The number of residential units in a downtown neighborhood could double in the coming years if the plans of a California real estate investment company and developer get approval to proceed. 

Harris Bay, the developer behind the Essex Modern City project that never materialized on the East Side, is looking to build in phases a mixed-use development with 1,000 apartments in the Tobin Hill district. 

The developer is assembling land along West Josephine Street and leading efforts to construct several residential and commercial buildings near the North St. Mary’s Street intersection.

Already, more than 1,200 units are under construction or in the works across the neighborhood just west of the Pearl, including one by Lynd Living and others by Embrey and Area Real Estate and by Pearl Build.

But Jake Harris, founder and managing partner of Harris Bay, said there’s room for more simply due to demand. 

“People want to be there,” he said. “Obviously, everybody in San Antonio knows the Pearl and what a catalytic site that has been. That only improves with more people being brought into the area, and we think … if you add up all of those [units being built] plus the thousand that we’re doing, it’s not very many for the amount of people that are moving to Texas.” 

While the project could span a decade or more, Harris Bay wants to start construction in the Josephine corridor by 2024. 

A project that never materialized

Harris is bullish on San Antonio as a whole. “San Antonio is in my opinion, the No. 1 city in the country that is being overlooked,” he said. “It is dynamic. It has tons of culture, and obviously the closer that we can be to the Pearl … is very interesting.”

The area Harris targeted for his Essex project, on the other hand, has experienced less rapid development. “All that stuff’s going to happen,” he said, pointing to VelocityTX as a driver. “It’s just it’s taking a little bit longer than we were anticipating, and COVID didn’t help with that.”

In 2016, Harris Bay acquired a 7.7-acre industrial site in Denver Heights with plans to turn the former pallet factory into a Pearl-like development. 

Following failed attempts to establish a railroad quiet zone in the area, the developer put the land up for sale in June and it remains on the market. Harris Bay could potentially partner with another investor to develop it, Harris said.

In the meantime, Harris Bay is developing the Artista Hotel, a nine-story boutique hotel planned for 151 E. Travis St., and nearing completion on the 63-unit residential Travis Building downtown.

Increasing density

As Harris Bay ventures for the first time into Tobin Hill, the developer is asking the city to approve a rezoning request that would increase the allowable density. 

Growth in the Tobin Hill neighborhood has mushroomed in recent years as people and developers have flocked to the area near the Pearl, causing growing pains for residents and businesses alike.  

Harris started buying up the 18 parcels of land along West Josephine in 2019. Harris Bay now owns or has under contract a total of about 5 acres, which it plans to replat into four nearly contiguous sections for the development. 

Renderings show multistory buildings with housing, retail, and food and beverage components. Polk Street, which connects West Josephine to West Grayson Street to the south, is depicted as a pedestrian corridor closed to vehicle traffic. 

Harris Bay wants to amend the zoning to “regional mixed-use” in order to rezone the property to “IDZ-3” high-intensity infill development, a zoning designation that would allow 1,000 residential units, bar/tavern and C-2 commercial district uses. 

The 1,000 residential units would be split amongst four sites along Josephine Street.
The 1,000 residential units would be split among four sites along West Josephine Street. Credit: Courtesy / Harris Bay

The area is currently “employment/flex mixed-use,” a designation given when the Midtown Area Regional Center Plan was adopted in June 2019 to accommodate a mix of light industrial, commercial and residential land uses. 

The West Josephine parcels are the only part of the plan with that designation, according to city documents, intended to serve as a transition between the commercial mixed-use areas and the “urban low density” near the Harris Bay property.

It does not support the density of 1,000 units Harris is planning and, thus, city staff do not approve of the request, which is on the Planning Commission agenda for Nov. 16.

The rezoning request is to be considered by the Zoning Commission Dec. 6, said attorney Patrick Christensen, who hopes that City Council will rule on it before the end of the year. 

Parking concerns

The attorney met with members of the Tobin Hill Community Association in late October. Board member Rick Schell said the organization is still reviewing the zoning request and will likely ask for a continuance in order to have more time to understand what the changes would mean.

Alfonso Robalin, interim president of the neighborhood group, thinks the development, while a sizable project, could be good for Tobin Hill. 

“The good of all of that is some of those buildings are not being used right now, and they’re just not aesthetically pleasing,” Robalin said. “The concern … is the parking.”

At least one business owner in the area also has a positive view of the development. Aladdin Cleaning and Restoration has occupied the former Kist Modeling Co. building at 315 W. Josephine St. since 1956. 

Owner Bob Spalten bought the carpet and floor cleaning business in 1996. He said the 4,000 square feet of office space and 80,000-square-foot warehouse, plus parking, is in an ideal location for his customers and workers, despite the worsening traffic. 

Though developers have offered to buy the land, “we don’t want to leave,” Spalten said. He expects business to only get better with more people living in the neighborhood.

Other businesses in the area include Desire Cement Tile, Plastic Supply of San Antonio and Magma Studio art gallery. The Josephine Theater, which opened in 1947 as a movie theater and now hosts live entertainment events, is also adjacent to the development site. Two single-family homes on Polk Street are under contract with Harris Bay.

Christensen said affected businesses and residents — those occupying property Harris Bay has acquired — have been given month-to-month leases. He estimated it will take at least six months to replat the multiple lots into four properties before construction can begin.

Though the developer recognizes the project could bring more vehicles into an area struggling with parking issues that have divided North St. Mary’s Street business owners, customers and residents, he said it’s possible the development would also provide some public parking. 

“We’re actually planning to ‘over-park’ what the regulations are,” Harris said. 

But he also wants to make the neighborhood more walkable between the Pearl and the St. Mary’s Strip than it is now, and reminiscent of his favorite cities, Paris and Barcelona. 

“We understand that cars aren’t going away tomorrow, but the walkability of this is what we think is going to be a very attractive destination,” Harris said. 

Shari Biediger has been covering business and development for the San Antonio Report since 2017. A graduate of St. Mary’s University, she has worked in the corporate and nonprofit worlds in San Antonio...