The first renderings of the proposed 23-story Frost Bank Tower keep the developers’ promise to bring San Antonio’s skyline into the 21st century. Faced with the choice of complementing the city’s long complacent skyline or redefining it, designers went for a bold and original new day in San Antonio.
Excitement, energy, and movement all come to mind when describing a shimmering, mirrored glass octagon with winglike flares, a tower that seems poised to take flight. It’s a tower that trumpets the robust vitality of San Antonio’s pioneer Frost Bank and its secure place in the vanguard of thriving Texas enterprises.
Groundbreaking on the 400,000 sq. ft. tower should begin by year’s end and construction should be completed by late 2018 or early 2019, making it the dynamic capstone of what former Mayor Julián Castro declared the “decade of downtown.” Frost Bank’s employees will occupy about 250,000 sq. ft. of the tower, leaving 150,000 sq. ft. available for other tenants. Speculation has already begun regarding which San Antonio firms will relocate into the tower whose rising tower wings promise dramatic corner office views aplenty.
Renderings of the building first appeared in Sunday’s Express-News and were released to the Rivard Report and other media for publication on Monday.
Weston Urban and its Dallas development partner KDC, clearly pleased with the work of their New Haven, Conn. architects who have designed award-winning towers around the world, have declared the new Frost Bank Tower a “trophy building” with Class AA office space and state-of-the-art design.
The design is all the more dramatic coming into a city lacking notable downtown architectural statements, where a new office tower has not been constructed since the opening of the Weston Centre in 1989. Yet as dramatic as the tower promises to be in a downtown largely defined by historic office buildings and post-HemisFair ’68 hotels, the most transformative elements of the site plan are closer to the ground and on the street level surrounding the tower.
While the glass octagon and its blades reach towards the South Texas sky to culminate in a crown-like top, pedestrians and commerce will billow out from shops and restaurants through shaded, park-like promenades and seating nooks nestled within rows of live oak trees. The building’s landscape design strengthens the city block’s connection to the adjacent San Pedro Creek, existing pocket park, Houston Street and streetscape beyond.
The street level feeling is more like a “glassy pavilion in a park” than the base of a 23-story office tower, Bill Butler, principal at Pelli Clarke Pelli (PCP), told the Rivard Report in a phone interview with other firm leaders.
That is, if the design is approved by the Historic Design and Review Commission (HDRC) on Wednesday, July 20. Design team representatives from all over the U.S. will be in town to present the plans to commissioners alongside the project’s local ownership.
HDRC doesn’t have a strong track record of falling for modern architecture. But this project isn’t replacing or modifying an existing historic structure like the projects that commissioners usually bristle at. The lot is essentially a parking lot and drive-thru bank.
Councilman Roberto Treviño has confidence that HDRC, largely made up of architects and design professionals, will see the tower as sophisticated, sculptural, and keeping with the character of the city while adding diversity to the skyline.
“Pelli Clarke Pelli (architects) are among the best at context,” said Treviño, who is an architect himself. “This skyline is diverse and what they did was craft a beautiful, iconic building without it being like everything else. … It’s going to be a very interesting conversation (at HDRC).”
Special care was given to “how the building meets the street,” said PCP Senior Principal Fred Clarke. The internationally renowned New Haven, Conn.-based architectural firm was hired by the tower’s co-developer Weston Urban less than one year ago. “The civic quality of big buildings,” how they can become a public amenity, is one of the firm’s specialities, Clarke said.
Dallas-based KDC is partnering with Weston Urban on the tower’s design, finance, and construction.
The new tower will replace Frost Bank’s motor bank, a city block bordered by West Travis Street to the north, North Flores to the east, West Houston to the south, and Camaron to the west. The bank had oak trees planted along the perimeter in the 70s, most of which will remain part of the landscape, Butler said. The tower’s main pedestrian entrance will be on the corner of Houston and Flores streets and the main vehicle entrance for the six-story parking garage will be located off of the busier Travis Street.
“The block sits in a very critical point in the city,” said Butler, a native San Antonian.
Physically, it sits on a convergence of multi-million dollar downtown investments from both the public and private sector.
The tower’s front and side “yards” include the San Pedro Creek, slated for its own transformation that will begin this September; the small, square park in front of the current Frost Tower; nearby Zona Cultural arts and culture district; and the entirety of Houston Street that connects to the San Antonio River Walk and dozens of hotels, housing projects, shops, and cultural institutions along the way to Alamo Plaza – where yet another major renovation project is taking shape.
The tower is part of one of the largest public-private partnership deals in San Antonio’s history. The real estate swap and development agreement between the City of San Antonio, Weston Urban, and Frost Bank will also bring 265 housing units to the area and consolidate City departments into the current Frost tower. Click here to read more about the transaction. The tower was expected to cost about $142 million when the deal was proposed in 2014. Weston Urban representatives declined to say whether that estimate is still accurate.
Architecturally, the tower sits on another critical point, Clarke said.
“This building is occurring at a historic inflection point of the city’s form and architecture,” he said. “This is a moment to really project the city’s architectural heritage very rapidly into the 21st century.”
The “first wave” of big buildings came to San Antonio in the 1920s, most notably with the Medical Arts Building in 1924 and the Tower Life building in 1929.
Both have “faceted prismatic shafts that get smaller as they rise to the skyline,” Butler said, which was used as inspiration for the new Frost Tower. “This tower, rather than a heavy masonry building with punched out windows will (have) hi-tech, high performance glass prism walls that rise to the sky and cut the skyline.”
The design is also reminiscent of the bank’s logo, but that was somewhat unintentional, Clarke said. “It’s designed to be seen from all vantage points – from all around, it turns, responds, and tapers into the sunlight.”
Over the past three decades, bland hotel construction has dominated San Antonio’s skyline, a reflection of downtown investment that focused on the visitor. Now, City and Bexar County incentive packages are targeted towards downtown housing and commercial development to bring locals back into the center city. The “decade of downtown,” initiated by former Mayor Julián Castro, has sparked dozens of new projects. It was Castro that announced the deal on behalf of the City with Weston Urban and Frost Bank two years ago. The Frost Bank Tower was the first unsolicited public-private partnership proposal since major redevelopment project guidelines were put in place by City Council in November 2012.
The Grand Hyatt, built in 2008, and the recently completed Henry B. Gonzalez Center expansion did not draw architectural praise. The last building to stir up a design conversation was the San Antonio Public Library‘s Central Library. The modern, “enchilada red” design by the late Mexican Architect Ricardo Legorreta, was controversial at the time of its construction in 1995.
“I’m not too thrilled with enchilada red buildings,” Helen Dutmar, a former member of the City Council told the New York Times in 1995. “It just overshadows everything. The Spanish culture is beautiful, but sometimes you can go overboard. These people came to San Antonio to escape the Mexican influence.”
How times have changed.
The design was unanimously approved by City Council and received praise from many architectural critics, and over the last 20 years, San Antonio has proven to be a city that embraces and encourages its Mexican influence and history.
For Treviño, the new tower’s design whole-heartedly rejects traditional, colonial European design and is “more related to what indigenous cultures would have looked at – one of the basic forms of nature not prescribed by the classic versions of architecture.”
He likened the design to a windmill.
“I see the blades and motion to it,” he said. “Instead of being so literal (like the Frost Tower in Austin) the building is dynamic – it’s got motion, great angles, and changes depending on where you’re standing.
“Will everyone see it that way? No,” he said, acknowledging the subjective nature of design. “Architecture is the ultimate public art.”
If this tower was built in the 80s, during the “second wave” of downtown towers in San Antonio, its landscaping plan might have consisted of a few potted plants at the main entrance and, if they wanted to get really wild, a water feature of some sort.
“This is taking the old paradigm of the office campus that has everything you ever wanted inside an air conditioned space and turning it out so that it’s really part of the city,” said Alamo Architects Founding Principal Irby Hightower, the local architectural consultant for the project.
This ethos is expected to inspire the “third wave” of downtown building development.
Today a developer would be hard pressed to find a world-class designer that ignores the outside world. Enter Seattle-based landscape architecture firm Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (GGN), hired to design the build and natural environment immediately outside of the new tower.
The landscape design softens the lines between casual and commercial uses of the sidewalks and promenade. “It embraces the landscape,” GGN Founding Principal Kathryn Gustafson said in a phone interview on Thursday.
GGN is also the lead designer for Hemisfair’s Civic Park – yet another multi-million dollar project in downtown San Antonio. Hightower praised GGN’s work on previous and current work that is always “built on a deep understanding of the city and the landscape,” he said.
“Landscape architecture is everything that doesn’t have a roof on it,” Gustafson said. “That’s a huge part of your life.”
And an even bigger part of San Antonian life, she added, something that she and her team learned through surveys and research done for Hemisfair Park.
“You’re a party city,” she said. “One of the more fun cities in the U.S. and all these traditions and heritage are about what you do (and have done) outside.”
Now it’s just a matter of taking the same pedestrian-friendly elements seen at the river level on the River Walk, Museum Reach, and Mission Reach, and applying that to San Antonio’s street level.
“Everybody knows the River Walk. Everybody will know San Pedro Creek,” she said. “Linking those two through Houston Street is really important.”
In a sense, it doesn’t really need a water feature – it has the San Pedro Creek. The tower’s design team has been actively collaborating with Mario Schjetnan, the landscape architect working on the creek’s design.
GGN is also slated to revamp the adjacent Frost-owned pocket park that Weston Urban is purchasing.
Ground level retail tenants have not yet been selected to fill the approximately 20,000 sq. ft. available, but the landscape is designed for shops and restaurants that both “invite the public in” and spill activation (i.e. people) out onto the promenade, Gustafson said.
There’s plenty of room on the ground floor along Houston Street for about eight smaller tenants, said Weston Urban Co-Founder Randy Smith. But it could be that just one or two actually move in. Whatever the amount, they will be businesses that are open to the public like a coffee shop, a restaurant, or some other retail store and encourage outside activation, Smith said.
“An office building lobby is a passive use … so we’ll put the most active uses we have along the creek (Camaron Street) and Houston Street and passive uses along Flores Street,” he said. They’ll also be keeping an eye on day and night activation times. “There are large swaths of the day where an office lobby is a very quiet place,” so the retail tenants will extend the building’s vitality into the evening hours.
Frost’s own retail and public-facing bank functions will also occupy the ground floor.
“All of us at Frost are looking forward to seeing the new tower on the skyline and being part of an energized downtown,” stated Frost Chairman and CEO Phil Green in an email. Frost Bank first established its downtown headquarters in 1868. “After seeing the Frost sunburst go up on new buildings in downtown Austin, Dallas, and Fort Worth, we’re glad to be the named tenant of the newest building in our hometown of San Antonio.”
As the anchor tenant and the seventh largest bank in Texas, Frost will occupy about 250,000 sq. ft. of the bottom floors of the tower, the remaining 150,000 sq. ft. and ground floor retail space are up for grabs.
Reata Real Estate will be handling retail tenants while international investment management firm JLL, which recently acquired local firm Travis Commercial Real Estate Services, will be looking for office space tenants.
JLL Senior Vice President Lisa Mittel and a few of her colleagues from Travis Commercial will be leading the leasing process. Mittel doesn’t expect any difficulty in cultivating interest in the tower. Her office has already received several calls from prospective tenant companies and real estate brokers.
“This is a highly coveted assignment,” Mittel told the Rivard Report in a phone interview on Friday. San Antonio has 26 million sq. ft. of office inventory and the new tower would be only the third to offer top-class facilities downtown. The other two are Bank of America Plaza, built in 1983 and recently renovated by new owners, and the Weston Center. Most office towers were built outside of the urban core, where land and construction costs are far lower than infill development can offer.
“This (tower) is going to be in a class in and of itself,” she said. “This is a trophy building,” unlike any in San Antonio, describing the tower in three words: “Sophisticated, elegant, creative.”
The commercial leasing market fluctuates, Mittel said, but in the first two quarters of 2016 alone, there were 150,000 sq. ft. of “new absorption,” or leased space. Demand for Class A space has been on the rise for several years.
“It’s a very adaptable type of floor plan – both full-floor tenant and multi tenant floors,” she said. “We’re expecting to do a couple deals with multi-floor tenants.”
It’s too early to tell what leasing prices will look like, but it will likely be the most expensive in the city. Mittel expects the typical “FIRE” (financial, insurance, real estate) companies to express interest as well computer/IT, entrepreneurial, and oil and gas companies.
“A building like this, we think, will have very broad appeal across industries,” Smith said.
Floor to ceiling windows and floor plans will allow floor tenants to offer their employees and customers 360-degree views of the city. Elevator shafts, electrical panels, and bathrooms are all located in the center mass of the building and structural columns are hidden at building joints for unobstructed views to the outside world.
The glass – some of the most advanced building material in production – is slightly opaque and far more energy efficient than normal glass by allowing 70% less heat energy to enter the building, Butler said.
Mittel expects to find a natural blend of local, national, and international companies interested in the space. The anchor tenant, Frost Bank, will lend a large amount of stability and credibility to attract them.
“We’re not only targeting existing organizations that want to grow, (but) also targeting new companies toward this project,” she said.
Mittel has worked in the San Antonio real estate market for 30 years. “(This tower is) unlike anything I’ve seen in my career. It’s a unique and special time in SA and this project is just a big piece of what’s going on” in the larger downtown market, she added.
More downtown residential, commercial projects to come
As part of the public-private partnership (P3), the City sold several buildings to Weston Urban to develop more than 250 residential units including condos in the Municipal Plaza Building, 114 W Commerce St; apartments at the old San Fernando gym, 319 W Travis St; and a parking lot at 403 N Flores St.
“We were always very aligned with the City of San Antonio’s (mantra that) downtown is indeed a mosaic, and San Antonians living downtown has always been the biggest (most lacking) piece of that mosaic,” Smith said.
Once Frost Bank employees move in to the new tower, the City will move 1,200 civilian employees that currently work in buildings sprinkled across the city into the old Frost Tower on Houston Street. Work on the residential projects will begin soon after the tower is complete.
“…We’re honored to have played a role in delivering (these) handsome headquarters,” stated Weston Urban Co-Founder Graham Weston. “The design is breathtaking, and this is the tower Frost deserves. It is a tribute to the fact that Frost Bank is part of the very fabric of Texas, the fabric of San Antonio.”
Weston, chairman and co-founder of Rackspace and Geekdom, also owns the 32-story Weston Centre, the nearby historic Milam and Savoy buildings, and other downtown properties. The tower is the likely centerpiece for a new era of development in the western portion of downtown.
And he’s not the only one buying up downtown real estate. Local developer GrayStreet Partners is working on a plan to convert the former Children’s museum on Houston Street into a mixed-use office and restaurant complex with the adjacent historic Kress building. The company owns at least seven other properties on East Houston Street and has property in Southtown and near the Pearl Brewery.
“We have a million more decisions between now and completion,” Smith said of the tower, which is still in the design development phase. “This design development stage will lead into construction drawings. While we know exactly what the building will look like … right now I have no idea what a doorknob on the 20th floor will look like.”
Over the phone, PCP Founding Partner Cesar Pelli was bursting with pride and excitement over the tower’s design. He likened showing off the renderings to showing off photos of his own children.
“This will bring San Antonio into the 21st century,” Pelli said.
I asked the PCP team and other sources for this story during our conversations if they are calling the new tower anything besides “Frost Bank Tower.” Often buildings are assigned nicknames by developers, architects, and locals. The Express-News held a contest to name the color of the library as “enchilada red.”
The Frost tower in Austin has been called “nose hair clippers” and “the owl.” A building Pelli designed in Los Angeles is lovingly referred to as the “Blue Whale.”
So far, nothing has stuck for the glass tower, Clarke said, adding that a true nickname should come from San Antonians.
“People get nicknames usually because they’re liked by other people,” he said. “They come from some kind of endearment.”
“A good name will come naturally,” Pelli added.
Only time will tell. Some see a crown. Councilman Treviño sees a windmill. What do you see?
This story was originally published on Monday, July 11.
Top image: The live oak tree allée outside the proposed Frost Bank Tower on Houston Street will be a shaded respite for customers of the ground floor retail and general public. Rendering by Pelli Clarke Pelli courtesy of Weston Urban.