Case 5 at the May 2 meeting of the Historic and Design Review Commission was a virtually done deal: the plans to remodel and reopen Taco Land as an outdoor bar (even though the proposal states "function is still to be determined") was going to be approved. At the meeting, held at 3 p.m. at the Cliff Morton Development and Business Center on S Alamo, the Taco Land proposal presented by architect Jonathan R. Card was part of the "consent agenda," which means all board members pretty much agreed on everything and approval was a matter of minutes.
But when the meeting started, commission member Norman Barrera, who represents District 8, surprised Card (a principal at Urbanist Design) and David Adelman (a principal at Cross & Company) by requesting the case was pulled from the consent list and sent to the "individual consideration" pile for further discussion. The reason? He has a problem with the tagging on the murals at Taco Land.
"Tagging is unlawful," Barrera said. "The city spends hundreds of thousands of dollars cleaning up tagging. Tagging should not be in existence along the river north, and whatever motion we make should stipulate you remove the tagging. You can keep the murals, but remove the tagging. I saw the photographs and I see obvious tagging on top of the murals."
Card and Adelman had no problem with the request and showed their willingness to let the commission see the murals. At first it seemed as if the commission would go ahead and approve the plans on the spot, pending the murals issue. But Barrera, at that point the only commission member not willing to fully approve the project, wanted to take up the issue again after the commission saw the murals in person.
Echoing comments made earlier by commission member Kathryn Rodríguez (District 5), fellow member Michael Connor (District 4) said, "I'm confident the owners know the difference between a piece of art and tagging. I don't need to go there personally and see," suggesting the commission moves for a fast approval. But when the voting started, four members agreed with Barrera and voted "yes" (approval is granted but construction can't begin after the commission sees the murals) and only two (Connor and Rodríguez) voted "no" (go ahead and approve now, confident the new owners will clean up the tagging).
After the meeting, the mood in the applicant's team was bittersweet. On the one hand, they were pleased the commission accepted every single proposed change at Taco Land, but surprised that the project will have to wait because of just one member's concerns about the art. This is no minor point: the proposal clearly states that the applicants "will maintain the existing monument masonry wall and the urban art and Ram portrait on the south building. The applicant plans to keep as many features of the existing buildings as possible. All new materials will mimic or relate to existing materials." Besides, if the commission moves fast, the re-opening of Taco Land could take place as soon as "four or five months" from now, according to Adelman. If not, the re-opening could take place as late as the winter.
"The graffiti is part of the character of the place, and we want to keep it," said Card at the meeting, but both he and Adelman agreed to take care of the tagging problem.
"I wished they had taken a look [at the murals] beforehand, but we're happy to come back," Adelman told the Current, "we're happy to work with the City. And I'm confident the commission will approve of the art."
The idea is to keep as much of the original Taco Land, but turn the property into a comfortable outdoor bar.
"The bar will stay, the dancefloor (or drinking floor, whatever you want to call it) will stay but it will be opened up so you will see the tree above it and the river outside," said Nick F. Sirianni, development manager with Area Real Estate, who added that only the kitchen section will retain the ceiling and turned into a seating area.
"It's more of a removal than remodeling," said Card. "We’re pulling out the parts that really don’t function anymore and using what was before neglected, like the tree. In the past, the tree just happened to be there, now we’re going to take full advantage of it."
With the ceiling removed, patrons of the new Taco Land will now be able to see the immense heritage oak tree above the original stage area.
"The first thing [Aldeman] and [actor and co-owner Ricardo Chavira] did when they signed the papers was having the city come out and assess the tree to help it live," said Sirianni. "They’ve already trimmed some branches to help make sure the tree survives. It’s a heritage oak you just can’t replace."
No decision has been made on where the stage will be located.
"[The stage will be kept] either in the same place where it was or it might be moved to the [outdoor] corner where the road meets the river," Sirianni said. "We’ll feel it out, but live music will be a part of [the new Taco Land]. Which part, we’re still trying to figure it out."
"Yes, music is going to be there, but in the same way Ram [Ayala] had music — no scheduled events necessarily in the beginning," said Chavira. "I don’t think it’s going to be an every weekend kind of thing, but we will have some nice limited musical engagements going on, small performances for sure. And if it becomes a popular spot for live music, yeah, we can do it more often. I would love that. I’d like to see what is it that San Antonio wants out of it too. We want to give [the people] the opportunity to come and help us shape what this is going to be. We’re a team that’s more than willing to listen. We want this place to thrive."
Will there be punk music? It's hard to tell: Taco Land will now be an outdoor venue, and noise city ordinances will be a factor. When I suggest "unplugged punk shows" to Adelman, he says, "Exactly!"
"I'm with Ricardo [Chavira] on this: I'm all for whatever people want," Adelman said. "But we're dealing with a noise factor now, so we'll see."
Other changes include:
- The concrete outside, considered a trip hazard, will be removed and turned into stepping stones throughout the front area.
- The back bench will be torn apart and rebuilt along with the original sitting.
- The original restrooms will be turned into private drinking rooms.
Most of the original building (including the front wall, original sign and, hopefully, the art) will be kept. But the property has no operators yet.
"We’re now cleaning it up to be able to find the right person who will determine what will happen next," Adelman said. "If you hear of anybody, tell him to give me a call..."
However, no construction can begin until the commission visits the property and makes its decision about the art on the walls.
"Our staff will contact [the applicants] this week to see when they’re available and when the commissioners can go out there," Anne Glover, the city's principal planner, told the Current on May 3. "The commissioners are volunteers, so it can be a little tricky. You want both the commissioners and the applicant to be there so they’re able to talk. If not by the end of this week, we'll call them first thing next week." On Sunday, May 6, Adelman confirmed the commission had contacted them and will visit Taco Land sometime between May 7-11.
Eddie Cruz, son of Ram Ayala, is supportive of the plans to re-open his father’s joint, but with reservations.
“If it does exactly what my dad did — which was give back to the people, offering new bands [a place] to play and get exposed, not worrying about how people are dressed or how they look, and having a pool team (my dad LOVED playing pool) — then the venue should be just fine,” Cruz told the Current. “If not, then it will just turn into another venue selling overpriced entrance fees, beer, and food just like its surrounding tourist traps.” Initial plans for the new Taco Land include no entrance fees.
Pending city approval, Adelman and Card are already playing with possible new names for Taco Land.
"[Card] calls it 'Taco Land Plus,' but I prefer 'Taco Land Outdoors,'" Adelman said.
"I would vote for either of those two," Sirianni said, "but I also like 'Taco Land 2: the survival of Ram.'"
“Would I support them in the opening?” asked Cruz. “Of course I would. It might not be the same, but it is an honor to my father.” — Enrique Lopetegui