With a unanimous vote Friday, the Historic and Design Review Commission granted final approval for a 14-story hotel next to St. Mary’s Catholic Church on the San Antonio River Walk.

The developer, SMS-SAR Hospitality, will lease the property from the church. The multistory rectory and garage currently located at 202 N. St. Mary’s St. will be demolished. Construction is slated to start later this summer, said architect Mark Hornberger.

While commissioners were supportive of the design overall, some had concerns about the river-level landscaping and retaining wall plan. It strays from the original 1939 plans Robert H.H. Hugman had for that stretch of the River Walk to accommodate stairs and a ramp leading to a seating area.

Hugman’s plan, however, was never realized in some sections of the River Walk, said Cory Edwards, the City’s deputy historic preservation officer. Much of the River Walk – including the section where the hotel will be built – has been altered since Hugman’s plan was laid out.

Edwards described the retaining walls in that section as “a little bit of a hodgepodge,” containing a mix of original and newer stones.

The project’s landscape architect said that nearly all of the stones will be salvaged and reused in the new construction.

Commissioner Gabriel Velasquez, who represents District 3, said the sharp angles of the planters should be reconsidered to keep the sweeping curves Hugman envisioned.

“The project is very beautiful but you have to just listen to the river,” Velasquez said. “[Hugman’s vision] begs every building in that environment to try its best to graft itself to the river.”

This rendering shows the scale of Hotel Sul Fiume in relation to St. Mary's Catholic Church.
This rendering shows the scale of Hotel Sul Fiume in relation to St. Mary’s Catholic Church. Credit: Courtesy / Hornberger + Worstell

The Conservation Society of San Antonio sent a letter in opposition to the demolition of the rectory and modification of the retaining walls.

The rectory should be considered a historic landmark and the River Walk has “lost too many original walls,” they wrote.

The hotel, called Hotel Sul Fiume, will be a 147-room, 127,000-square-foot tower. Sul Fiume is Italian for “on the river.” The lease revenue from the property will generate a new revenue stream for St. Mary’s Catholic Church.

Hotel Sul Fiume is kitty-corner across the San Antonio River from an 18-story hotel currently under construction next to the Esquire Tavern.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused mass unemployment, development activity continues in San Antonio. It has hit the tourism industry especially hard and many hotels remain closed.

HDRC, which typically meets two Wednesdays per month, has scheduled extra meetings to catch up with a backlog of cases from its nearly two-month hiatus and hear new cases in a timely fashion.

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org