The City’s Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) granted conceptual approval Monday to a project involving a new hotel along the River Walk, where the new 14-story structure would dwarf a neighboring historic church.

The developer, SMS-SAR Hospitality, proposes leasing part of 202 N. St. Mary’s St., where it would raze the multistory rectory and garage belonging to St. Mary’s Catholic Church.

This would accommodate construction of Hotel Sul Fiume, a 147-room, 127,000-square-foot tower. Sul Fiume is Italian for “on the river.”

The developer also seeks to demolish part of the River Walk-level stone wall outside the church property to allow pedestrian access to the hotel.

The commission voted 7-1 to advance the project with several stipulations. City staffers did not recommend conceptual approval, citing issues with knocking down the rectory structure and part of the River Walk wall.

The proposed design does incorporate a new rectory building on the hotel’s third floor, with separate entrances and exits. According to the developer’s case file, Hotel Sul Fiume will be “flagged and managed by a hotel brand.”

The River Walk-level walls feature designs by late architect Robert Hugman, who designed the River Walk. The hotel plan also envisions River Walk-level restaurant and retail space.

The design team, led by San Francisco architecture firm Hornberger + Worstell, includes local company Rialto Studio.

St. Mary’s was founded in 1852 – 121 years after the establishment of San Antonio’s first Catholic parish, San Fernando Cathedral. Care for St. Mary’s was transferred to the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in 1885. The Oblates have since been maintaining the church building and providing services to the parish.

Construction of the structure housing the existing rectory, which opened in 1967, dates back as far as the early 1890s. The structure is eligible for historic designation, City staff said.

However, the population of St. Mary’s Parish has shrunk, and the parochial school that the rectory helped to support no longer exists.

The Archdiocese of San Antonio and the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate’s U.S. office both wrote City staff in support of the hotel plan, saying the project would help to generate a new revenue stream for St. Mary’s.

The existing rectory structure “has now become an operational and a financial burden,” Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller said in his letter.

“The submitted hotel project provides an opportunity to the Archdiocese and the parish as a new rectory facility, as it will better meet the needs of the parish as well as provide a steady income stream from the ground lease for operational expenses,” he added.

Real estate developer Tony Byron represented SMS-SAR Hospitality at the HDRC meeting. He echoed sentiment expressed by the archdiocese and Oblates that retaining the existing rectory building would be a challenge.

Byron said his plan is “not just a hotel project. We’re looking at it as a partial revitalization of that lot on St. Mary’s [Street].”

“It’s very important we respect the church,” he added.

Mark Hornberger, president and founding principal of Hornberger and Worstell, said the proposed design would both have a photo exhibit tracing the church’s history and preserve as much of the stone wall as possible. Some hotel event space, he added, could accommodate church fundraisers.

“That stone wall fabric will be maintained as will the River Walk itself,” Hornberger said.

A conceptual rendering of Hotel Sul Fiume along the River Walk at 202 N. St. Mary's St.
A conceptual rendering of Hotel Sul Fiume along the River Walk at 202 N. St. Mary’s St. Credit: Courtesy / Hornberger & Worstell

The San Antonio Conservation Society  expressed support for City staff’s suggestion that the existing rectory could be preserved and integrated with the hotel design. The conservation society also opposes any demolition affecting the River Walk wall.

“The conservation society is concerned about the number of original walls along the downtown River Walk that have eliminated or altered over the last few years,” said Patti Zaiontz, the organization’s first vice president.

Some commission members agreed the present design is far from perfect. But they also said that by meeting currently required and newly added stipulations, the new hotel project could help bring new life to the neighboring church and complement a stretch of St. Mary’s Street that features the Empire and Aztec theaters.

HDRC Vice Chairman Scott Carpenter said leaving the rectory building could result in an awkward appearance around part of the new hotel.

“We shouldn’t be confused with what the [hotel design] is trying to accomplish,” he added. “I think it’s on the road to that.”

Commissioner Curtis Fish agreed the assertion that the existing rectory building could be integrated into the hotel design “doesn’t make sense in this case.”

The HDRC and City Council still must grant final approval of the project. No dates have been set.

Zac Harris was the lone commission member to vote “no” on the motion. He praised the overall project concept and the team behind it. However, Harris expressed a lack of comfort with some parts of the design.

“Be sensitive as you go,” Harris told the project team.

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Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.