The walk from the scenic and shady Main Plaza in the heart of downtown San Antonio west to the colorful shopping, entertainment, and dining spot Market Square takes all of about five minutes.
Along the path is a block of West Commerce that once teemed with shoppers and workers going back more than a century. But despite efforts to revitalize the urban core during the last decade, the storefronts here are empty and, save for work on the San Pedro Creek Culture Park, it’s a stretch that’s deserted, unwelcoming, and blighted.
But change is coming to what’s known as the Zona Cultural, named in 2015 by the Texas Commission on the Arts one of the state’s metro cultural districts.
“A year from now, it looks a lot different,” said developer James Lifshutz.
In another year, water should be flowing through the creek, and the adjacent Texas Public Radio (TPR) Plaza behind the Alameda Theater will be landscaped, he said. Road repair to Commerce Street will be complete.
Lifshutz acquired in 2018 the vacant building at 337 W. Commerce St., once home to the former Kline’s. The department store took up more than half the block, obstructing the front door to the new headquarters for TPR, he said, and creating “a terrible pedestrian experience.” Lifshutz was on the board of the public radio station at the time.
Since then, in the Zona Cultural, Frost Tower has opened and construction on the University of Texas at San Antonio School of Data Science and National Security Collaboration Center is underway.
In addition, developer Weston Urban has big plans for the former Continental Hotel, once home to the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District offices, at 322 W. Commerce St.
“Those are just more components kind of layered on top to just make it so obvious that this west edge of downtown – the historic Laredito – was really going to come back to life,” Lifshutz said.
A vision for revitalizing West Commerce Street and connecting it to the civic center dates to the 1990s when he was serving on a downtown advisory board. But it is a section of downtown that got left behind while other nearby areas, such as Houston Street and more recently the East Commerce Street block between Soledad and North St. Mary’s streets, have been revitalized.
“This is just kind of the last edge of downtown that has not really seen much in the way of dollar investment,” he said. “So it’s finally come.”
The developer’s vision for the shuttered department store is to rehabilitate the structure and create space for a restaurant and catering operation that could serve area residents, tourists, and people attending future TPR events.
The old department store known as Kline’s first opened in 1896 in another nearby building and soon after moved to the building on West Commerce. It sold men’s work clothing, shoes, and uniforms for fire department officers and security guards, said Fred Kline, whose great-grandfather of the same name founded Kline’s with a brother.
The store was successful and especially popular for men’s hats of all kinds – Stetsons, Resistol, and dress hats that government officials wore at the time, Kline said. During World War II, Kline’s helped local firemen who couldn’t leave their post by sending two cars out to stations around town to cash their paychecks and sell clothing.
“That went on for a couple of years until we decided, ‘Wait a minute, this is a little bit dangerous,’ because you had to carry a fair amount of money to cash the checks,” Kline said. “So that stopped.”
Kline began working at the store in 1964 when his father retired from the family business.
But in the late 1980s, when road construction for a downtown transportation improvement project made Commerce Street less inviting, and the Shops at Rivercenter mall opened, his sales suffered.
“A lot of businesses went out at that time,” Kline said. In 1988, he sold Kline’s to one of the store managers and opened a sportswear outlet near North Star Mall.
The Kline’s name remains, spelled out in black and white tile at the doorway to the spacious building. But some of the interior modifications in the building, including a balcony that spans the back wall, were made by a Houston restaurateur, Kline said.
Lifshutz would not say what he paid for the 17,000-square-foot former department store; county tax records show it was assessed at $1.2 million the year he purchased it, but it is now valued at $1.9 million.
He said the project to adapt and reuse the building is in the works as he seeks a food and beverage operator to start leasing the space early next year. He has already demolished the front and back walls of a small neighboring space for use as an outdoor dining area he refers to as the Paseo.
On one side of Lifshutz’s property is a 1940 red-brick building owned by developer Curtis Gembler, and on the other, a 1935 building next to the creek owned for two decades by an investor group. Both appear to be vacant.
“We’ve talked to some groups that are interested in event space for banquet-type events and a potential rooftop bar, which I think would be a cool use,” said Patrick Shearer, broker for the creekside property.
But Shearer said he is waiting for road construction and other development along the street to be completed before making any moves. He’s confident that will happen. “In a year, you won’t recognize this block of West Commerce,” he said.
Opposite the property, spanning the entire city block, is the former hotel, which Weston Urban is planning to develop as a multifamily property.
“With the right investment and care, I think the whole block could really just work together in a really nice way,” he said.