The Wedgwood Apartments fire that killed five senior citizens nearly four years ago became notorious because of a lack of common safety features in the building and led to changes in state law.
Now the property at 6701 Blanco Rd. near Loop 410 is being remodeled and brought up to code with developer Patrick Biernacki hoping to fill a gap in housing for middle-income seniors when it reopens in late 2019. The project, to be named the Ensemble Apartments, is already underway with the backing of Castle Hills Mayor Timothy Howell and Fire Chief Darrell Dover.
All three men were at the property Wednesday to discuss its future and show off the Castle Hills Fire Department’s new fire truck with a 100-foot ladder.
Howell said he has spoken to the families of those who died in the fire, and all were in favor of the property being improved, brought up to date with fire and safety codes, and reopened. He said no one in Castle Hills’ city government registered any concerns about remodeling the building outside of those involving updating it for safety.
“This is a monument to our city. I don’t think there was any doubt that it was going to go back up,” Howell said.
Dover was among hundreds of firefighters who responded to the fire in 2014. The 11-story building, which was built in 1965, was not equipped with a fire sprinkler system because it was grandfathered in under Castle Hills regulations.
“I told him I wasn’t going to let the building open without being fully sprinkled,” Dover said of his initial conversations about the project with Biernacki. “The state statute gives building owners a time frame to get their buildings full sprinkled by such and such date, and for me that was kind of a no-go. It was going to happen before we reopened or we weren’t going to reopen it. He understood completely.”
A state law enacted in 2015 in response to the fire calls for buildings taller than 75 feet that house at least 50 percent senior or disabled residents to have sprinklers and smoke detectors on every floor. Dover said there will be sprinklers in each of the planned 301 units with at least one sprinkler in each living room, bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, and closet.
“It’s a pretty significant task ahead of them,” Dover said.
Biernacki, who owns several apartment complexes in the urban core, said he found senior citizens to be a “massively underserved demographic in housing” while studying the San Antonio market months ago and identified the building as a perfect site in which to invest and help address the need for senior housing for those in the middle.
He said he knew it would require a large investment in remodeling, especially in regard to updating the building for safety. While he did not reveal the purchase price from March of this year, he said it was more than the $4 million at which the Bexar County Appraisal District valued the property at last year.
Biernacki said it will cost between $3 million and $5 million just to satisfy the new state requirements for fire safety. The project will also add features that go above and beyond the new law, such as installing a fire command center, which will give the fire department full access to all the building’s systems if there was a fire.
Stairways, doorways, and elevators are being updated as if the building was new construction, Biernacki said.
“The most important thing that we’re trying to get right is making sure this building is a great and safe place to live moving forward,” Biernacki said.
Click through gallery below to see renderings of the new interior.
Biernacki said the project did not receive any incentives or tax credits from city, county, or state governments other than those for which it was already eligible as a result of being on the National Register of Historic Places.
Biernacki said when finished, the new community will be called Ensemble and serve residents 55 and older. He said it will include a café with free breakfast each morning, a library, a health and wellness center, onsite management, and renovated outdoor features including a swimming pool and pond.
“It will be far and away kind of the best bang for your buck in terms of independent senior living,” Biernacki said.
Multiple former tenants have already inquired about moving back into the building, according to Biernacki, who said his team is offering a special to former tenants. He said any former tenant who lived in the building at the time of the fire can rent a unit at the same price they were paying then.
“This building has held a special place in a lot of people’s hearts,” Biernacki said. “There is a variety of people who had grandparents that were here or they lived here themselves over the years and we’re trying to do those people proud.”