The fanfare and official groundbreaking for the new Frost Bank Tower is still weeks away on March 29, but anyone who has navigated the streets west of the San Antonio River this year knows it’s no longer business as usual downtown.
The fenced-in construction site and the closure of Houston Street west of Main Avenue signal the massive public-private partnership that Weston Urban fashioned with Frost Bank and the City of San Antonio coming off the drawing boards and reaching the bulldozer stage. For the next three years, all eyes will be on the Weston Urban-KDC project and the construction of what architect César Pelli of the New Haven, Conn. design firm Pelli Clarke Pelli called a “poetic gesture” to the city’s skyline.
The renderings in the galleries below demonstrate a more inviting built environment that includes increased landscaping:
“The tower base on W. Travis Street and along N. Flores Street has been softened with a line of live oak trees and a garden adjacent to a pedestrian sidewalk,” stated the Pelli Clarke Pelli design team in the application package submitted to the commission. “In the tradition of San Antonio skyscrapers, the building comes to grade but only occupies a third of the frontage, leaving the rest of the land as naturally landscaped plazas and gardens. Clear glass at the base of the building allows for the tower to act as a pavilion within the park. Transparency provides clear views into the lobby, retail bank, and retail occupant for those who pass along on the sidewalks.
The same week all eyes were on the demolition of the Solo Serve building a few blocks away, the Frost Motor Bank also was razed, making way for what will become San Antonio’s first new office tower in nearly three decades. It’s been a while since most of us relied on a drive-through bank to deposit a paycheck, but bank officials say a new drive-through bank will be located a few blocks away on Travis Street between North Main Avenue and Soledad Street. Some people cling to old habits.
Where the old motor bank once stood, a vast square block of smoothed dirt awaits new construction and, for now, invites the imagination. The Pelli Clarke Pelli renderings of the new bank tower at ground level interest me at least as much, if not more, than the 23-story tower itself, which has drawn criticism in various quarters for not being taller.
San Antonio, however, is a downtown in far greater need of street-level rebirth than what greets the eye at an elevation of 400 feet. The work-in-progress design Pelli Clarke Pelli is collaborating on with Alamo Architects will ultimately be judged by how well it integrates with the San Pedro Creek, the ample green space to the east, the heritage oaks along its southern flank that will beckon pedestrians, and whether the 900-space wrap-around parking garage does not become the dominant visual.
Yet to come are Weston Urban’s promised 265 residential units, the City’s renovation of the existing Frost Bank Tower, and a long list of other complementary street-level projects within the Zona Cultural and in the one-square block that once housed Solo Serve.
For now, even the most attentive downtowner might find it hard to keep up with the revitalization projects along and near East Houston Street, as well as the multiplication of tech startups, co-working spaces, and new residential projects and restaurants popping up weekly.
After a few weeks’ medical leave I found myself returning to read stories about hundreds of new tech jobs being added to my downtown world. Few buildings attract me as much as the historic former Hotel Savoy on the corner of East Houston and Soledad streets. For months now, or so it seems, workers on scaffolding have been lovingly restoring the creamy limestone facade of the building that Weston Urban purchased and has leased to Scaleworks, the tech holding company and accelerator owned by Lew Moorman and Ed Byrne.
A few blocks east, Kevin Covey and GrayStreet Partners‘ ambitious aggregation of historic buildings along East Houston Street continues to bring one of the most walkable yet underperforming stretches of the street back to life. In this instance, the announcement that homegrown CaptureRx will remain and expand in San Antonio and bring hundreds of jobs downtown means new life for the long-vacant department store in the Kress building.
Yet to come is the revelation of Weston Urban’s plans for the historic Milam Building, and the final look of the block that will become home to the Lake|Flato-designed boutique hotel for Crockett Urban Ventures Principal Chris Hill, who owns the adjacent Esquire Tavern.
With the City also converting blocks of Soledad Street and Main Avenue back to two-way traffic, there has been growing grumbling among some downtown commuters about the added time it takes to navigate city streets, especially at rush hour. If ever there was a time to re-stripe forgotten bike lanes and encourage people to pedal to work, now and for the next few years at least, would be that time.