The 24-story Canopy by Hilton under construction on the tiny River Walk-facing lot is designed to be a hip and ultra-modern addition to the hotel scene in downtown San Antonio.

But its owner and developer has development roots going back a century, all across the urban core, including within the foundation of another Hilton property on Houston Street.

Architect and entrepreneur Chris Hill, owner of the Esquire Tavern among other residential and commercial projects, including the soon-to-be Canopy at East Commerce and North St. Mary’s streets, is the grandson of Russell C. Hill, an early 20th-century businessman.

Russell Hill built the Central Bank & Trust, which is now a Home2Suites by Hilton at Navarro and East Houston streets, as well as the historic Milam and Robt. E. Lee buildings.

In this century, grandson Hill is making his own mark, transforming a formerly blighted downtown block not far from Main Plaza and City Council chambers, through the Canopy project and others.

“I’m proud to follow in [my grandfather’s] footsteps and add something to downtown San Antonio,” Hill said.

Chris Hill

Construction on the Canopy began in 2017 and is expected to be completed by the third quarter of 2020, Hill said. The 197-room hotel, situated on an eighth of an acre (.1370-acre to be exact) next door to the Esquire, will have a rooftop swimming pool and an “above brand standard” eatery not typical of hotel restaurants. Gensler is the architect of record.

There are two Canopy by Hilton locations, in Dallas and Austin, with another planned for Dallas in 2020.

Though the small footprint on Commerce Street started out as a potential site for a Marriott-brand hotel, plans changed when the hotel chain chose to build its property in Dallas, which opened the door for Hilton to bring its new lifestyle-oriented boutique brand, Canopy, to San Antonio.

“It’s design-driven, it’s destination-driven and of course it’s got this incredible reservation system behind it,” Hill said. “And I think the current leadership of Hilton is really amazing. They were really becoming much more design-oriented. And I’m of the opinion that good design has value … and long-term value at that. So we thought the brand was a good match for us.”

Renderings of Chris Hill's hotel on Commerce Street. Courtesy of Lake/Flato Architects.
A rendering of the finished Canopy Hotel on Commerce Street.

Hill’s Crockett Urban Ventures received a $7.4 million incentive package for two projects that include historic preservation, four housing units, 195 hotel rooms, several restaurant and retail spaces, and River Walk infrastructure and access improvements.

“I know a lot of people aren’t for hotels getting incentive packages,” Hill said. “I think the City was really smart. The taxes to go toward education are not abated at all. That’ll be a huge amount of taxes that this project [will provide] … and a good example of a City helping make good things happen.”

The circa-1866 Witte building at 135 E. Commerce and currently under construction is another of Hill’s projects. He is converting the three-story building into four micro-apartments on the top floor and a private dining room on the second floor.

The Witte Building at 135 East Commerce.
The Witte Building at 135 E. Commerce St.

At street level will be a new restaurant run by a pair of well-known local chefs, though he would not reveal their names. “Young guys with compelling stories and really great food,” Hill hinted.

Hill said he also owns the American Postal Workers Union building on Grayson Street near the Pearl but has no definite plans for that space yet.

“Lots going on down there – the whole Broadway thing, crazy, thanks to people with vision, style, and commitment, like [Pearl developer] Kit Goldsbury has and Silver Ventures,” Hill said. “That’s the example of a great developer who does great things for the city he’s from. If I could do anything in the smallest way like him, I’d be super.”

Hill is recognized in his own right for his attention to renovation and preservation projects, including Sendero Ranch, St. Benedict’s Lofts, El Mirador Restaurant, and the Gallagher Ranch.

But the best compliment Hill ever received, he said, is when, after investing more than $1 million in renovating the Esquire, an old customer of the bar, dressed in a suit, came through the door, looked around and said, “Hell, don’t look like ya done much.”

Hill wouldn’t have it any other way, and that’s part of what makes downtown San Antonio the best-kept secret in Texas, as he calls it.

“I think we’ve got culture and identity,” Hill said. “We’re a provincial city – big town becoming a small city and all of the advantages that affords. You get to experience urban living perhaps but still be within a fairly small, not-huge city. I think downtown gets better all the time.”

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Shari Biediger

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