A rendering looking northwest of the Villita Tower, located at 126 Villita St.
A rendering shows the future Villita Tower, to be located at 112 Villita St. Credit: Courtesy / B&A Architects, Inc.

The Historic and Design Review Commission unanimously voted Wednesday to give conceptual approval to the Villita Tower, a 24-story residential development along the San Antonio River Walk that includes a five-story parking garage.

HDRC also approved plans for new signage, awnings, and a steel staircase as part of the renovation of the historic Milam Building.

Villita Tower

Dallas-based JMJ Development plans to construct the 24-story, 226-apartment tower with ground-level retail space on a vacant lot at 112 Villita St., just west of the Tower Life Building.

Construction of the parking garage at a neighboring lot, 126 Villita St., will require demolition of a century-old, 13,000-square-foot office building.

JMJ first announced in 2016 it planned to build a 30-story luxury apartment building at 120 Villita, a lot that measures less than one-half acre. The developer has since scaled down the proposed tower, among other changes.

When HDRC considered conceptual approval of the project in December 2108, staff from the City’s Office of Historic Preservation recommended denial, citing concerns with the tower’s massing and the “vehicle court,” a proposed space that would accommodate both parking and pedestrians. The vehicle court could impede pedestrian traffic on the sidewalk along Jack White Way, which intersects with Villita Street, staff said.

Staff also took issue with the proposed facade on the southern side of the tower and sought a study to determine how much the tower’s shadow would affect the River Walk.

The project team, which includes design work from local firm B&A Architects and Dallas’ FAB Studio, has since addressed City staff’s issues.

The commission’s Design Review Committee met Jan. 8 to review the changes, finding improvements with the overall design. But the committee still had questions about some elements, including access from the River Walk to Villita Street.

On Wednesday, staff recommended conceptual approval of the updated design of the tower and the parking garage with a total of nine stipulations.

Michael Matthews, JMJ’s vice president of construction, and Song Chia, FAB Studio design director, said changes include ensuring that the curb cuts and elevation changes related to the proposed vehicle court do not interrupt pedestrian traffic on Jack White.

They also said a new solar study performed by the project team show that the tower would not adversely affect the River Walk. City staff said those findings are consistent with the City’s Unified Development Code.

“We believe this will be a world-class project,” Chia said.

JMJ has proposed changes in exterior construction materials to comply with City staff’s requirement for tapering the tower to decrease the overall width as the tower ascends higher; two entry points within the existing river wall on the river facade; and a paneling system – in lieu of windows – to make up much of the elevation of the tower’s southern facade because the building would be located so close to the property line.

Responding to City staff’s concern that the building proposed for demolition to make way for the parking garage had been deemed eligible for local historical designation, the project team proposed incorporating some exterior elements similar to those on the existing building into the garage’s street level.

The project team also has proposed the garage include some windows and display space, per City staff’s stipulations, but no additional retail space will be opened there.

A rendering of the Villita Tower garage, located at 126 Villita St.
A rendering of the Villita Tower garage. Credit: Courtesy / B&A Architects, Inc.

JMJ did not immediately make available information about potential rents at Villita Tower. According to a 2017 San Antonio Express-News report, JMJ Chief Executive Officer Tim Barton estimated rents could range from $1,500 to $3,000. The project is expected to take 24 to 30 months to complete.

Local attorney Frank Burney, representing the project team, said he and JMJ are in talks with the City’s Center City Development Office about whether the project is eligible for newly revised development incentives that now focus on encouraging more affordable housing in the urban core.

“We’re exploring affordable [housing] options,” Burney told HDRC. “They’re difficult to do, but we’re looking.”

Tom Thompson, who lives along Villita Street, was the lone audience member to address the project, opposing it because of its height and scale on a small property.

“It’s too much building to put into that small space,” he added. “It’s also wrong because it’s right against the river.”

Commissioners such as Edward Garza said the project team has made efforts to address concerns and improve the overall appearance and access to the residential tower and parking garage.

“I’m appreciative of the design. It’s sensitive to the site,” Garza said.

Milam Building

HDRC also unanimously granted a certificate of appropriateness for various elements and signage as part of the Milam Building renovation.

Weston Urban, which owns the 21-story historic office structure, is working to develop flexible space for technology startups looking.

Renovations include new retractable fabric awnings, efforts to replicate the historic copper awnings on each facade, a master signage plan, installation of a blade sign similar to the historic blade sign on the East Travis Street facade, and construction of an open-grate steel staircase between the 18th and 21st floors on the east elevation.

A rendering of the renovated Milam Building looking northeast.
A rendering of the renovated Milam Building looking northeast. Credit: Courtesy / Beverly Baldwin / Alamo Architects

City staff recommended approval with two stipulations. One is that proposed tenant signage not exceed 50 square feet, be made of metal, and feature indirect back lighting; the other is that the proposed blade sign feature metal and lighting that does not result in a glowing cabinet or glowing letters.

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.