Facebook Twitter Instagram

Restaurant Gwendolyn Owner Throws Water on ‘Decade of Downtown’

February 20, 2014

In a frank blog post for The Rivard Report, chef Michael Sohocki of Restaurant Gwendolyn (which occupies space in the Downtown building that previously housed Le Reve and Sandbar Fish House and Market), explains why he stopped lunch service at his well-respected, high-concept restaurant. Basically: not enough customers.

Chef Michael Sohocki, credit: Michael Barajas

Chef Michael Sohocki, credit: Michael Barajas

Sohocki contends that the lack of customers is directly related to the lack of people actually living Downtown.

“Our city has failed the downtown resident in several regards. People need a place to work, a place to live, somewhere to comfortably park their cars, somewhere to have fun, and somewhere to get hot dogs and toilet paper at 10 p.m.,” he writes, singling out the lack of accessible parking and a grocery store as the two main obstacles to would-be Downtown-dwellers, not to mention any truly affordable rental options.

Sohocki briefly touches on the high vacancy rate for area office buildings , which hit 33 percent last year, noting, “A walk down North St. Mary’s Street after 5 p.m. is more than a little like a cemetery. I am surrounded—surrounded—by buildings that stand empty. Let me take you for a walk around my block, I will show you at least six concrete giants with boards across the windows.”

Now, a critical person might scoff that Gwendolyn simply didn’t have the right goods for the right crowd, but as someone who’s done lunch there (and would have more were it not for, wait for it, the parking), I can attest to the great food, vibe and value that Sohocki and crew offered. It was possible to get a $10 lunch from the James Beard-nominated chef and the service was quick and efficient, too. 

That’s gone. And for what? Sohocki pointedly calls out the tourist-oriented nature of Downtown, and its at-odds approach with the new, residential focus Mayor Julian Castro touts as part of the “Decade of Downtown.” “Downtown (and the River Walk in particular) has been carefully built and wired to service the highly artificial exchange between tourists and business travelers and the multi-million-dollar corporate conglomerates that follow them. Out of the Hilton and into the Hard Rock Café. Come on, that’s not a town,” Sohocki writes.

While the “Decade of Downtown” approach is to build “2,463 housing units representing a total investment of $349.8 million … in San Antonio’s center city by the end of 2014,” Sohocki makes the point that more than a build-it-and-they-will come mindset is needed to make Downtown truly livable. There are a few initiatives, like the current rehabilitation of Travis Park, that may address the problems that Sohocki has described, but it may be too little, too late for local business owners like Sohocki.


Tags: , ,

  • kornbread

    He’s absolutely correct in his assessment of the current conditions. and in particular that area. There are a lot empty buildings in and around downtown. To be fair though, I think the “decade of downtown” is an effort to encourage change and focus on downtown. Whether or not city initiatives will actually achieve that remains to be seen.
    There are some new projects whose success will help determine how much can actually be done, and it will be at least 10 years before you see momentum (or not). Houston Street was originally targeted towards locals, but now it is getting hotels. Also, San Antonio wages are lower (really for no good reason). If people were paid a decent wage what is considered affordable changes.
    One thing I think the city should do to prove they are serious about concentrating on building up the core is to stop their growth plan of annexing. Encourage density and increase its tax base by making central San Antonio a desired location. It will be years before all the empty underutilized spaces are claimed. There’s a chance to do this right, but it will continue to be a challenge for those brave souls who decide to open a business downtown.

  • robotjosh

    I was a frequent lunch customer at gwendolyn from the first day it opened. I spent almost 2 years living downtown trying to build my career at geekdom and walked by that depressing, empty, graffiti’ed building multiple times per day. At first I saw the empty buildings as promising places that will see improvement. But after this long of no empty buildings getting improved and occupied, and found out the “for lease” sign is a lie (they won’t lease it if you call and ask) I decided to move to an area where I can make a decent salary and don’t have to wait for the area to improve. In texas it is legal to hold on to abandoned property forever and there is nothing a city can do about it. There is something I can do about it- move to where a downtown is allowed to thrive. Gwendolyn is my favorite restaurant in san antonio but where I live now there are a half dozen restaurants at least as good as gwendolyn within walking distance, few or no abandoned buildings, and for this I pay lower rent.

  • johnbanks

    go ahead blame downtown, it has nothing to do with the poor service at his restaurant.

  • downtownie

    I totally agree – I live downtown and what I would give for a GROCERY STORE -even a small one. And parking? I just park at home and walk or take the trolley. If you want there to actually be a vital downtown you have to make it attractive to people to move there instead of the suburbs or Stone Oak. Most of the people living downtown are service industry folks who are there because of the tourist industry – it would revitalize the area to try and attract local business as well.

  • Elly

    I recently moved here from the East Coast and this is absolutely not a city. It’s an expansive suburb with 10 blocks of historicish Disney World-esque touristy mediocrity and a dozen tallish buildings. King William/Southtown is the only place inhabitable for someone who seeks an urban lifestyle. I hope San Antonio steps up its downtown game. It has a lot going for it but this “downtown” is the worst.