As Karla Cisneros said after seeing the plans for the Houston Farmers Market on Tuesday morning, the future is coming whether we’re ready or not.
In the case of the longtime community staple, at least, she just hopes the future includes some of the past and present.
Cisneros, the Houston City Councilwoman for an area that includes the eastern portion of the Heights, holds many fond memories of the 77-year-old farmers market on Airline Drive and sees it as a pillar of the neighborhood. It’s a culinary and cultural hub where visitors have taken their kids to pick out pumpkins and crack pecans, heard a cornucopia of languages and bought exotic fruits and vegetables – without spending much money.
“I hope they can really hold on to the past, because that’s really where the richness comes from,” Cisneros said. “I don’t want to just see it be upscale, high end. It’s got to stay accessible to everyone. That’s part of the charm.”
It’s also part of the pledge from real estate investor Todd Mason and world-renowned chef Chris Shepherd, who are teaming up to remodel and revitalize the farmers market. Mason is the managing principal for MLB Capital Partners, which purchased the nearly 18-acre market in 2017, and he has enlisted Shepherd to run one of a few restaurants on the property and help secure a viable mix of food and beverage vendors.
At a ground-breaking ceremony Tuesday, both said they want to attract new clientele and cater to a surrounding area that is gentrifying. Adding restaurants is part of that strategy along with creating more parking, restrooms and greenspace while replacing the old, existing structures with modern, amenitized ones.
“It has a lot of potential,” customer Mike Hoffman said while walking through the market Tuesday. “It could be cleaned up a little bit.”
Mason said the redevelopment project, which he hopes will be completed by the end of 2020, is expected to cost at least $35 million. The overhauled market will include covered, climate-controlled buildings as well as the shaded, open-air areas that make up the existing market.
Mason said the market will remain open throughout construction and that the majority of the 80-plus vendors, who are predominantly Hispanic and serve a largely Hispanic customer base, are expected to remain. He said he envisions adding 15-20 new vendors.
“I think what’s going to be really great about it is the people here now, with this, the goal is that their bank accounts are much bigger,” Shepherd said. “That they make a better income. They make a better lifestyle. That’s going to be the key to this. I feel like we succeed if that happens.”
Julie Martinez, whose parents have spent more than three decades in the farmers market as the owners of Martinez Produce, said rent has increased under the new property ownership. She also said business has declined since the January closure of Canino Produce, which spent 60 years as the storefront to the farmers market.
Even though Junior’s Produce replaced Canino, Martinez said she suspects that people in the community think the entire farmers market closed. Martinez Produce is stationed on a long walkway of retail vendors immediately behind Junior’s Produce, and further back is a group of wholesale produce vendors.
“I really want people to come back again,” Martinez said.
The plan is for the renovation to revitalize the farmers market and again make it a family-oriented destination. Along with bolstering the market’s offerings and increasing their variety, Mason said the vision for the greenspace includes community programming such as cooking demonstrations, wine tastings and local entertainment.
Cisneros said the plan unveiled Tuesday is reassuring. She likes that it also calls for reconfiguring the traffic flow and parking setup to make it safer to walk around the property, especially for children.
Longtime farmers market customer Felicia Olagbemi hopes the changes don’t come with a cost – increased prices for goods. The Katy resident said she and her family stock up on wholesale produce twice a year, freezing it until it’s ready to use, because it’s significantly cheaper than shopping at a supermarket.
“We know if it’s more modern, it might be a little more expensive,” she said. “But hopefully not too much, because a lot of us rely on it.”