A few U.S. cities have had the good fortune to produce ultra-rich visionaries who use significant portions of their wealth for projects that have major impacts on their communities. 

In Fort Worth, the oil-rich Bass family, then among the wealthiest in the nation, began 40 years ago to rescue a dying downtown. In the mid-1970s they began the development of the 24 square-block City Center, energizing Fort Worth with several office towers, a hotel and other buildings. Shortly after, they undertook Sundance Square, 35 blocks combining restored historic buildings with new structures, to create an entertainment and cultural district that included restaurants, nightclubs, shops and theaters for both movies and plays, as well as residential condos. 

The next generation of wealth was not oil, but electronics. One of the earlier cyber-magnates was Seattle resident Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft. The company is in suburban Redmond, but Allen turned his attention to the decayed industrial area around Lake Union, just north of downtown Seattle. He spent $20 million in the early 1990s to acquire a large area that he intended to donate for a major urban park, but Seattle voters turned down a bond issue that would have given the city skin in the game.

Allen responded by turning the the area into a thriving urban center, buying up more property and recruiting a youthful Amazon to build its headquarters there. He bought a failing historic theater and spent millions to restore and upgrade it. He built up the neighborhood in other ways while also impacting the rest of the city. He founded several museums, including a Frank Gehry-designed Museum of Pop Culture, and the Living Computer Museum. He also bought the Seattle Seahawks and put $130 million of his own money into the new CenturyLink Field. 

These were city builders. San Antonio has produced some wealthy men and women during its three centuries, but none who sought to impact the city in such a physical way — until recently. 

Christopher “Kit” Goldsbury grew Pace Picante sauce into one of the nation’s hottest condiments, then sold Pace Foods to the Campbell Soup Company in 1994 for $1.12 billion. With some of that money he bought the abandoned Pearl Brewery and its 24 acres and embarked on turning it into a bustling mixed-use development unlike any the city has ever seen.

He converted the magnificent 1894 brewhouse into the top-ranked Hotel Emma. He didn’t hang out for-rent signs as he renovated some buildings and built new ones. Instead he reached out to shops such as the Twig Book Shop to develop an attractive mix of retail, while recruiting some of San Antonio’s top chefs to offer the public a tasteful range of restaurants. With the motto “Local Flavor Since 1883″ (when beer was first brewed at the site), Goldsbury made it clear franchised restaurants and shops were not welcome.

He guaranteed there would be traffic for the businesses by building several apartment buildings, so far, on the site. (No residential condos, however. The issue is control. “If renters don’t like what you’re doing, they leave,” quipped one insider over a cocktail. “If owners don’t like what you’re doing, they sue.”) The carefully designed development, augmented majestically by its site abutting the Museum Reach linear park along the banks of the San Antonio River, has helped spawn thousands more apartment units within the area, as well as more restaurants, bars, shops and new mid-rise office buildings.

The result is something San Antonio was lacking — a bustling urban live/work/play neighborhood.

Goldsbury built his dream just north of downtown. Graham Weston is working to transform the long dormant northwest quadrant of downtown. His Weston Urban real estate development firm brought in the internationally renowned architecture firm Pelli Clarke Pelli to design the sparkling new Frost Tower. It had already  acquired and updated a number of historic office buildings, including the stately Milam Building and the Rand Building, which was converted into incubator space for tech start-ups.

Graham Weston, left, and Kit Goldsbury have dramatically changed the landscapes of San Antonio’s urban core.
San Antonio billionaires Graham Weston, left, and Kit Goldsbury have dramatically changed the landscape of San Antonio’s urban core. Credit: Composite / Scott Ball – San Antonio Report

Weston Urban’s singular purpose is announced on its website’s home page: “Our mission is to build the city our kids want to call home.” It springs from the challenge Weston faced in building Rackspace: competing with cities that feature more vibrant downtowns attractive to young technology talent.

Now the firm is turning to residential development. Last month it broke ground on a 32-story apartment building near the Frost Tower on the site of a former parking lot. It has also purchased the historic Continental Hotel on Commerce Street west of City Hall and plans to pair it with an adjacent 15-story new apartment building. And that’s just the beginning,

“Our firm builds with a purpose — to cultivate human connection through a vibrant urban core where pedestrian-friendly business, recreation, public spaces, art and culture attract the talent of today and tomorrow,” its website declares. Already it has fashioned an attractive public park as an amenity next to the Frost Tower. 

As with the Pearl, Weston Urban’s developments will be strongly enhanced by a linear water park. Many of their properties are adjacent to or near to San Pedro Creek, the historic dividing line between the city’s Hispanic neighborhoods and downtown. Channelized into an ugly concrete ditch a long time ago, the creek is being transformed into an art-lined version of the River Walk. 

Currently coursing through the decayed northwest corner of downtown, all it needs is people. Weston Urban plans to populate the area with residents who will make use of it.

Weston Urban has focused its efforts in the northwest section of downtown. Legacy Park, Frost Tower, the Savoy and the Rand buildings have all been completed or redeveloped within the past decade. . Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

In addition to their city-building real estate developments, both Goldsbury and Weston have set up foundations that have pumped tens of millions of dollars into “softer” development.

The Goldsbury Foundation has focussed on two areas. One seeks to enhance the performance of public schools through partnerships. The other addresses public health through educational programs on healthy cooking. Its goal is to “move the needle” on San Antonio’s diabetes crisis. 

Weston’s 80/20 Foundation is as focused as his real estate enterprise, making grants designed to educate students in technology and to attract and keep technology workers. In addition, Graham Weston himself donated $15 million to help the University of Texas at San Antonio to expand its downtown campus to serve 10,000 students. The campus will include a school for data science and a school for cybersecurity. 

Through the decades, scores of wealthy San Antonians have supported the arts, education and other charities. But never have we seen wealthy individuals engage in such ambitious urban development.

And other wealthy people should take note: They’re making good money doing it.

Disclosure: Rick Casey is an investor in a restaurant company at the Pearl. The 80/20 Foundation is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.

Rick Casey

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.