It’s time for a performing arts district in San Antonio
Yesterday I spent some time at Plaza de Armas’ June Readers Forum “World Premiere – The Future of the Performing Arts” held at the Radius Center. It was a panel discussion moderated by Elaine Wolff with a great panel of people involved with the performing arts in San Antonio. The discussion focused on what state the performing arts are at in San Antonio and what’s in store for the future. With the renovation work currently under way for the new Tobin Center for the Performing Arts (formerly Municipal Auditorium) and with some of the new ideas planned for River North and the Museum Reach, San Antonio might actually be on the way to developing a true performing arts district downtown. So what’s in the cards and does it stand a chance?
The panel yesterday consisted of Mel Weingart, director of the Tobin Theatre Arts Fund and one of the forces behind a new opera company; Stephanie Key of SOLI Chamber Ensemble and the San Antonio Symphony; Thomas Nyman, co-creator and producer of the new musical Roads Courageous and board member of the San Pedro Playhouse; and Kevin Osterhaus of the Bunkhouse Group, which renovated and operates the Havana hotel and Ocho restaurant next door to the future Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.
It was a great panel that could talk to some of the issues and ideas being floated regarding the subject. While I won’t dig too much into the details regarding the state of the performing arts (I’m really not an expert), I can bring some light to some items discussed. For one, it appears that regardless of what might be planned it’s probably going to have to rely on private funding for the majority of any new projects or expansions. Wolff started the discussion saying that most likely the hotel occupancy tax, a source of public funds for arts and entertainment in the city, will probably remain flat for the coming year or two.
With several projects vying for those funds, including a potential Convention Center remodel to accommodate the proposed Hemisfair Park Plan, funding for other projects could take a lower priority in the mix competing for funds. As the Express-News article states, the last expansion of the Convention Center cost up to $215 million in 2001. Most likely, even with a smaller footprint than the 2001 expansion, the price tag will be about the same. While some funds might come from the 2012 bond proposal, most likely those will be targeted funds unavailable for other projects.
The Tobin Center development is well underway with private funding being raised to help cover the costs of the project. HEB has committed $5 million, Red McCombs kicked in a million, and the Tobin Endowment has provided the lion’s share at $15 million. Most likely other funding sources will come forward to help complete the project. In related news, developer Ed Cross may be helping the project by providing parking through a mixed-use development, providing parking along with apartments and businesses.
This would not be Cross’ first rodeo on this front. Having successfully completed the Vistana and currently developing 1221 Broadway, Cross is becoming the development king of downtown. But if development kicks in within the River North area, parking may not be a problem for the center through development of “park-once dispersal of strategically located public parking to leverage fewer spaces to the benefit of commercial and office space” according to the River North Plan.
The plan calls for development of a performing arts district that would encompass the Tobin Center and other developments around the center. This would be ideal for the new Museum Reach section of the Riverwalk. Currently a quiet, sleepy section with a few hotels, developing this area into a thriving performing arts district could spark development for restaurants, coffee shops, and hotels that would cater to patrons of the arts in the area.
Consider the Theater District of downtown Houston, where performing arts come to life in a concentrated collection of theaters, hotels, restaurants, and parking. Within that area are the homes of the Houston Ballet, Houston Symphony, Houston Grand Opera, and many other performing arts company. Houston is not alone in this sort of venture. Dallas continues to develop its performing arts district just on the north end of downtown.
Developing such an area in San Antonio could have so many benefits. It could help serve as a catalyst for the River North area, a great planned area on the north end of downtown but with little activity other than Cross’ rescue of 1221 Broadway. It could compliment the Riverwalk by serving as a bridge area between the Pearl Brewery complex and the main hotel/restaurant area of the Riverwalk. Patrons could start or end in each area and walk to the theaters and performance spaces in the district.
The ideas are still germinating and hopefully we’ll see more thought leadership focused on providing plans for the area. With the addition of Diego Bernal to council for District 1, who has an arts background, there may be opportunity to help provide the focus needed to help move plans forward. Bernal will probably be approached about the area and the work needed to advance solutions. But, of course, this will have to play out as Bernal is new to council and will need some time to gain a better understanding of the processes and procedures.
On a side note, the group was entertained after the forum by a workshop performance of Roads Courageous, Thomas Nyman and Kevin Parman’s creation about the life of Dr. John Brinkley, one of the most unique individuals of the early era of the last century. It’s a very entertaining musical that could end up on Broadway some day. I’m not sure what the duo’s plans are for the show but if you get a chance to catch a performance, I highly recommend it. If you want a good understanding of Brinkley’s antics, you can listen to Diane Rehm’s interview with Pope Brock about “The Charlatan.”