Kiosks and plants will be added to the addition's wide corridors, said Shops at Rivercenter General Manager Chris Oviatt. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Kiosks and plants will be added to the addition's wide corridors, said Shops at Rivercenter General Manager Chris Oviatt. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The historic Joske’s building, vacant for 7 1/2 years after the departure of Dillard’s, has reopened in the Shops at Rivercenter after a massive two-year reconstruction effort and now is home to a collection of chain stores, restaurants, and a liquor store.

Mall management announced last year that Rivercenter, which originally opened in 1988 on the River Walk, would be rebranded as the Shops at Rivercenter. It features more than 100 retail stores, Macy’s multiple restaurants, IMAX and AMC Theaters, and the 38-story, 1,001-room Marriott Rivercenter.

The former Joske’s building is now home to a 35,000-square-foot Dave & Buster’s sports bar and arcade, Johnny Rockets diner, and It’Sugar candy store. These and more tenants opened on Monday, Martin Luther King Day.

Inside the 130,000 square-foot interior, nothing remains of the emporium that first opened in 1887, which was gutted and then given a new steel interior to support the modern retail center. A few shoppers lingered in the center’s hallways Monday morning, unsure if they were free to traverse the new corridors and shops. By 11 a.m. a few had made it to Dave & Buster’s and others were enjoying an early lunch of burgers and fries on Johnny Rockets’ indoor patio platform.

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Outside, restoration work continues on the 1939-era Art Deco facade that was extended down East Commerce Street for HemisFair ’68. Historic preservation ordinances apply only to building exteriors, while owners are free to alter or remove interiors.

“We’ve taken great care on the exterior,” Shops at Rivercenter General Manager Chris Oviatt said during an impromptu tour of the new section on Monday.

“We also pay homage to (the building’s history) here,” he said, pointing to several large historic photographs of near the East Commerce Street and Blum street exits.

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Clothing and accessory store H&M will take up the most visible real estate in the reconstructed building on the corner of South Alamo and East Commerce streets. The national clothing outlet will open on Feb. 11. Starbucks also will open early next month. The 22,000-square-foot Battle for Texas: The Experience, scheduled to open this spring on the basement level, will host multimedia reenactments of the 1836 Battle of the Alamo. A Potbelly Sandwich Shop and Chipotle, with entrances on East Commerce, will open in a few months.

Downtown residents and workers hoping for more locally owned businesses will be disappointed. There are none. The stores, mostly national chains, are decidedly geared towards tourists. The concept of co-locating familiar chain brands is a tried and true concept, and few locally owned stores can generate the revenue necessary to pay high rents in such venues. Rivercenter has always functioned as a tourist-driven mall, and that formula remains in place.

A mother and child peer into the new H&M, still under construction. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
A mother and child peer into the new H&M, still under construction. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

If San Antonio’s downtown is to take on a less generic, more local feel, it will have to  happen with the makeover of Alamo Plaza and Hemisfair, two signature downtown destinations that together will benefit from tens of millions of dollars of public and private investment in the next few years.

The Alamo Plaza has been home to a collection of tourist-centric entertainment venues, including Guinness World Records Museum, Tomb Raider 3D, Ripley’s Haunted Adventure, and Louis Tussaud’s Waxworks wax museum. Preservationists and many other downtown advocates have long hoped to see those businesses relocated so redevelopment of the plaza could pay greater homage to the site’s history.

That process gained considerable traction in 2015 with a new state-city Alamo Master Plan initiative backed by an unprecedented infusion of state funding and a newly formed Alamo Endowment. Under an agreement signed on Oct. 15, the Endowment will oversee funding of the multi-million dollar renovation project; some estimate it could total $300 million.

(Read more: “City Council Unanimously Approves Joint Alamo Master Plan Agreement“)

In early December, the Texas General Land Office purchased three historic buildings across from Alamo Plaza – home to some of the aforementioned attractions – for $14.4 million. While the tenants have “very long-term” leases, the deal is expected to change the landscape of Alamo Plaza.

The Alamo, originally built as Mission San Antonio de Valero, is the city’s first Spanish colonial mission. It and the four surviving Spanish Missions were designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in July. Management of the Alamo passed to the Texas General Land Office after the Daughters of the Republic of Texas were ousted from that role in July, after the state found they had breached their contract with various mismanagement citations.

Pop music star Phil Collins, perhaps the best known individual collector of artifacts related to the Texas Revolution and the Battle of the Alamo, donated thousands of items from his private collection with the provision that redevelopment of the plaza would include a “Smithsonian-level” museum and visitors center near the Alamo to house the collection. Collins stipulated that the museum and center be built within six years or the donated items would revert to him.

For all those engaged in studying how World Heritage can and should change San Antonio, Independence Hall in Philadelphia offers the best example in the United States. Sensitive and appropriate development around the Alamo and Missions will continue to be a hotly debated issue.

New York-based Ashkenazy Acquisition Corporation, which owns the Shops at Rivercenter, has the right to add 14 stories to the five-story former Joske’s building. One previous plan to build a hotel tower there was withdrawn amid heated opposition to the design, which was rejected by the Historic and Design Review Commission. There are no plans for expansion at this time, according to Oviatt.

A construction worker makes a phone call outside the Joske's Building. Portable toilets sit beyond the soon-to-be display window for H&M. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
A construction worker makes a phone call outside the Joske’s Building. Portable toilets sit beyond the soon-to-be display window for H&M. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

It seems to this writer and downtown denizen that the Shops at Rivercenter could become home to the current tourist attractions located on Alamo Plaza, which are a source of significant visitor industry revenue, placing all such attractions in a single venue. Alamo Plaza, Hemisfair, and East Houston and Commerce Streets could become home to more residential development and the kind of ground-level, mixed-use retail that could serve residents, workers and those visiting San Antonio on business or pleasure.

*Top image: Kiosks and plants will be added to the addition’s wide corridors, said Shops at Rivercenter General Manager Chris Oviatt. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Related Stories:

State Purchases Three Buildings Across From Alamo Plaza

City Council Unanimously Approves Joint Alamo Master Plan Agreement

Daughters of the Republic Bid Farewell to Alamo Duties

Conversation: The Alamo is Serious Business, Too

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org