For more than a decade, Omar Gonzalez lived, worked and played at Hemisfair, the park project he helped develop and the home of Yanaguana Garden where his kids like to run and climb.
In January, he moved the work part of his life to the Pearl — to a job that will in due course bring him back to the park and the Lavaca neighborhood where he lives.
Named director of development of the Pearl’s real estate development arm, Pearl Build, Gonzalez leads a team of people helping to shape new projects beyond the flourishing mixed-use development and culinary destination near Broadway Street.
One of those new projects involves working on a much-anticipated plan for the 5-acre property and historic buildings that Pearl owner Silver Ventures purchased near his former workplace at Hemisfair in 2018.
Planning for that development is in the early stages while Gonzalez focuses even more closely on an effort near the Pearl with game-changing potential.
Engagement and transformation
Pearl Build is one of three entities under the Silver Ventures umbrella, which also includes Pearl Commercial that oversees the food, beverage and entertainment elements of the development and Pearl Real Estate, the owner and landlord for the former brewery.
Bill Shown, CEO of Pearl Build, hired Gonzalez away from the chief of development job at Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation, where Shown said he demonstrated his “ability and experience in community engagement and transformation.”
“He’s known and respected and thinks strategically and outside of the box,” Shown said. “He’ll be a great creative partner and leader.”
The timing was right for his transition to the Pearl, Gonzalez said.
“I was really glad I got to stay long enough to keep [Hemisfair] in motion,” he said. But the opportunity at the Pearl, to build upon its past successes, was one he couldn’t pass up
“We’ve kind of got the freedom now to see if we can continue to create magic like we’ve created here [at the Pearl], capturing the soul of a place and the soul of a community and then seeing if we can replicate that in other places,” he said.
Gonzalez grew up in Northwest San Antonio and attended Central Catholic High School on North St. Mary’s Street, the place where he said he first “dialed in to the whole notion of urban.”
After attending the University of Pennsylvania to study business at the Wharton School, Gonzalez returned to San Antonio and worked in several consulting jobs before realizing he no longer wanted to be on the sidelines of development. “I wanted to be on the ‘doing’ side,” he said. “I wanted to create something tangible.”
He earned a master’s degree in business administration at Stanford University and went to work for a real estate company managing single-family residential developments in California. From there, he developed resort properties for an investor group in Riviera Maya, Mexico. But the financial crisis of 2007-08 changed everything.
“It was kind of a mess, and so for me a great learning experience,” Gonzalez said. “The more and more I thought about it, the more I knew San Antonio was where I needed to be. I really wanted to be back home.”
In San Antonio, the Pearl Brewery redevelopment project was just getting started. Looking for his next job, Gonzalez met with everyone he could, including Shown, who introduced him to Andres Andujar, CEO of Hemisfair.
In his 11 years at Hemisfair, Gonzalez brought both Yanaguana Garden and the park’s historic buildings to life and also worked on The ‘68 residential tower project. For the past two years, he’s led the San Antonio chapter of the Urban Land Institute as district council chairman.
“His impact is visible in all of our successes to date,” Andujar said. “His optimism and love for San Antonio and Hemisfair reverberates through the district.”
The ambitious Hemisfair project entered its second phase of redevelopment in January with the groundbreaking for Civic Park — without Gonzalez. Hemisfair recently named Melissa Chamrad director of Hemisfair finance and real estate.
Growing with Tobin Hill
Hemisfair not only represents what Gonzalez believes is the best kind of “human scale” and walkable urban development, but it’s also in his own backyard.
And as a resident of the Lavaca neighborhood, where he lives in a townhome near Labor Street Park, Gonzalez, who is 46 and a married father of two, said he’s acutely tuned into how his new employer develops the land Silver Ventures also owns just south of Hemisfair.
A design statement for the former school district property at César E. Chávez Boulevard and South Alamo Street is complete. But there’s much more work to be done.
“So that means that things are going to start getting a little more heated up,” Gonzalez said, with the developer planning to involve neighbors in the process soon. “I don’t have an exact time frame [but] it’s something I think about on a daily basis. I go by the property and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.”
But first he and the Pearl Build group are concentrating on projects closer to the Pearl mothership just off booming Broadway, starting with the seven-story apartment tower at Elmira and Quincy streets. Construction on that project starts this spring.
That complex is just one of several going up west of the San Antonio River in the historic Tobin Hill neighborhood.
Austin-based commercial real estate firm Sabot Development is building a 10-story, mixed-use tower bordered by Euclid, Myrtle, Elmira and Locust streets. The Lynd Company is partnering with the San Antonio Housing Authority on a 259-unit complex at 120 W. Josephine St.
And AREA Real Estate President David Adelman and real estate investment company Embrey are close to completing the Tin Top, an apartment building within the Creamery development on East Ashby.
Tobin Hill residents are feeling the squeeze from the expanding development in their neighborhood, drawn to a large degree by the appeal of the Pearl, bringing with it more people and traffic. Gonzalez believes design and development in San Antonio can be less auto-centric than it has in the past and more focused on human interaction.
“I think the more people we can get living in these areas, the more likely it is to fully support and sustain this notion of having places where folks can gather, where folks can eat, where folks can celebrate,” he said.
Another project on Gonzalez’s plate is one that gets him excited for the impact it will have on the Pearl and the city.
“When I came here, my reaction was not enough people know about this, because I think this is potentially a real game-changer,” he said.
The goal for an industrial site along the river bordered by Josephine and Isleta streets that’s currently fenced and unused is “attract a Fortune 500 headquarters to that site,” he said.
A headquarters tenant would bring good jobs and contribute to the economic development of the entire city
Gonzalez also called the charge a daunting task. But given what the Pearl has accomplished already — changing the culinary landscape and the way many experience food in San Antonio — he is confident it will happen.
“What I love about working here is that they make the impossible seem possible,” Gonzalez said.
While that project might be part of the distant future, Gonzalez’s arrival at the Pearl comes as Pearl Commercial redevelops the old Samuel’s Glass Plant at Newell Avenue into a market and prepares to announce what will become of the former event space Pearl Stables on March 15. Pearl Real Estate is developing what it’s calling 1100 Springs Park, a green space in front of the Full Goods Building.
Gonzalez said he’s been fortunate to be involved in so many meaningful projects in San Antonio. “I look back on it and think, ‘It’s all happened to me?’” he said.