio, where other major facilities are undergoing transformations of their own? Change is necessary, but what kind? How? And why?

For months, some longtime tenants have criticized the RFP guidelines, questioning the true intention of the plan and complaining that their feedback wasn’t properly taken into consideration. They’ve also expressed concerns over poor management of the property.  

Tenants say the site has needed improvements and changes for years, but that the City hasn’t paid proper attention to La Villita. The historical village has been shuffled between several city departments: before DCCD assumed control, the village was overseen by the Downtown Operations Department and before that, Parks and Recreation. Recently, a City employee responsible for daily operations and facilities management at La Villita was reassigned, leaving no full-time City staff member in charge onsite. An interim coordinator has been appointed to oversee things like day-to-day maintenance while the DCCD hires someone new.

La Villita tenants have enjoyed a less-formal lease renewal process until recently, and have paid as little as $1 and $1.57 per square foot in rent, well below comparable retail rental rates in downtown, which come in at about $6 per square foot, according to the City. Under the new guidelines, La Villita rates will stay about the same: working-artist studio galleries will pay $1 per square foot in rent, gallery owners will pay $1.15 and retail shop owners will pay $1.25. Per the RFP guidelines, City-appointed committees will decide which proposals to recommend to City Council. Under the old system, a committee of artists was responsible for that.

A handful of tenants say they feel targeted by the City’s stricter RFP process. Why not make the process more sympathetic to the business owners who have been in the space for decades?

“There’s always been an RFP process; anybody who wanted to apply for a building could,” said Tanya Clark, owner of Scentchips and the La Villita Cafe. “Before, it was a little more organic, more of a natural selection of businesses, but now it’s very arbitrary.”

The RFP guidelines have evolved somewhat since the City first released them. The most recent change extended the submission deadline and broadened some of the criteria tenants were concerned about. Originally, the City had assigned a purpose to each of the 20 retail buildings up for bid, designating nine spaces for working artist studio galleries, eight for galleries and five spaces for retail shops. Artist and retail applicants were instructed to apply for a specific building. With the latest change— which Padron said was made based on feedback from stakeholders–the department says that each building is “recommended” to serve its designated purpose, but interested vendors “are not prohibited” from proposing one of the other two designated purposes. 

“The RFP’s are not set in stone, it’s just a mechanism to encourage participation,” Padron said. 

“La Villita is right there in the middle of downtown, and it should be an active player, not just a place that people walk through,” said Assistant City Manager Ed Belmares, who oversees the DCCD. “We want to cast a net broadly, and tenants have been informed, and they’re welcome and invited to provide a response, and if they’re the best, they can continue to be in that space; having been there (already) shouldn’t preclude somebody else to provide a proposal to the city.”

Some tenants also remain concerned that the guidelines dictate the kinds of merchandise each type of shop can carry, such as a requirement that half of the work displayed in a working-artist gallery be handcrafted on the premises or that at least 90 percent of art exhibited in gallery spaces must be handmade offsite. The guidelines also require tenants to host exhibitions and events a few times a year. 

Henry Cardenas, a painter and one of six co-owners of La Villita’s Little Studio Gallery, called the process and RFP “daunting.” He wants the City to allow bidders to determine the ratio of merchandise to sell, but he said his group of artists would be submitting a proposal to keep their building. “It’s [the City’s] rightful decision to issue an RFP, but they should make it a bit easier for artists not just here at La Villita, but artists all over the city,” Cardenas said. “Let us do what we think is the right mix.”

Just what is the right mix of art and merchandise for La Villita? Are those guidelines needed to ensure a quality shopping experience? Right now, a majority of the village’s shops carry things like imported Mexican art, locally handmade jewelry, and paintings by area artists, and galleries feature local work as well as other artists from around the country. Perhaps, though, the guidelines in the RFP aim to limit the amount of mass-produced tchotchkes that have crept into a few shops over the years. 

Local business owner Javier Roman, is president of the San Antonio Farmers Market Association, which represents more than 50 businesses in Market Square just blocks from La Villita. He understands the frustrations felt by the La Villita tenants.

“From a business standpoint, it makes it difficult to conduct your business if the City can end contracts any time for any reason,” he said. “For many years, [La Villita shop owners] were ignored by the City. Nobody cared about what happened at La Villita.”

Market Square is also overseen by DCCD, Roman said, and changes that he and his fellow business owners have advocated for for their space have happened slowly. From his perspective, the City’s intention to breathe new life to La Villita is good, but he questions how the RFP process fits in.

“To me, it’s easier to fix what you have in place rather than go through this negative thing that’s been created,” he said. “Why replace individuals instead of working with them?”

Emotions, understandably, are running high, especially for tenants whose families have owned La Villita businesses for years. Some longtime tenants have already moved on, leaving seven vacant buildings in the square. Alice and Jack Knight vacated their gallery in mid-September to spend more time at their space in West Texas. Patricia Fugitt of Found Objects left her beloved store this summer, before the RFP guidelines were broadened, saying she felt mistreated by the City. Fugitt, who still lives in San Antonio and works as a full-time artist and graphic designer, said she decided not to apply for her building because she felt the City wasn’t being transparent.

“I was told that I could not have my building, that I was going to have to apply for another building,” she said. “It was very hard for me to leave there; it was what I loved.”

Not all La Villita tenants are unhappy. Alejandro Sifuentes, who owns and runs the Equinox Gallery (which specializes in metalsmithing) facing Plaza Juarez, sees opportunity in the changes. He looks forward to more public events and programming promised by the City, and to hosting more artists and exhibitions at his own gallery.

“We shouldn’t be hidden, people should be coming here,” Sifuentes said. “I don’t think any plan is perfect, but you have to deal with the humanity of it.”

Changes to La Villita are already moving forward. When it approved the 2015 budget last month, City Council secured more than $400,000 in funding for an enhanced marketing campaign and website redesign. Just in the last few weeks, plans for better landscaping and WiFi installation are underway.

Maintenance funding for La Villita also comes from a portion of the revenue generated during NIOSA, which is hosted annually by the San Antonio Conservation Society.

Adame, who plans to propose small mosaic and glass bead classes in her application to keep her space, said that while she’s wary of the process, she’s hopeful about what’s next, even if she doesn’t quite know why the City is going about it this way.

“I’m encouraged that they’re doing what they’re doing, that they seem to be taking an interest,” she said.