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City Ordinances to Restrict Chain Restaurants -- But not Chain Hotels --
Considered to Preserve Charm of  San Antonio's River Walk

By John W. Gonzalez, Houston Chronicle
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Feb. 12, 2006 - SAN ANTONIO -- It's an array of businesses that might be found in a trendy shopping district: Starbucks, Hard Rock Cafe, Landry's Seafood, Ben & Jerry's. The fact that these and similar businesses are on the historic San Antonio River Walk has many residents wondering whether the landmark is losing its identity in a blur of corporate logos.

Responding to a public uproar, Mayor Phil Hardberger recently declared war on what he called the "McDonaldization" of the River Walk, one of Texas' most popular tourist destinations with 3.5 million annual visitors. As a result, chain operators seeking to strengthen their foothold on the river's banks soon may face tough new scrutiny -- if issues involving private property rights can be reconciled. There are no McDonald's restaurants directly on the meandering River Walk, and obtrusive signs aren't authorized. Yet, January's opening of the Rainforest Cafe and the displacement of several independent businesses for a proposed Landry's-operated Saltgrass Steakhouse ignited a lively policy debate about the increasingly apparent commercialization of the River Walk.

The soul-searching coincides with the start-up of an eight-year, $140 million construction project to improve the river channel outside the downtown area. That will enable developers to extend the River Walk's allure to other parts of the city, including the "Museum District" just north of downtown.

Hardberger said there's no way to oust existing chain-operated businesses, which include a drug store and small shops as well as wildly popular restaurants, from the heart of the River Walk's tourist district. But he said the city must impose limits, especially in newly developed areas, and perhaps impose a new regulatory framework to preserve the city's "crown jewel." "It's such a precious asset to San Antonio that the uniqueness of it must be defended," the mayor said last week. "It's not that Landry's is a bad organization. It's that their footprint gets bigger and bigger by the day on the river.

My feeling is, enough is enough," Hardberger told the Houston Chronicle. Ordinances being drafted The mayor also vowed action in his "State of the City" address last month. "I'm not going to let the 'McDonaldization' of our River Walk occur. I want Mayor Maury Maverick's legacy to reflect the community in which we live, not some strip center in Anytown U.S.A.," he said.

Ordinances to restrict chain restaurants -- but not chain-dominated hotels -- were being drafted last week. Public hearings likely will be held before a City Council vote, possibly within a month, he said. Much of the ire has focused on Houston-based Landry's, with its three River Walk restaurants including a Landry's Seafood, which opened in 1989 as the company's first venture outside Houston; a Joe's Crab Shack and now the Rainforest Cafe. Last year, the company also won the city's Tower of the Americas concession and will reopen the revitalized landmark in June, with new attractions at its base.

The company's growing footprint shouldn't alarm the city, said Jeff Cantwell, Landry's senior vice president of development. "We have no interest in taking over the River Walk. We think the charm of the River Walk is the way it's developed over time and you do have a great combination of local and national operators," Cantwell said. That combination "gives people choices and gets people back to the river on numerous occasions. You have to remember, it's not just about San Antonio residents, it's also about the tourist market that comes there," Cantwell said. "We've opened where we felt like there were good opportunities," he said.

The company has stirred controversy elsewhere, including during Landry's transformation of Kemah's Boardwalk, construction of the Downtown Aquarium in Houston and an unsuccessful bid to revamp the Corpus Christi waterfront. Cantwell rebutted local critics' assertions that Landry's was forcing out small businesses and angling to dominate the River Walk with its many brands.

Landry's continually hears from landlords seeking "credit-worthy" tenants on the River Walk, and it will continue to explore new projects there, Cantwell said. "I believe the city is going to have a difficult time putting ordinances in place that are going to restrict a property owner's ability to lease his property," Cantwell added.

Even so, Hardberger insists the city is empowered to manage development because public funds built, maintain and police the River Walk. The city owns the narrow strips of land from the water's edge to the buildings that line the banks. As part of its park system, the city leases the precious land for outdoor dining. The River Walk now has 150 businesses -- 60 percent locally owned and 40 percent chain-operated.

Empowering entities

The city's Historic and Design Review Commission, which scrutinizes architectural plans and building permits, could be given new powers to control chains, Hardberger said. The council also is mulling the creation of a separate entity to supervise only the River Walk. And at least one councilman wants the Downtown Advisory Board to play a greater role.

Whatever regulatory approach is selected, officials want it in place as new sections of the river are developed. This year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers begins improving 10 miles of channel in two segments. The first runs from Brackenridge Park near the river's headwaters to downtown. The second runs from downtown to the Spanish missions on the far south side. The river's cement drainage ditch-like channels will be replaced with natural features, but riverbank improvements that are likely to include hike and bike paths -- as well as riverfront housing and commercial developments -- are still being planned.

For some, the biggest priority is the river's downtown segment. "San Antonio has got to preserve the historic River Walk. If we let that go then we've made a mistake," Parks Director Malcolm Matthews said. The challenge is balancing the interests of small businesses against others' property rights, he added. "It's something that has been done in other cities. They (staff) are trying to evaluate that and figure out what legal grounds we can rest on if we wanted to get into the encouragement or protection of the riverfront for local and small business," Matthews said.

Balance is key to dispute

The clamor to limit chains is striking to Greg Gallaspy, director of the Paseo Del Rio Association, which represents all business operators on the river. "What really amazes me is, everybody is all upset because of Rainforest and this has been going on for 10 years," Gallaspy said, noting that chains aren't guaranteed success. Several outlets, including an Olive Garden restaurant and Planet Hollywood, have come and gone, Gallaspy noted, and chains are hardly limited to the River Walk. Downtown has plenty of them -- including several raucous entertainment venues near the hallowed Alamo. Gallaspy described Landry's, with three restaurants on the River Walk, as a "good operator."

Still, limits on chains, at least in newly developed areas, appear likely, he said. "What we want to do is ensure there's a balance. That's the key," Gallaspy said. Among those advocating a new commission with strong regulatory powers is Justin Arecchi, who lost his River Walk lease after 25 years as an ice cream vendor. His and two other businesses were asked to leave after Landry's sought the same site for a Saltgrass Steakhouse. "I went crazy looking for another place down there. I'm still looking," said Arecchi, who is opening a new shop a few miles from downtown. His Justin's Ice Cream Co. closed Jan. 1. Those not already displaced are afraid of being ousted for "whatever the next big thing is," he said. "I wouldn't mind if Taco Cabana came in. It's San Antonio. It reflects San Antonio. That's the difference." john.gonzalez@chron.com

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Copyright (c) 2006, Houston Chronicle

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