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Hurrah for Main Plaza

Now how about that formula-restaurant ban ...

The word on the street more than a month ago was that the Main Plaza expansion was a done deal. Market and Commerce streets would remain open, the rumor mill said, as a compromise with local businesses, but Soledad and Main would go the way of that Talking Heads song (“Once there were parking lots/now it’s a peaceful oasis”) creating a significantly larger plaza directly connected to the River Walk. That scuttlebutt pretty much described the scene at City Council last week, when the reps passed the Main-Soledad plan 9-2. So I was concerned when a bird of a different feather whispered that the Mayor’s push to limit chain restaurants would die a slow, low-profile death this summer.

The initial proposal, drafted by City Attorney Michael Bernard and presented to the Zoning Committee in May, would have banned new “formula” restaurants from River Walk properties. It came to the table with a number of problems. Landlords whose properties already were leased to a chain could replace a lost tenant with another chain (within a 12-month period). If you didn’t already have one, too bad. “That’s kind of unfair because if you’ve already got a chain in there your property value is inherently more valuable,” notes one City Hall insider, “because you can sell the chain.”

The original definition of “formula restaurant” was also a crude tool. Uniforms, menus, and square-footage were all proposed as evidence of a chain, but that criteria could prevent locally grown businesses from expanding on the river, too. The point, after all, isn’t that Taco Cabana, Paesano’s, McDonald’s, and Rainforest Café are all chains. It’s that the former two are locally grown and unique to San Antonio, while the latter two are generic and don’t add value to the experience of visiting or living here.

It wasn’t super-surprising, then, that groups you might expect to wholeheartedly back the proposal, like the Conservation Society and Paseo del Rio, were lukewarm and downright ambivalent, respectively. Zoning gave the initial proposal a continuance, and it may resurface with adjustments in August. “Is there a chance it is dropped two months from now?” says the insider. “Yes. We don’t want to do anything to hurt any of our local people that own properties.”

But legitimate concerns over means shouldn’t kill the ends: to support the growth of local restaurants and retail, and preserve the unique character of the River Walk. The City Hall wag brings up Kemah, Texas, as an example of how a city can go wrong: “It was this beautiful place you would want to go for a weekend. Now it’s a ferris-wheel candyland with everyone selling cotton candy and cheap little trinkets.” Perhaps with the added advantage of being easier to navigate with small children than the River Walk. A friend of mine described her visiting family as “traumatized” after an afternoon of portaging a stroller past the River Bend restaurants and doo-dad vendors for an overpriced snack on a crowded patio. They won’t be back to the River Walk anytime soon. Which is to say, we need to think not only about how to lure visitors for an initial visit, but to keep them coming back, while simultaneously developing a downtown that residents will populate, too.

Can it be done? Santa Fe is one imperfect model (the “City Different,” as it’s styled itself, ranked No. 3 among Travel & Leisure’s 2005 “World’s Best: United States and Canada” cities). As the New Mexico city’s tourism cache rose, some local shops and restaurants were replaced by chains, but a strict building code maintains the city’s essential flavor, and famous local restaurants flourish on the city’s most-visited thoroughfares.

Formula restaurants aren’t all bad, and we can’t ban them entirely without violating some important economic principles. But it’s our River Walk, built and maintained to a great extent by public funds, and we can set rules about how it’s developed. Hardberger’s success with the Main Plaza proposal should encourage his staff and the City Attorney to turn a fresh eye on the formula-restaurant initiative. A little perseverence and some practical compromise — like the Market-Commerce concession — and the city can take another giant step toward protecting and renewing its most valuable assets.


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