Three major downtown developments in San Antonio were considered viable and received praise from the Historic and Design and Review Commission on Wednesday: a 19-story mixed-use apartment building that connects Commerce Street to the River Walk, a midscale hotel a few blocks away from the Alamo, and a combination boutique hotel-luxury condominium project on a sliver of land on the River Walk near the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.

“It’s an indicator that there’s such great momentum for the environment that welcomes these kind of investments downtown,” said Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), whose district includes downtown.

Treviño, who is an architect himself, credits the city’s infill development incentives and the growing demand for more urban amenities as two of the main reasons for the recent influx of mid- and high-rise projects during the so-called “Decade of Downtown” started by former Mayor Julián Castro. Another factor, he said, was the city’s growing stock of mindful developers and architects.

“Some developers are wanting to contribute to our city and the fabric of downtown,” he said, adding that many have done so “in a very beautiful and thoughtful way.”

Keep in mind, however, that the “Thompson Riverwalk Hotel” (working title for the condo-hotel building) and Tru Hotel projects were granted preliminary and conceptual approval respectively and The Floodgate apartment building still has some work to do with the Commission’s Design Committee. Each will still need to come back to HDRC for final approval in the coming months and some designs and specifications, such as total room/unit numbers, are subject to change.

And not all of these projects are entirely funded.

“We’re investigating (financing),” local developer Keller Henderson said of The Floodgate project designed by Overland Partners. As for the total price, “that depends on the Design Review Committee to see what that’s going to cost.”

Plans for a 21-story AC Hotel by Marriott hotel, also designed by Overland Partners, were abandoned by developers according to news reports on Wednesday. Dallas-based Woodbine Development Corporation backed out of the 252-room hotel that would have partially demolished the former Solo Serve building on Soledad Street and gutted the interior of nearby historic buildings. According to the Express-News, “investors questioned whether the city has too many hotel rooms.”

(Read more: River Walk Hotel Developers Go Back to the Drawing Board)

The Floodgate – Upscale Apartments, Retail and Restaurant

The Floodgate, named for the nearby floodgate on the River Walk, would bring 55 one-bedroom units to East Commerce Street – the same street that Esquire Tavern owner and developer Chris Hill received partial approval to build a 24-story 194-room boutique hotel on last month. The plan includes parking, for residents only, in an automatic garage.

Due to the “economic hardship” that maintaining the dilapidated, designated historic structures would cause – as in, the return on investment isn’t high enough to justify the added cost of preservation – the commissioners agreed that the buildings at 139 and 141 E. Commerce could be demolished. The buildings were extensively modified by previous owners to the point that what remains isn’t worth saving, Henderson said. The buildings are now owned by out-of-town investors.

Hill praised the project, but expressed concerns to the Commission about the demolition of the historic structures.

“It’s a beautiful design,” he said. “But it’s important to maintain some historic (facades) on the block.”

Developers would also like to dismantle the historic retaining wall on the River Walk level and incorporate it somehow into the proposed breezeway between Commerce Street and the river. That’s where commissioners got a bit hung up.

“The huge expanse of the opening takes a bit away from the magic of the River Walk,” said Commissioner Daniel Lazarine. The Robert H. Hugman design, he added, provided for small surprises and intimacy. The cavernous, open design – while giving the pedestrian an opportunity to more clearly appreciate the floodgate feature – removes the passageway feel.

The relationship between the bottom of the hotel and the public space of the River Walk is paramount, said HDRC Vice Chair Michael Conner. He agreed with the San Antonio Conservation Society’s remarks made beforehand that there needed to be a more “simplified, human scale” design that was more “park-like.”

The commission voted to send the design back to committee to specifically focus on how the building relates to the River Walk.

The current tenants, Jerry’s Hot Dogs, a pay-day and title loan vendor, bargain jewelry shop and other small novelty shops, Henderson said, are on short-term leases. The street and River Walk level would feature street- and breeze way-facing commercial space.

“The most important part (of the ‘Decade of Downtown’) are the efforts from city council and the mayor’s office,” Henderson said. “Their focus on downtown and interest in revitalizing downtown really creates a positive community for developers and for citizens and businesses.”

He hasn’t applied for development incentives yet, he said. “But we will.”

The ‘Thompson Riverwalk’  – Boutique Hotel, Condominiums

On a narrow strip of land on Lexington Avenue and the River Walk, developers of the 19-story Thompson Hotel chain and condominium project hope to capitalize on the success of the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, a stone’s throw away across the San Antonio River.

Designed by Powers Brown Architecture, founding principal Jeffrey Brown presented plans for 61 residential units, 167 luxury hotel rooms, and commercial/restaurant space on the street level that overlooks the river. The Houston-based architecture firm is working with internationally renowned landscape architecture firm SWA to create respectful landscaping, more public access to the river, and to “activate our knuckle” of the River Walk, Brown said.

It’s a small knuckle, but the design makes the most of the space, commissioners agreed.

“It’s a very, very large challenge,” HDRC Chair Michael Guarino said of the space confinements. At some points the building is a mere six feet away from the neighboring Hotel Indigo.

“This is how skyscrapers were born,” Treviño said later. “Limited land and ambitious dreams.”

Several commissioners, including Guarino, commented on the thoroughness of the design proposal and meticulous response to suggestions and concerns by Brown and his team.

“I imagine you have an intern in your office that hasn’t had any sleep,” Guarino said.

“Two,” Brown said to a scattered laughter.

Hilton’s Tru Hotel – Midscale, targeting younger travelers

The ornamental concrete work on the building was crafted by Hannibal Pianta. Image courtesy of Open Studio Architecture.
The ornamental concrete work on the building was crafted by Hannibal Pianta. Image courtesy of Open Studio Architecture.

Before the architect presented his case for the vacant, 1920’s era building to the commission, an elderly gentleman approached the podium to address the Commission.

His name was James Pianta, grandson of prominent early 20th century businessman Hannibal Pianta, and he set the record straight on a few important details. His grandfather, who crafted the ornamental cement of this building, worked with “cast stone” or cement– not terracotta – as earlier news reports stated.

James shared with the commission large, printed photos of Hannibal’s work, including the Municipal Theatre (now the Tobin Center), City Hall, Aztec Theatre, and dozens more.

He praised the design for a two-story addition to the historic building at 901 E. Houston St. and said he was happy that none of the building’s facade would be destroyed.

In fact, almost all of the building will remain intact, said Open Studio Architecture Principal Greg Shue.

“We’re completely preserving the outside,” Shue said.

The new Tru Hotel by Hilton, which is developed and built by Baywood Hotels, is geared towards cost conscious Millennials.

The first iteration of designs had a bit more modern flair and embellishments, but Shue came back with toned-down designed that deemphasized the Tru branding and instead allowed more of the original building to shine through, Guarino said.

As more development comes to downtown San Antonio, Treviño said the City is very aware of maintaining a balance of housing and amenity options in terms of affordability.

“The right mixture of economics downtown is important,” he said. The condos on Lexington Avenue will, of course, be out of range for many but the river-front property in San Antonio will go for a song compared to prices in more built-out cities like Austin, Seattle, or New York.

The Floodgates will be marketed towards young, urban professionals. The Maverick Apartments will likely be attractive to more middle income workforce. The housing projects in Hemisfair have 50% and 10% of units saved for those earning 80% or less of the area median income.

“Whether they (apply for) incentives or not,” Trevino said. “We’re still talking to a lot of the developers making them aware of the importance (of affordability).”

*Top image: From left: The Floodgate (credit: Overland Partners), Tru Hotel (credit: Open Studios Architecture), and Thompson Riverwalk Hotel (credit: Powers Brown Architecture). 

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Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...