A 2009 master plan commissioned by the City of San Antonio for the northern district of downtown, referred to as River North, described it languishing as “an unremarkable place in a remarkable location, characterized neither by great success nor by great failure.”

In other words, the district didn’t have much going for it.

At that time, there was still at least one auto dealership left on Broadway, which once had been a dealership hub; soon, there would be none. Otherwise, little distinguished the area apart from its historic buildings, some of them dating to the Gilded Age, and even those were scattered between forbidding stretches of sun-baked parking lots and vacant warehouses.

Yet the city’s plan saw potential for growth, especially with the Museum Reach stretch of the River Walk under construction. Calling the district a “blank canvas,” the plan presented a vision for its empty spaces to be filled with a “tight-knit collection” of mixed-use neighborhoods.

Nearly 15 years later, the district remains far from that vision. Yet a recent influx of development projects and retail businesses in the blocks north and south of Broadway, including a growing cluster of bars, has begun to give River North the character of a real urban neighborhood — a place that, at the very least, could no longer be called “unremarkable.”

“It’s been a work in progress for a long time,” developer David Adelman said of the area. “Now it’s ready for its next adaptation, which is going to be a high-density residential, mixed-use neighborhood with office, retail and the like.”

New bars and breweries

Adelman led the way in redeveloping the area when he helped to build the 1221 Broadway Lofts apartment complex in 2011. He later renovated a nearby warehouse at 203 E. Jones Ave. into retail and creative office space. It formerly hosted a location of Rosella Coffee; that space will soon come back to life as a CommonWealth Coffeehouse & Bakery, he said.

He’s now rehabilitating a highly visible 1940s-era brick building at 1101 Broadway — at the north corner of Broadway and Jones — into 17,000 square feet of retail, enough to host four or five tenants, he said. He and his partners have signed a lease with a restaurateur, he said, declining to identify the tenant. The local dog grooming chain Woof Gang Bakery & Grooming will occupy one of the spaces.

Adelman and his partners are also in the “early, early stages” of designing a multifamily project with retail space for the corner of Avenue B and McCullough Avenue, he said, across the street from CPS Energy’s new $212 million headquarters.

Over the last seven years, at least 11 bars and breweries have opened in the four blocks between Interstate 37 and the San Antonio River — including Roadmap Brewing Co., Bentley’s Beer Garden, La Roca Cantina, Tony’s Siesta, River Sun and Austin import the Lucky Duck — enough to transform the area into a bar-hopping district rivaling Southtown and the St. Mary’s Strip in its diversity of offerings. Food trucks also have proliferated, including at El Camino, a bar and food truck park overlooking the river.

Bentley's Beer Garden is  one of the 11 bars that have opened in the last 7 years, activating the River North area.
Bentley’s Beer Garden is one of many bars that have opened in the River North area in the last seven years. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

More bars are set to come: Nick Marquez, an entrepreneur known for turning historic homes into hangout bars in Cibolo and Schertz, is importing his business model to the neighborhood. Last month, he bought a Depression-era home at 820 N. Alamo St., which he plans to renovate into a bar with a backyard patio area. It will be called Bar House San Antonio, evoking the name of Bar House, which he operates in Schertz.

The roughly 4,000 square-foot house has sat vacant for years, he said. He hopes to start construction work in March or April, depending on when he can get permits lined up.

“I put a lot of detail into bars,” he said. “It’s going to be a very unique drinking experience. The biggest thing I can tell you is that I’m ecstatic to go downtown. I’ve been trying to go downtown for a long time.”

He said he considered Southtown as a location for the bar, but the North Alamo area appealed to him because it’s walkable, full of unique buildings and features a growing number of retail businesses. He also cited its “perfect mix” of locals and tourists.

“Everyone’s doing a great job there, building into something great. I just hope to add to the experience,” he said. “I feel like it’s super easy to get to. There’s so many different things in that area, without making you feel overwhelmed.”

‘Ready for transformation’

The Museum Reach extension of the River Walk has served as a catalyst for growth since it opened in 2010, spawning numerous apartment complexes, including Jones & Rio and the new Flats at River North.

Using the Museum Reach, a pedestrian can walk to the Pearl in about 20 minutes, passing the San Antonio Museum of Art along the way. Heading south, the core of downtown is about the same walking distance away. The Tobin Center for the Performing Arts sits on that stretch of the path.

“It’s a beautiful piece of public infrastructure that catalyzed some early, early adopters for development — including ourselves and Hixon and a few others,” Adelman said, referring to local development firm Hixon Properties. “Now you’re starting to fill it in. You have a neighborhood that’s ready for transformation.”

Another city infrastructure project — the ongoing makeover of Broadway from an automobile thruway into a more human-friendly corridor, with bike lanes, landscaping and wider sidewalks — is also expected to pump life into the district.

Funded with $42 million from the city’s 2017-2022 bond, the River North portion of the project will be finished in June, according to the project’s website. New bike lanes will open on Avenue B, a block north of Broadway, this month.

If the project works as planned, Broadway will gain more of the “tight-knit urban” feel advocated for in the 2009 master plan, becoming a street where someone might enjoy taking a stroll — perhaps stopping to grab a bite at Make Ready Market or sip a cappuccino at Mozna Chocolate & Coffee Co., which opened on the street last year.

For years, Hixon has been working in partnership with the Cavender auto family to build a mini-neighborhood along Broadway, largely on properties that had served as Cavender car dealerships. The first major component of the neighborhood — the six-story, 140,000-square-foot Soto office building — opened on Broadway in September 2020. It is now more than 90% leased, said Hunter Kingman, Hixon’s vice president of acquisitions and development, in an email.

On Jan. 30, a company linked with Hixon purchased a roughly half-acre property at the north corner of North Alamo and Eighth streets formerly occupied by the Bluebonnet Carriage Co., one of the horse carriage companies catering to downtown tourists. It’s right in the heart of the bar cluster, across the street from Roadmap, Bentley’s and the Lucky Duck.

Hixon doesn’t yet have plans for the property, said John Beauchamp, the firm’s chief investment officer, in a text message. “We viewed it as being a complementary property to the broader portfolio,” he said.

With the purchase, the Hixon-Cavender partnership now appears to own at least 11 acres of land in the blocks north and south of Broadway between Sixth Street and 10th Street.

The partnership is in the process of building the Make Ready Market, a food hall that will occupy two historic buildings and a central yard behind the Soto. It will feature a diverse offering of restaurants as well as a brewery, Idle Brewing, operated by Pouring With Heart, a group that owns bars in Austin, Denver, Los Angeles and San Diego; last year, it bought Three Star Bar on Grayson Street east of the Pearl. 

Hixon is looking to open Make Ready in June, Beauchamp said. 

The Lucky Duck is one of the neighborhood’s newest bars, having opened last spring. Michael Bajec, who grew up in San Antonio, opened the first location on East Sixth Street in Austin in January 2020 with two business partners.

The concept is to offer patrons a relaxed, “slightly elevated” experience, he said — the Austin location is on a more laid-back stretch of Sixth Street across the highway from the notoriously rowdy bar district. The San Antonio location offers events such as karaoke, a drag queen night, a comedy open mic and a crawfish boil. 

Bajec said he and his partners saw potential in the area north of downtown. They also considered Southtown and the St. Paul Square Historic District east of downtown, but they couldn’t find the right spot.

“It’s right where Interstate 35 meets everything,” he said of his location. “Being from San Antonio, part of it is just pride. I knew that San Antonio is an up-and-coming market. I really believe in the market in San Antonio in general, but especially in the area we’re at.”

David Adelman’s Area Real Estate and Hixon Properties are financial supporters of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.

Richard Webner

Richard Webner

Richard Webner is a freelance reporter covering the San Antonio and Austin metro areas.