Restaurant Gwendolyn Owner Throws Water on ‘Decade of Downtown’
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.
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.