Mckinney Olive in uptown Dallas Texas. © Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects
Mckinney Olive in uptown Dallas Texas. © Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects

Weston Urban and its development partner, KDC of Dallas have chosen Pelli Clarke Pelli of New Haven, Conn. to build the new Frost Bank Tower, the first new office tower on the San Antonio skyline in 25 years. The 85-member firm is internationally respected and recognized with office towers in cities from New York to Hong Kong and more than 15 built projects in Texas.

Ground breaking is expected to begin in Fall 2016 with completion planed for 2018 or 2019.

“We are very selective in the projects we pursue, principally ones that are transformative and where we can make a real contribution,” said PCP Principal Bill Butler, 58, who was born in downtown San Antonio at the Nix Hospital and remembers as a boy accompanying his father on trips to the Frost Motor Bank. “We want to be game changers and obviously this project in San Antonio is a game changer. I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to be part of this.”

Alamo Architects will work with Pelli Clarke Pelli on the tower and surrounding streetscape, which Weston Urban CEO Randy Smith has repeatedly stressed is key to designing and building “the truly memorable building San Antonio deserves and that will help transform our downtown.

“People focus on the top 30 feet of a tower and what that looks like when it’s the bottom 30 feet, what people see from the street, that really matters,” Smith said.

Among a strong list of finalists, Pelli Clarke Pelli impressed the selection team the most, especially when the firms’ representatives arrived in San Antonio with an oversized, hand-crafted paper model of downtown that showed every surrounding building right down to the roof air conditioning units. A collection of different shaped towers were used to show the selection team the range of choices that could form a starting point for deciding what kind of tower best suited the stakeholders and the city.

Contextual model of downtown San Antonio. Courtesy of Pelli, Clark, Pelli.
Contextual model of downtown San Antonio. Courtesy of Pelli Clark Pelli.
Irby Hightower
Irby Hightower. Courtesy photo.

“It was a thorough process, and one that (Principal) Irby Hightower at Alamo Architects was instrumental in leading,” Smith said. “We were looking for a firm that was good cultural fit, a firm with people who shared our values, and a firm that would help us establish from the very start that this project would not be business as usual, that just okay is no longer okay in San Antonio. We found that firm.”

Hightower said the first task for Alamo Architects was to lead the development partners through the selection process.

“It was an intense process, but it was a pretty easy decision to select Pelli Clarke Pelli,” Hightower said. “All five firms were extremely qualified, all had great tower work, and most were international. There might have been debate over who was number two, but there was no disagreement over who was number one.”

Hightower said his firm’s focus now will be working with the New Haven firm on the street level and “developing a community-wide design for downtown, where we activate the first floor of the building and the surrounding area.”

“Pelli Clarke Pelli draws inspiration from their surroundings to create iconic works of architecture, sometimes understated, sometimes bold, but always sensitive,”  Hightower said.  “This is the right firm to help San Antonio realize the first downtown office tower of the twenty-first century.”

Butler said the firm was equally interested in the design for San Pedro Creek and expects the new Frost Bank Tower serves as a centerpiece along its path through downtown.

William E Butler. Courtesy of Pelli, Clark, Pelli.
William E Butler. Courtesy of Pelli Clark Pelli.

“We very much want to be part of the conversation about San Pedro Creek,” Butler said. “We think this building will be a critical element there. This project will bring a major corporate headquarters right to the part of downtown that needs it. It’s a coup for San Antonio to retain such a historic business that has ben part of the city’s story for so long, and to do it in a way that solves so many problems for Frost Bank, for the City of San Antonio and for everyone eager to see this side of downtown come back to life.”

Frost Bank’s leadership expressed enthusiasm for the firm’s selection.

“We are really supportive of Weston Urban’s choice of Pelli Clarke Pelli. They have a great reputation, and it’s exciting for San Antonio to have the first new office tower in more than 25 years be designed by a world-renowned architecture firm,” said Phillip D. Green, president of Cullen/Frost Bankers. Green will succeed CEO Dick Evans in March, who is retiring after a 45-year career with Frost Bank. “It’s a wonderful step forward for the city as it moves ahead in its downtown development.”

Green said Frost Bank, which will be headquartered in 250,000 of the new tower’s 400,000 sq. ft., is confident the Weston Urban, Pelli Clarke Pelli and Alamo Architects team will produce a structure worthy of the Frost Bank name and heritage.

“It’s Weston Urban’s building, they and KDC are the developers, but just by the nature of this deal, they have been very collaborative with us, recognizing the branding component for the Frost Bank. We are very comfortable and confident this will turn out wonderfully for everyone involved,” Green said.

The Rivard Report has assembled images of office towers (see galley above) designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli that have been built in U.S. cities and abroad. We invite readers to post comments on any towers they find the most striking, or that they believe might inform the Frost Bank Tower design.

Fred W Clarke. Courtesy photo.
Fred W Clarke. Courtesy photo.

Pelli Clarke Pelli has a considerable body of work already visible in Texas cities. One of the firm’s co-founder and a senior principal, Fred Clarke, will be the lead partner on the project. He was born in El Campo, Texas, graduated from the University of Texas, and taught at the Rice University School of Architecture in Houston, where Butler was one of his students. Later, when Pelli Clarke Pelli was founded in 1977, Butler became one of the early hires. He later taught at the Yale School of Architecture for 14 years.

“We are thrilled and honored to be chosen as architects for the new Frost Tower. This transformative project will extend the commercial district of Houston Street to the vibrant redevelopment of San Pedro Creek,”  Clarke said. “As a Texas native, and with my business partner Bill Butler, a San Antonio native, we hope to embrace the Texan spirit, respond to the uniqueness of San Antonio and create a symbol for the city’s tercentennial, as well as the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of Frost Bank.”

According to a press release issued Wednesday, “Pelli Clarke Pelli has been a leader in environmentally sustainable design for over a decade. The firm’s designs included sustainable strategies even before the U.S. Green Building Council established its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program and its work includes the country’s first residential tower to achieve LEED Platinum, the program’s highest rating. The firm has designed and developed towers across the world from the World Financial Center in New York to the Petronas Towers in Malaysia.”

Butler said he lived in San Antonio until the fifth grade when his family moved to New Orleans, but he made regular visits here to see his father until his death 10 years ago, he said. His first outing as a newborn, he said, was with his parents to the Mexican Manhattan restaurant at 110 Soledad St.

“My father was an insurance broker, and he had his account at Frost Bank,” Butler said. “I still remember trips to the drive-through bank on Broadway. As a child I remember the Tower Life building being illuminated in different colors that told you what the weather was going to be the next day.”

Butler and others from the firm will spend several days a month in San Antonio, starting as soon as they begin their work.

“I think residential sounds like the best way to bring people back into the center city, which is what we see happening all over the world in cities,” Butler said. “Residential also is what will bring San Pedro Creek back to life. San Antonio has an incredibly rich history and culture that no other Texas city can claim. That has to be the foundation to build on and attract people who want to be surrounded by that history and culture every day.”

I asked Butler to talk about some of the firm’s work in Texas.

“We have a number of projects in Texas, including the University of Texas campus,” Butler said. “Fred Clarke was my professor at Rice. We did the UT Campus Master Plan, the Seay Psychology Building and the Melinda and Bill Gates Computer Complex. We also did the McKinney and Olive/Crescent Tower in Dallas. We have perhaps 18 built buildings in Texas, I even worked on the revamping of the UTSA campus with Boone Powell (principal and founder of Ford, Powell & Carson). I still get a handwritten  Christmas card from him every year, and look forward to seeing him again. He’s walking history of San Antonio.”

KDC, Weston Urban’s development partner on the project and a leading developer of major tower projects throughout the state and beyond, will add considerable experience to the team, given San Antonio’s lack of tower construction for more than 25 years.

“KDC is very excited about the opportunity to work with Frost, Weston Urban and Pelli Clarke Pelli to develop a new headquarters that will not only symbolize the bank’s dominant place in the market but also be a proud landmark for San Antonio,” said KDC Executive Vice President Don Mills.

Butler said Pelli Clarke Pelli first learned of the Weston Urban project in the course of routine Internet searches for new projects.

“We poke around on the Internet and things pop up, and we found out about the Weston Urban project by reading the Rivard Report,” Butler said. “So thanks for that.”

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.