St. Mary’s University School of Law had its beginnings downtown in the 1930s in the space now occupied by the Omni La Mansión del Rio before moving west to its current location on Culebra Road. Now there are plans to return it to the urban core.

For the past three years, a group of alumni has formulated plans to move San Antonio’s only law school back downtown in an effort to make the school more attractive to top talent. The group hopes to purchase a 7-acre plot of land near the San Antonio Museum of Art and construct a facility for a future law school campus.

A new nonprofit foundation called Project Legatum, run by a St. Mary’s law school alumnus and others, submitted a Dec. 6 letter of intent to purchase the land owned by the museum for an upfront payment of more than $20 million and further payments to be negotiated. The property, located at Jones Avenue and the San Antonio River, currently serves as a parking lot for museum visitors and as staff offices.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and Mayor Ron Nirenberg sent a letter to then-SAMA chair Marie Halff in October supporting the move. St. Mary’s University President Thomas Mengler, who previously served as dean of two law schools, signed off on a letter of intent for the project in May.

On Thursday, Mengler said discussions are “too preliminary to discuss further at this point.”

Project Legatum’s proposed land acquisition is being made at a time of transition for the museum, with Katie Luber, its director since 2011, having recently left to become executive director of the Minneapolis Institute of Art. With total assets worth $82 million and an annual budget of $11.2 million, the museum experienced a $105,000 revenue shortfall for fiscal year 2018, and laid off 11 full-time staff in 2017 due to facilities costs.

In a statement Thursday, SAMA’s trustees said they believed it “is necessary that the Museum retain possession of this property in order to maintain its current operations and achieve its goals beyond the next [40] years.”

Attorney Martin Phipps, a St. Mary’s School of Law alumnus, commissioned a study to research the downtown move and had architects and engineers create renderings for the SAMA property. The result was a plan for a new law school campus, 4th District Court of Appeals, judicial training center, and office and retail complex situated along the River Walk just north of downtown.

The Phipps Building, which houses Phipps’ law firm, Phipps Deacon Purnell, as well as rooftop bar Paramour, is in the same area that is being considered for the law school.

“St. Mary’s University and its law school are part of the fabric of San Antonio and each of us who call it home,” Phipps said in a statement. “The law school is the fourth oldest in the state and produces the greatest lawyers not only because of their skills, but also because of their need to do what is right. … St. Mary’s Law School on the San Antonio [River] will be a world-class facility, designed and built by San Antonians.”  

The plan also contains designs for a second mixed-use building with space for 250 apartment units and 15,000 square feet of ground floor retail space.

“While there are a number of new apartments along the Museum Reach, there are none that will accommodate the specific needs of students and facility within walking distance of the new Law School,” Phipps’ study states.

Both the law school complex and the second mixed-use building would include 1,200-space parking garages. Altogether, the project would include more than 85,000 square feet of retail space.

The new law school would cost an estimated $200 million, Project Legatum board member T.J. Mayes said. The nonprofit’s leaders feel confident it can raise $65 million to $70 million for the project and bring in commercial and mixed-use space to generate the needed funds to cover the remaining costs, he added.

St. Mary’s University would not be responsible for any of the costs of the project, leaders of Project Legatum said. Mengler, the university’s board of trustees, board chair Mickey Schott, and past chair Marty Beirne gave unanimous support to the project, Project Legatum’s board wrote in a letter to SAMA trustee Banks Smith on Dec. 6.

Project Legatum also expressed interest in land near Pete’s Tako House by 9th Street, Avenue B, and Brooklyn Avenue. Should the proposal to purchase the land owned by SAMA be rejected, Project Legatum could pursue this property, Mayes said.

The foundation’s hope is that returning the law school downtown will attract students interested in urban environments and help St. Mary’s compete for top talent.

“Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, and Houston all have urban law schools,” Mayes said. “To compete in an environment where people who are younger are more interested in urban environments, to compete for the top students, we are going to have to do something. You see this idea play out at UTSA and their massive investment in downtown. The idea is to do the same thing with the law school.”

Wolff and Nirenberg signaled their support for the relocation in the late October letter to SAMA’s board chair.

“We can all agree that an urban law school could add tremendous value to downtown by bringing law students, prominent faculty and experienced professionals to the inner city,” they wrote. “As the Board discusses potential opportunities such as this, we wanted to convey that we support relocating St. Mary’s School of Law School to the urban core, recognizing the economic benefits, along with elevating the Riverwalk as a vibrant community that values the arts, education, and provides a welcoming place to live, work[,] and play.”

Reporter Nicholas Frank contributed to this article.

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.