Rare is the modern-day development that has the power to transform a city. Yet the crown jewel of downtown San Antonio revitalization, unfolding on the banks of the Riverwalk since 2001, has been accomplishing that for more than a century.
Now, with the grand opening this month of the Bottling Department, the last project in the original development plan at the former brewery that Silver Ventures CEO Christopher “Kit” Goldsbury purchased 15 years ago, this gem has come full circle.
As with so many Pearl ventures, the capstone is about food. The Bottling Department Food Hall, which opens July 24, will house five independently owned food vendors along with a bar serving wine and beer. It sits just above the underground Jazz, TX club, and features indoor and outdoor seating facing a green space where the children’s splash pad recently opened.
And it delivers to the city yet another culinary trend, a key ingredient of the development’s magnetic appeal.
Though the Pearl gets its name from the beer produced there, named so by German Kaiser-Beck’s brewmaster who thought the foamy bubbles in a freshly poured glass resembled sparkling pearls, the plant opened in 1881 as the J.B. Behloradsky Brewery.
It later became the San Antonio Brewing Company and grew into one of the largest breweries in the nation. Then, in 1952, owner Otto A. Koehler and the board renamed it to more closely associate the brewery with its famous label.
As the name appears on the old smokestack towering over all that is the Pearl, it’s one that today’s locals and visitors associate with something far more than suds. That’s because beer and other beverages are once again flowing there, and the late-1800s-era factory buildings buzz with people every day of the week.
“They were important buildings, beautiful buildings,” said Jeff Fetzer, a preservation architect who has worked with Silver Ventures to restore the factory and office buildings. “The owners could have put up anything large enough to house equipment, but they were proud enough of what they were doing that they decided to build substantial buildings that would last.”
They engaged August Maritzen of Chicago, a renowned architect designing breweries all over the county at the time, and hired German-born masons, who used the brick and limestone prevalent in the area.
First came the brewhouse, stable, boiler house, engine room (now the lobby of Hotel Emma), and an office building that today houses the rustic-yet-chic restaurant Cured. Later came structures recently opened as the Cellars at Pearl – upscale and pricey residential units – and a first-class spa, the Hiatus Spa + Retreat.
“The fact that they were still here 100 years later, though they needed some love and care to bring them back, makes them important buildings to the history of San Antonio,” Fetzer said. “At one time, the brewery was the largest employer in San Antonio and largest brewery in Texas. It had a long, important history in San Antonio and Silver Ventures wanted to preserve that.”
Way to a Person’s Heart
Founded by Goldsbury, a local billionaire who made his fortune after selling Pace Foods to Campbell Soup in 1994, Silver Ventures is a private equity firm that has backed the 18-acre Pearl site and brought the Culinary Institute of America to San Antonio.
A reclusive Goldsbury remains the visionary director behind all that has been established at the Pearl and that is to come, according to Bill Shown, managing director of real estate for Silver Ventures since 2005.
“He’s an extremely creative person, and his mind is constantly working,” Shown said. “He is very involved. This is his baby for sure.”
From a real estate perspective, the purchase of the Pearl made no sense, Shown told a group at the Urban Land Institute (ULI) Texas forum in June. Few people lived in the area on this northeastern edge of downtown, known for its low income, high crime rate, and chronic flooding. The ground was contaminated.
“Our advice to Kit was to run,” Shown said. “But he saw it as an opportunity and he had a dream and the commitment.”
At the core of that dream was not only historic preservation, but also changing the culinary landscape in San Antonio – a foodie’s dream.
“He hired talented, local chefs and helped them succeed,” Shown said. And he convinced the Culinary Institute of America to establish the college’s third campus at the Pearl, starting with a small test kitchen.
Since it opened in 2008, more than 1,000 chefs have graduated from the program. Many have gone on to start or work at the Pearl’s 18 restaurants, considered an extraordinary number of eateries on a site of that size. Developers would have recommended a maximum of four restaurants, Shown said.
“People will always go to find great food. People will travel to find it even if it’s not in the most ideal spot,” he said. “And that was important to us in the early days before the neighborhood turned around. We had really talented chefs with unique concepts, and people enjoyed the idea of something delivered at a high level with a lot of creativity by local chefs.”
Living at the Pearl
If food gave people a reason to visit, then new residential units offered them a reason to stay. The Can Plant Residences opened first in 2012. Its 293 units, with leases starting at more $1,000 a month, are fully occupied. Ranging from 505-sq.-ft. studios to two-bedroom units, the apartments are home to singles, couples, and now families – 15 are raising their “Can Plant babies” there.
“We were looking for urban living and it seemed like a really great place to get to know the city,” said the Mississippi native. “It’s an interesting paradox, though. Because you’re paying so much to be close to the amenities of the Pearl, you may not be able to take advantage of all the things it offers,” like eating in a Pearl restaurant every night of the week. “But it’s interesting to be around the energy.”
Though the Schaffhausers bought their first house one year later, one with a yard for their dog in the nearby Alta Vista neighborhood, they still visit the area often.
The Cellars at Pearl, which opened in April as a residential extension of the five-star Hotel Emma, offers luxurious urban living on the River Walk, complete with 24/7 valet and concierge services – for a price previously unseen in San Antonio, though common in other major cities.
A one-bedroom apartment starts at more than $1,900 a month. More than half of the Cellars’ 122 units, most with views of the Museum Reach, are already leased.
The City of San Antonio provided a total of $13.1 million in incentives for both Can Plant and Cellars, as well as the future Brewery South, under the Center City Housing Incentive Policy approved by the Council in 2012. That policy and the Inner City Reinvestment Infill Policy provide fee waivers, tax rebates, and grants to eligible projects in downtown and surrounding neighborhoods.
The City also provided $1.9 million in City and San Antonio Water System fee waivers to the three projects as well as $288,000 in grants to facilitate retail and office development. Those incentives facilitated 640 new housing units, 68,000 sq. ft. of retail space, and 49,245 sq. ft. of office space, according to Assistant City Manager Lori Houston.
In return, taxing entities such as the San Antonio Independent School District will also benefit – SAISD taxes are estimated at approximately $800,000 annually for the Can Plant property alone. And public-private partnerships with Silver Ventures that improve the city extend beyond the Pearl site.
In 2006, they partnered on a drainage project along the Broadway corridor that saved taxpayer dollars, and again on the design of the turning basin for the San Antonio River at Pearl when Silver Ventures contributed $2.4 million to those improvements.
“The redevelopment of the Pearl Brewery and the extension of the San Antonio River were the catalyst to the development we are seeing downtown,” Houston said. “As a result of these two public and private investments, we have 2,300 housing units that are online or under construction in the area between Josephine Street and 9th Street along Broadway and the San Antonio River.
“This also shows that public investments like the San Antonio River Improvements Project are a catalyst for redevelopment.”
It’s a development pattern that Houston said is also fostering the growth of other housing – such as the East Quincy Townhomes and Casa Blanca Lofts – and a phenomenon that she believes will grow in Southtown as well.
Stories Worth Preserving
When developers first looked at plans for the Pearl, they estimated a start-to-finish timeline of six to seven years.
“That was 12 years ago,” said Allen Sikes, Silver Ventures design and construction manager. “We obviously underestimated. The reason, for one, is we have close to 1 million square feet of buildings now. That’s a lot of buildings to develop in 12 years considering every project is different.
“What took us 12 years is the thought process that goes into each project. You’ve got to make sure the tenant is right and we’re a good fit. We have to vet the architecture and make sure we’re putting something on the property that is the same caliber as everything else.”
In addition, in an attempt to preserve the existing architecture and history, the team often discovered problems it didn’t anticipate, like a recessed moat feature outside the Pearl Stable (now an event venue) and the original tile in the lobby of the Hotel Emma, a Silver Ventures hotel that opened in 2015.
“To take that away would be the start of degrading the strength of the story, in my opinion. And in a lot of cases, that’s what sparks conversation,” Sikes said.
“One of the things I love most about working on this is walking the site and hearing someone having a conversation and telling a story about the buildings. Whether it’s accurate or not doesn’t matter, but actually telling the story shows they care and are interested. For me, there’s nothing more congratulatory.”
One worthy of retelling for its lesson on perseverance is how San Antonio Brewing Association Chief Executive Emma Koehler kept the brewery going through Prohibition by producing “near beer,” ice, and ice cream, bottling soft drinks, and operating an advertising sign company.
Less than 15 minutes after Prohibition ended in Texas, according to the Texas State Historical Association, 100 trucks and 25 boxcars loaded with Pearl beer rolled out of the brewery grounds.
From Ghost Town to Local Hangout
When the Pearl plant finally closed in 2001, “the whistle blew and people left,” said Elizabeth Fauerso, the Pearl’s chief marketing officer who is working to create an exhibit of the items left behind, from ashtrays and signage to an old fire engine. “It was a derelict ghost town.”
Not so anymore. Besides the restaurants, there are 14 retail outlets, several of which date to the opening of Pearl – Adelante Boutique, Melissa Guerra Latin Kitchen Market, and The Twig Book Shop – plus the offices of the San Antonio Area Foundation, the San Antonio Business Journal, Cogeco Peer 1, Group 42, the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and more.
Adelante owner Marla Ross said business is “insane,” leading her to expand her store by another 800 sq. ft. next door in September. “The growth has been everything I thought it would be,” she said, though the first year was slow. “I came down early because I wanted to have the best spot when retail went full blast.”
Ross estimates about half of Adelante shoppers are tourists and the other half regulars from when her four-decade-old business was located in Alamo Heights. “I can have one customer come over from Hotel Emma and take care of my whole day [in rent],” she said.
But other shops and “activations” are helping fulfill the developers’ goal to create a favorite space for locals, even as tourists discover its charms.
An estimated 7,000 people visit the Pearl to shop at the weekend farmer’s market, about 3,000 on summer movie nights, and several hundred for Wednesday evening Sound Cream Sunset Sessions and Thursday’s Magik Theatre performances.
Can Plant resident Jordie Shepherd moved into a one-bedroom-plus-study, with a view of the hotel, three years ago for that very reason.
“I never dreamed I would love living somewhere so much,” she said. “There is no place I would rather be. The rates are high, but it’s worth it because everywhere my friends and I want to go is within walking distance. The best part is there are new things to do weekly.”
Beguiled investors are also transforming the once-neglected stretch of Broadway near the Pearl into a destination. Last month, GrayStreet Partners announced that it is developing a 23-acre mixed-use site in the Government Hill neighborhood adjacent to Broadway.
The Broadway corridor is slated to receive more than $40 million from the $850 million 2017 Municipal Bond package that voters approved in May. Through a grant from Texas Department of Transportation and other funding, the City will also build parking and other low-impact improvements along Broadway underneath the highway overpasses.
Shown said his team is looking into how to address the parking challenges at the Pearl.
More to Come
“The Pearl is more about community than commerce,” Shown said. “When we started, that’s how we decided we would measure the success – whether we were catalytic to the neighborhood and created a spark. That has become a filter through which all our decisions passed. If we are successful in that regard, we would be an economic success.”
Earlier this month, Shown and the development team gathered for a three-day visioning session to plan the next phase.
Already underway are buildings at Broadway and Avenue B that will bring 344,000 sq. ft. more commercial office space to the Pearl, and a new 223-unit Brewery South apartment complex, set to begin construction this fall.
What will become of the 2.76-acre former Samuels Glass complex on Newell Street is still being discussed. “Some really cool ideas have come out,” Shown said, and like the original structures at the Pearl, the glass factory building will not be demolished. “It has some great potential.”
The Pearl is one of 25 developments from around the world selected as finalists for ULI’s 2017 Global Awards for Excellence, widely recognized as one of the land use industry’s most prestigious award programs. Winners from among this year’s finalists – three in Asia, two in Europe, and 20 in North America – will be announced in October.
“[The Pearl has] been a real success not because we focused on the bottom line,” Shown said. “But because we focused on San Antonio and the community.”
New restaurants opening at the Bottling Department Food Hall include:
This story was originally published on July 14, 2017.