News : Unchain my river

Formula restaurants have their place, but it’s not on our central park

You’re tired of hearing about the battle over allowing more restaurant chains to settle along the banks of the River Walk, you say? As you occasionally announce to your friends and co-workers, you never go down there anyway. It’s filled with tourists from Nebraska, after all. If they want a Hard Rock Café, a Rainforest Café, and a Harley Davidson shop, who are we to deny them these quotidian pleasures?

You do know, though, that most of our tourists aren’t even from as exotic a locale as Nebraska, right? According to studies conducted in the last two years, the vast majority of our visitors hail from Texas and Oklahoma. (Although now that our party-zone competition to the east is laid low for a while, we might attract some Louisianans). District 1 Councilman Roger Flores knows this. His Destination:SA initiative was the mover and shaker behind one of the surveys, presented with much fanfare at the Downtown Library last year. Flores also owns property in the River Bend area of the River Walk, and one would assume he has an interest in creating a unique, beautiful downtown environment that will draw visitors from points distant for the long haul — not just for the relatively short lifespan of trendy franchises.

Very shortly, we’ll find out where Flores and his fellow councilmembers stand on the issue. A month ago, I wrote in this space about bandleader Jim Cullum’s petition to save the River Walk from overzealous development (the petition can be found at Cullum and his supporters have collected more than 6,000 signatures and raised a ruckus, and City Hall has responded. This week the Zoning Commission was scheduled to take up a proposed change to the River Improvement Overlay District that would limit the number of chain restaurants on the river — referred to as “Formula Restaurants” for their matching menus, décor, and uniforms. (Disclosure: My husband is the District 1 representative on the Zoning Commission.) And as of this writing, City Council is scheduled to tackle the proposed changes during this week’s work session.

This is Flores’s chance to demonstrate real leadership. He ought to recuse himself from the vote but serve as a mediator who makes sure all of the interested parties are heard. He also could help build broad support for the measure by exempting locally grown restaurants and chains (Sea Island, Chris Madrid’s, and Taco Cabana should all be welcome on the river, alongside Biga on the Banks and Le Rêve, providing dining mid, low, and high with a range of cuisines). The resources that need to be maintained are a distinct San Antonio flavor and, outside the River Bend proper, verdant, peaceful walkways: Step up to fun; step down to nature.

Property owners along the River Walk who argue that they can’t develop their real estate without recourse to chains are being shortsighted. They’re looking for the fast, easy money, but our city will pay the price as it becomes more and more difficult to distinguish our River Walk from the dozens of other cities filled with Saltgrass Steak Houses and Rainforest Cafés. Worth driving to from Abilene since you’re going to Fiesta Texas anyway? Sure. Flying to from California or Europe? Not so much. And why would residents drive downtown and fight for parking by the Hard Rock when you’ve got a Bin 555 and a new Damien Watel enterprise up north?

If you think about it, it makes more sense to build the Rainforests of the world near Sea World and Fiesta Texas, and support Biga on the Banks and its ilk near the Majestic Theatre and her sister performing-arts spaces. If we must throw another bone to Tilman Fertitta, let him put a Vic & Anthony’s — his clubby, Rat Pack-ish steakhouse, of which there are only two — on the river. You’d cut down on air pollution and support the movement of foot traffic between street level and River Walk. I’m not being elitist. If I’ve got the kids in tow after a hot day on the roller coasters and we’re all wearing our Crocs, I’m all over a chain. Tripping the light fantastic in heels? I’d rather trip over a handbag in V Bar. And maybe I’d bump into you, who could no longer resist the idea of eating top-notch food prepared by a local chef while barges of passengers chatting in strange accents and languages float by your perch on a riverbank terrace.

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