A developer’s plans to transform a downtown block of vacant buildings and blighted lots along the reconstructed San Pedro Creek got the go-ahead Wednesday.

The Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) gave conceptual approval to an investor group behind Frost Tower developer Weston Urban, to rehabilitate two historic buildings that will bookend a new apartment tower between West Commerce and Dolorosa streets.

The project represents significant progress for officials, developers, and preservationists seeking to reinvigorate the Zona Cultural while protecting and showcasing its history. Commissioners congratulated the applicant and design team for developing a project that accomplishes both.

“When an applicant and an architectural team go above and beyond to come up with a solution that honors and celebrates a piece of historic stock in San Antonio, this is the kind of team that we should hold out to other people that are attempting the same thing as a success,” said architect Gabriel Velasquez, the commissioner representing City Council District 3.

Project plans by Dallas-based architects BKV Group describe a mixed-use development with 258 new residential units, a parking garage with 351 spaces, and commercial, office, and creative spaces in the renovated historic buildings.

The former Continental Hotel, built in 1896, is three stories tall and spans the length of the north side of the block fronting West Commerce. The hotel closed in the late 1970s and later served as home to the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District. Over time, the building’s storefront has been altered and its current configuration dates to a renovation in the 1980s, according to documents submitted by the applicant. 

The owner plans to restore the storefront, install a new canopy to match the original, restore wood windows, clean the masonry facade, and remove a rear addition. The rear wall of the original building will be reconstructed and a new courtyard along the San Pedro Creek Culture Park will be developed.

Similarly, renovation work on the circa-1926 Arana Building includes repairing the storefront, replacing non-original aluminum windows, cleaning masonry, restoring the street canopy, and removing a rear addition. 

Also on the site, the 19th century De la Garza House will remain in place, despite previous plans for a slight move, and be restored. The asphalt parking lot surrounding the adobe house will be removed, grading improved to its original level, and period-appropriate landscaping installed.

A site plan of the Continental Building and surrounding area shows the De la Garza House in its original location, facing Laredo Street. Credit: Courtesy / BKV Group

The 1890 O. Henry House at the corner of Laredo and Dolorosa streets, which is not original to the site, will be relocated. The application states a new site has not been determined.

“This was a long, winding road to get to this point,” Reeves Craig, vice president of multifamily for Weston Urban, said at the commissioners’ meeting. “We think that it ended up in a great spot — being able to leave the de la Garza House in its current place while providing a great place-making moment … [and] incorporating a new residential component into the middle of the block.”

Weston Urban is finalizing its purchase of the Continental Hotel property from the city, a deal approved in June 2020 with the price set at $4.7 million and a commitment from the developer to build affordable housing. Weston Urban already owns the other property on the site.

Sandwiched between the historic buildings, an empty lot currently being used by the San Antonio River Authority as a construction staging area will be the site of a new 10-story residential tower atop a 5-story parking garage.

Last month, the newly formed Bexar County Public Facility Corp. (PFC) gave approval for county officials to negotiate with Weston Urban and develop the tower as the PFC’s first affordable housing project.

If approved, developers would receive full property tax exemption for the duration of the 75-year lease in exchange for committing to rent half the units to people who make up to 80% of the area median income, or AMI, which for a family of four is $57,600. Up to 20% of those will be available to people making 60% of the AMI, and all affordable units will not exceed 30% of a renter’s income.

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.