More than six years have passed since a developer first released plans to turn a blighted industrial site on San Antonio’s East Side into a mixed-use development; renderings showed people and pets strolling among luxury apartment buildings and water features in the shadow of the Alamodome and Tower of the Americas. 

But the Denver Heights development dubbed Essex Modern City, heralded as a potential game-changer for the neglected neighborhood, never materialized.

Now the 7.7-acre site, a former pallet factory assessed at over $3 million according to tax records, is up for sale. 

An online listing by commercial real estate brokers JLL describes the property at Cherry and Essex streets as offering potential buyers an irreplaceable centralized location immersed in cultural diversity, surrounded by a growing population. “Call for pricing,” it states. 

A flurry of interest from potential buyers is what influenced Harris Bay, the Sacramento-area real estate company that owns the undeveloped property, to put it on the market, said Jake Harris, founder and managing partner of real estate investment company Harris Bay.

“We’ve had several groups from outside San Antonio start looking at it, I assume because of Broadway East and Lone Star bringing a lot of attention,” said Harris. (Development of Lone Star appears to have stopped, as that property, too, is once again up for sale.)

Investment firms from Texas, New York and Florida have contacted Harris Bay about the Essex site, Harris said. “We solicited JLL to manage those interested groups and see who else may be interested.”

The ambitious project first described by local developer Efraim Varga in 2015 called for large, luxury housing and commercial development with a vertical urban farm, an autonomous shuttle to downtown and a climbing wall. 

City Council approved zoning changes in April of 2016 to allow Varga and his partners to build 100 units within the mixed-use complex. Harris Bay purchased the site in July of that year, planned a groundbreaking for the following year, but then halted work on the project.

An architect associated with the project said at the time it would not go forward until Union Pacific completed an engineering and safety assessment for a quiet zone. The development site is adjacent to a railroad line bordering the west side of Denver Heights, and there are six railroad crossings in the area where crews regularly sound horns to warn approaching cars. 

In the meantime, seeking to keep interest and momentum going, Harris Bay partnered with an event organizer to host “Second Saturdays,” during which the community was invited to watch artists paint vibrant murals on the loading docks, and produce Essex Fest, a music and arts festival. 

The inaugural event in 2019 featuring R&B and hip hop artist Ashanti was not repeated and the site largely grew quiet again except for mural admirers. A planned Dec. 2020 blood drive was canceled due to lack of participation. Vargas ended his association with the development that year.

In July 2021, a New Jersey-based lender, Kennedy Funding, announced that it had closed on a $3.46 million land loan to support the construction of Essex Modern City.

“All Essex Modern City needed was the funding — everything else was in place,” said Kevin Wolfer, CEO, Kennedy Funding. 

Plans for Essex Modern City include condos, apartments, retail, office and other commercial space.
A 2017 design rendering of Essex Modern City included condos, apartments, retail, office and other commercial space. Credit: Courtesy / Harris Bay

Harris said the new funding would not be spent on infrastructure to complete the railroad project, but would bring the project closer to becoming a reality. As for the quiet zone, he said, “We are preparing for the likelihood that it does happen.”

Robert Melvin, president and CEO of San Antonio for Growth on the Eastside, said the challenges that come with the property might mean a developer needs to start approaching it in “smaller chunks” in order to gain traction.

“I think that the Essex is a very unique property that has so many unique qualities that people are interested in preserving and celebrating,” Melvin said. But creating something that pencils out for the developers appears to be a challenge, he added.

As Essex Modern City has floundered, other East Side projects have moved full speed ahead. 

Work continues on the Texas Research and Technology Foundation’s innovation and research development VelocityTX, and Vaquero Ventures plans to break ground on a 342-unit residential development at 1220 E. Commerce St. this summer. 

In a text message on Monday, Harris said he thinks San Antonio’s rapid growth is spurring greater interest in the Essex property. “As such, we are willing to partner or sale all or part of the project,” he said. 

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Shari Biediger

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