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Squaring Up: Developer is Counting on New Restaurants to Finally Help St. Paul Square Live Up to Its Promise 

click to enlarge LEA THOMPSON
  • Lea Thompson
When REATA Real Estate purchased Sunset Station and 11 buildings within St. Paul Square in late 2017, the firm had a vision of transforming the historic near East Side complex into a dining and entertainment destination.

Less than two years later, many of the square’s previously vacant buildings are filling up with restaurants, including Toro Kitchen + Bar and the soon-to-open Lilly’s Greenville, a new concept from Steve Mahoney, whose bar empire includes Francis Bogside and Hanzo.

St. Paul’s Square was once the center of life for San Antonio’s predominantly black East Side, but efforts to revitalize the area into a destination for both locals and out-of-town visitors have been ongoing since the early ’90s — and largely in fits and starts. Don Thomas, a partner at REATA, says he hopes the area is finally reaching critical mass.

“We’ve got some interesting and exciting local concepts that are coming to the development,” Thomas said. “Our focus is to create another local destination not unlike Southtown, Blue Star or the Pearl have done.”

REATA is also in talks with restaurateurs about leasing spaces on East Commerce Street, previously managed by San Antonio-based construction giant Zachry Corp.

As part of that expansion, Asian eatery Suck It The Restaurant is expected to open its second location at the square — a more elevated version of its original Medical Center location. REATA also is working on leases with a restaurateur with plans for an Oaxacan-style Mexican eatery, plus a new coffee and bakery concept.

“I’ve had my eye on this area for years, but it’s amazing to see how it’s grown within the last year or so,” said Mahoney of Lilly’s Greenville. “There’s so much here. Lilly’s is going to open as a simple place, a back-to-basics kind of thing.”

Beyond the expanded roster of dining options, The NRP Group which recently opened The Baldwin at St. Paul Square, added 271 new apartment units to the mix, plus additional free parking.

At the same time, the historic Sunset Station, a local events venue that once housed the popular Aldaco’s Mexican Cuisine, is gearing up to announce a rebranding effort later this summer. Aldaco’s left the space in 2014 to focus on its Stone Oak and Dominion locations.

Sunset Station’s existing management will continue operations, Thomas said, but REATA is working with local architect Candid Rogers to reimagine the space as a destination for public concerts and major events.

During the ’90s, Sunset Station hosted musical acts from Dick Dale to Lyle Lovett, but its use as a concert venue has waned.

“We want to bring that back,” Thomas said.

Even though RIATA has brought new life to the square, existing landmarks like the square’s namesake St. Paul United Methodist Church — among the oldest African-American churches in the United States — and local dive bars like Alibi’s, remain accessible and popular among neighborhood residents.

The area has also become home to a number of nonprofits and non-hospitality businesses including SA 2020, the Rivard Report and Dream Voice, the organization behind the annual DreamWeek events.

REATA said it’s working closely with local businesses and organizations to ensure that there is a dialogue between developers and residents of the East Side, which has historically been underfunded and neglected by city leaders. It’s also contributed to DreamWeek events, which celebrate African-American culture and equality.

The San Antonio Growth for the Eastside, the City-funded nonprofit overseeing East Side development efforts, was unable for comment on this story. However, some of the square’s current occupants were cautiously optimistic about the new signs of life.

As the area continues to grow, the Eastside community and area stakeholders must remain dedicated to thoughtful development to avoid displacing longtime residents and businesses, said DreamWeek founder Shokare Nakpodia. But that development does promise to bring inclusive and progressive growth, and new restaurants promise to bring more activity and economic investment.

“These new restaurants affect everyone at the square,” said Nakpodia said, who offices in the retail space above Lilly’s Greenville. “It’s early days yet, but I can see this area becoming a really major hub, leaning toward entertainment in the evening and having a very socially conscious work environment, by 2020.”

This article has been updated and corrected to reflect that the NRP group opened The Baldwin with San Antonio Housing Trust Public Facility Corp. in 2018.

So many restaurants, so little time. Find out the latest San Antonio dining news with our Flavor Friday Newsletter.

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