A contemporary, art-centric residential complex planned for the East Side may be back on the drawing board. 

Five years ago, Sacramento-based developer Harris Bay announced plans to turn a former pallet factory in the Denver Heights neighborhood into a development called Essex Modern City

In that time, the property at 51 Essex St. showed some signs of life, hosting a music and arts festival and inviting artists to create murals that blanket many of the old factory walls. 

Although the apartments and commercial spaces developers envisioned at the 8-acre site never materialized, the project now might be inching forward.

A New Jersey-based lender, Kennedy Funding, announced recently that it has finalized a $3.46 million land loan to support construction of Essex Modern City, proposed as a $150 million residential and mixed-use development near the Alamodome. 

“When it came to Essex Modern City, the time to develop in San Antonio could not have been more ideal,” said Kevin Wolfer, CEO, Kennedy Funding, adding that developers are working on completing a map of the forthcoming development. “All Essex Modern City needed was the funding — everything else was in place.”

Harris Bay founder Jake Harris said in a text message that the group is very excited that the project is close to becoming a reality. “The secured funding will allow the project to move forward with the next portions of the residential development,” he said. “We have interested parties for both apartments and townhomes.”

Plans for Essex Modern City call for 80,000 square feet of retail space, 80,000 square feet of office space, and approximately 800 residential units of varying sizes, plus parking areas, according to a Kennedy statement. But the coronavirus pandemic has forced the developer to shift those plans somewhat. 

Plans for Essex Modern City include condos, apartments, retail, office and other commercial space.
Renderings for Essex Modern City show condos, apartments, retail, office, and other commercial space. Credit: Courtesy / Harris Bay

Harris said that due to “headwinds related to COVID,” the office space could be downsized or phased to the end of the project’s timeline. 

Equity investor and loan funds were already in place to get the project started, Harris said, but the Kennedy loan will “take the project to the next steps” and go toward initial planning and engineering at the site. 

But, counter to what Kennedy included in his press release about the loan, Harris said via text that it won’t be used to support the infrastructure needed to complete a railroad “quiet zone,” which he said has delayed the project since it was first announced. 

Union Pacific train tracks run nearly the entire western edge of the Essex property in an area that is increasingly less industrial. 

A quiet zone — where crews do not routinely sound the horn at crossings — is created when the city installs safety improvements such as one-way conversions, quad gates, medians, signs, and pavement markings — or closes crossings. The quiet zone must be approved by the Federal Railroad Administration. In San Antonio, there are at least 10 quiet zones.

“[The] quiet zone has been a holdup not only for us but several projects that I am aware of, as that part of [the] tracks is one of the only areas in all of downtown that doesn’t have the safety improvements,” Harris said. 

The noise has posed quality-of-life challenges for the Denver Heights and Lavaca neighborhoods for many years, he added. 

District 2 Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez did not return calls requesting an update on the quiet zone project.

Shari Biediger

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