Carlos Guerra: Another soon-to-be-displaced River Walk businessman sues

Web Posted: 11/15/2005 12:00 AM CST

San Antonio Express-News

The very soul of San Antonio is at stake, Justin Arecchi says of the need to stop "the suburbanization of the River Walk." If the corporate giants that are in every suburban mall are allowed to squeeze out the local mom-and-pops, the River Walk will simply turn into a nondescript mall with a waterway. It was the small local businesses, after all, that made the River Walk an attraction so uniquely San Antonian that efforts to replicate it elsewhere have flopped miserably. But now, his Justin's Ice Cream and three other small eateries nearby are about to be evicted to make room for a Saltgrass Steak House, the city's third. It's owned by Landry's, which already operates 10 restaurants in town, including Joe's Crab Shack, Landry's, and soon, the Rainforest Cafe on the River Walk and has been awarded the city's HemisFair Tower restaurant concession.

A post-Great Depression "make work" project, the River Walk didn't start taking off until HemisFair closed in 1968, when a few visionaries opened small businesses close to the Casino Club Building.

Over three decades, a succession of small businesses there started the transformation of the once-forlorn "American Venice."

One of the risk-takers is Dale Woods, a businessman who went to the River Walk in 1988 to ponder his next venture.

"There wasn't any pizza around," the 60-year-old says, "so I decided to try that," opening Pieca d'Italia in a tiny, river-level Casino Building space. Over 17 years, he expanded to the street level and also created Italia Ristorante.

The hardest times came from things like city-driven "improvement" projects that rehabbed buildings to house out-of-town corporate tenants, and there was also the infamous Tri-Party project that in the 1990s drove many small downtown business out by making them virtually inaccessible.

"When Tri-Party was finally over, those of us that survived threw a party," he laughs, "and we set up tables on the Presa Street bridge over the River Walk and didn't close down the street because there was no traffic."

But unlike Arecchi, who has resigned himself to closing his River Walk location of 25 years, and the Hunan River Garden Restaurant's owners, who plan to retire, Woods is taking his landlord and Landry's to court, accusing his landlord of denying him his option to renew his lease, and charging Landry's with tortuous interference for negotiating with the landlord.

Woods' attorneys, Jon Powell and Jason Speights, say they feel good about Woods' case, and their pleadings include letters that seem to support their contentions.

But their suit is as much about preserving the River Walk's unique character, something all San Antonians have a stake in, as about his businesses, they say.

Asked what could be done to stop or at least slow the takeover of the River Walk by nameless corporate entities, Arecchi and Woods offered similar solutions.

Instead of just investing in hotel and other tourism subsidies, the city should mount strong efforts to promote downtown housing for more than high-dollar tenants. If downtown is the personal backyard of more San Antonians, they will treasure it as such.

Additionally, both said that the city must look at parking less as a source of revenue from fees, tickets and towing and more as a service, not just for visitors but also for downtown businesses and their employees and for residents from other parts of the city.

To contact Carlos Guerra, call (210) 250-3545 or e-mail His column appears on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays