Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the Historic and Design Review Commission’s June 21 vote.

GrayStreet Partners‘ proposed transformation of the long-vacant San Antonio Light campus on lower Broadway into a mixed-use office and retail complex conquered its first hurdle Wednesday when it received conceptual approval from the Historic and Design Review Commission.

For six decades, the 1931 Spanish Colonial Revival building was home to the San Antonio Light until the Hearst Corporation closed the 112-year-old newspaper in 1993. Hearst, of course, bought the San Antonio Express-News from Rupert Murdoch’s then-struggling News Corp., bringing to an end the last real daily newspaper war in Texas.

Like most of the newspaper edifices once owned by the flamboyant newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, design elements were meant to evoke a sense of castle. What once was the country’s largest chain of newspapers had been reduced to less than a dozen dailies by the time the Light folded.

At first, the buildings housed the Express-News‘ advertising, circulation, and new media operations, but as the Express-News began to contract in size and reach about a decade ago, operations were consolidated in the main Express-News building at Third Street and Avenue E. The former Light buildings sat largely vacant at 420 Broadway St., used mainly as storage space until Hearst sold the buildings and surrounding parking lots and smaller buildings to GrayStreet in December 2016.

“The Light Project,” as GrayStreet is calling it, will bring 60,000 sq. ft. of new class A office space to downtown San Antonio by spring 2018. The project takes its name from the defunct daily and from architectural firm ford, powell & carson‘s plans to replace solid brick facades with light-gathering windows and glass curtains.

Plans for a rooftop bar or restaurant on either the Light or Print buildings are in early stages.
Plans for a rooftop bar or restaurant on either the Light or Print buildings are in early stages of development. Credit: Courtesy / Ford Powell & Carson, GrayStreet Partners

The firm wants its tenants to activate the building day and night, FP&C Principal Adam Reed said Monday, “to emit as much energy and light as it takes in.”

FP&C plans to move into the ground floor of the four-story Light building. Not all tenants have been selected for the space, but Reed said the owners hope to find “creative companies” from fields such as design and technology to move in.

“We’ll showcase the ornamental jewel that is the historic lobby,” Reed said, adding that architects often work late into the night. The lights will be on and “we’ll be slaving away on our projects,” he quipped.

The Light building was designed by local architect Robert B. Kelly, who also designed the Aztec Theatre.

The so-called Print building, constructed around 1969 to house the Light‘s printing presses and newsprint storage facility, is connected to the historic Light building anchored at Broadway and McCullough streets via a skybridge. Architects propose replacing the skybridge with a “new, vertical connector that will house major building core elements such as restrooms, elevators, stairs, mechanical and electrical closets,” according to documents submitted to HDRC.

The proposed, vertical connector between the Light (left) and Print (right) buildings.
The proposed, vertical connector between the Light (left) and Print (right) buildings will feature stairs, elevators, and other core building elements. Credit: Courtesy / Ford Powell & Carson, GrayStreet Partners
The current backside wall of the Light building is windowless. This wall would be replaced by a glass, curtain-like wall.
The current backside wall of the Light building is windowless. This wall would be replaced by a glass, curtain-like wall. Credit: Courtesy / Ford Powell & Carson, GrayStreet Partners

The Print building likely will have a retail element on the ground floor with additional office space above. There might even be a rooftop bar or restaurant.

Both buildings are structurally sound, but the Light building will require exterior cleaning of intricate cement, brick, and clay designs. The current double-paned windows, installed sometime in the 1980s, will be replaced with windows that more closely match the historic profile. The entrances will be stripped to their original brick and stone.

“The Light Project” was on the consent agenda, which means it has received City staff approval – with stipulations.

City staff has recommended that a fourth tower that was not part of the original Light building be removed from the design. Staff also is recommending that the connector walls be transparent rather than solid, as they were in an earlier sketch of the proposal.

This preliminary sketch of the project at 420 Broadway St. depicted a glass connector between the Light and Print buildings. Current renderings show this connector as solid with a few windows.
This preliminary sketch of the project at 420 Broadway St. depicted a glass connector between the Light and Print buildings. Current renderings show this connector as solid with a few windows. Credit: Courtesy / Ford Powell & Carson, GrayStreet Partners

“There never was a tower there [on the southeast corner],” Reed said, “but the building needs a better way to terminate itself on the corner.”

After working with engineers to find a viable solution for replacing the glass with solid cladding material on the connector, the owner found that solution too expensive, Reed said.

The building is located in the northeast quadrant of downtown, blocks away from the $450 million “Reimagine the Alamo” project, the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts and its under-construction, multi-story garage, and nearby thoroughfares into the revitalizing Eastside.

Most importantly, Reed said, it’s on Broadway Street, which is slated to receive a $43 million makeover as part of the 2017 bond.

“That’s really going to be the most transformative project for this area,” he said.

The restoration project of the Light building will include replacing the windows, re-roofing, plaster and paint restoration, and more.
The restoration project of the Light building will include replacing the windows, re-roofing, plaster and paint restoration, and more. Credit: Hannah Whisenant / San Antonio Report

Disclosure: Rivard Report Director Robert Rivard was the deputy managing editor of the San Antonio Light from 1989-1993 and managing editor and editor of the Express-News from 1994-2011.

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