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The more the River Walk changes, the more it looks the same — as everywhere else

“We don’t want to be defined by national chains on our river,” warned Mayor Phil Hardberger at the January 5 City Council meeting. “There’s a danger of that happening. The River Walk is a place of beauty a defining feature of San Antonio.”

At issue was an ordinance allowing the Rainforest Café to lease patio space on the River Walk for five years, in addition to operating an indoor restaurant near the Crockett Street bridge. Rainforest Café is owned by Houston-based Landry’s Restaurants, Inc., a national corporation that owns several businesses, including Joe’s Crab Shack and Saltgrass Steakhouse, and contracted with the City to renovate and operate the Tower of the Americas.

Robert Martinez, an independent vendor and 15-year owner of Caricatures, a small, local business on the River Walk, asked Council to reconsider the ordinance. He is concerned national franchises will crowd out the local businesses — and flavor — of one of Texas’ top tourist attractions. “I would like to be granted `a` fair opportunity to vend on the River Walk,” Martinez explained.

His business, which consists of an easel, artists’ materials, and a stool, has been relocated along the river several times. On December 13, he met with the Parks and Recreation Department as a result of a lawsuit mobile vendors filed against the City in 2004 after it passed a no-vending ordinance and began issuing citations to violators.

Martinez now has a month-to-month agreement with the City for the space, but is seeking a long-term agreement.

After Martinez asked District 1 Councilman Roger Flores to speak with him, Flores glibly replied, “I would be more than happy to speak to you outside of this room.”

Although the rest of the Council remained silent, Hardberger voiced his thoughts on the River Walk’s chainification. “The uniqueness of the River Walk is being threatened,” he said pointedly. “`It` is a public institution that was created with public funds.” He warned that approving this ordinance should “sound the alarm for San Antonio River profitability of national chains coming to the River Walk.”

Hardberger reluctantly supported the ordinance only because “the owners have put time and money” into the endeavor.

District 4 Councilman Richard Perez seconded Hardberger’s sentiment, emphasizing the importance to “maintain `our` small-town integrity. Small businesses with character add to the allure of San Antonio,” he said, adding that they are the “economic engine that drives a large part of this community.”

Parks and Recreation Director Malcom Matthews explained the details of renting commercial and patio space on the River Walk. Clients pay rent to the property owner, although in Landry’s case, the company owns the building at 517 N. Presa, where the Café will open. Clients also pay a fee based on square-footage of the outdoor patio space that goes to the City. That amount ranges from $1.04 to $1.87 per square foot, based on location and when the contracts were negotiated; some businesses that have been on the River Walk for many years pay less.

According to Matthews, San Antonio earns about $300,000 annually in rent for patio space, which goes into a River Walk Capital Improvement Fund. The money is then allocated to various projects throughout the River Walk for cosmetic, structural, and other improvements.

J. Fertitta, chairman, president, and CEO of Landry’s Restaurants, Inc., defended the Rainforest Café and pointed out the investments Landry’s has made in San Antonio. The company employs approximately 4,000 workers and is spending $9 million on the Tower of the Americas contract, which Fertitta said “will mushroom.”

District 10 Councilman Chip Haass chimed in that Landry’s investments have “been a good steward for helping San Antonio.”

District 5 Councilwoman Patti Radle voted yes on the ordinance, but like Hardberger, noted hers was “a vote of caution to be mindful to maintain the `River Walk’s` uniqueness.”

Flores explained that he has to “wear multiple hats,” because he lives in, operates businesses in, and represents District 1. Flores, who owns Little Mitla, a street-level restaurant on Jefferson, and Paloma, a River Walk restaurant located near the Rainforest Café, expressed the importance of “creating additional parameters to represent what every citizen wants `On` what we feel impacts the ambiance for workers, vendors, operators, and visitors alike.” He meandered around to the issue of the River Walk expansion, saying, “now that the U will soon be a loop. We will have more room.”

The question remains: Room for what?

By Francesca Camillo


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