With an old train depot now a hot spot, a historic district on the near East Side is slowly making a comeback after a series of stops and starts. 

The 1902 Nightclub opened in November in the century-old Sunset Station and there are more plans in store for the collection of buildings in St. Paul Square. 

A local group recently has agreed to lease the three smaller depots, courtyard and pavilion, a turn of events that Don Thomas, managing partner of St. Paul Square, said will be “a real catalyst for the area.” An announcement is coming soon about what the new leaseholder plans to do with the depots, he added. 

Several restaurants and bars are thriving, and more planned, as well as two hotels undergoing makeovers in an area that has struggled since the San Antonio Spurs left the Alamodome for the AT&T Center in 2002.

Thomas, who has been involved in St. Paul Square development in one way or another since 2013, saw the most recent revitalization attempts derailed by the pandemic, but he and others who own most of the commercial property in the area are finally seeing their vision for a nightlife district coming closer to reality. 

Thomas and his real estate partner, Michael Jersin, worked with Zachry Hospitality for more than four years on leasing and property management of its St. Paul Square inventory. 

‘Good momentum’

In 2017, REATA Real Estate acquired much of the property from Zachry, including a long-term ground lease of Sunset Station, which is owned by VIA Metropolitan Transit, and set out to activate long-vacant buildings. (REATA sold its brokerage and property management divisions to CBRE in 2019 and formed Espada Real Estate, which has since reclaimed those lines of business.)

“When we took over as owners of the property, we had some good momentum,” Thomas said. “We wanted to try to convert St. Paul Square into an entertainment destination — restaurants, bars, activation of what was formerly Sunset Station.”

In 2019, they rebranded the depot to The Espee, made significant upgrades, and planned a concert series for the depot’s debut as a performance venue. But in March 2020, Thomas, Jersin and partner David Adelman watched as carefully laid plans fizzled amid pandemic shutdowns. 

Two years later, their vision has not wavered, and curating the district to be an entertainment district is still their strategy for reactivating St. Paul Square.

“Our hope is always that people will come here and they’ll experience multiple places,” Thomas said. “In a perfect world, we’d love for people to come and have dinner at Toro or Cuishe and then maybe they go to Lily’s Greenville for drinks after dinner, and then when the nightclub opens … they end up spending four or five hours in the project.”

Dinner, drinks and dancing

Last year, Moris Saide, CEO of the Costa Pacifica Restaurant Group, joined with other investors to open the 1902 Nightclub.

The club, named for the year that the train station opened, operates on Friday and Saturday nights, featuring mostly DJ acts, multiple bars, a large dance floor and mesmerizing light shows. Electronic dance music artist Steve Aoki performed at one of 1902’s early opening nights. 

On other days of the week, the depot is available for rent as a private event venue; thus, all the furnishings are movable and versatile and the historic charm of the Mission Revival building is respected. 

Saide said he sees opportunity in bringing to San Antonio what other tourism cities already have — a district where you can enjoy dinner, drinks and dancing at various venues within one area. 

“We are trying to build something like that, we believe San Antonio is ready,” he said.  “1902 is the first one in St. Paul Square and we’re trying to build everything around that with the support of other tenants.”

One afternoon every month, St. Paul Square tenants meet to discuss new concept ideas and planned expansions with the goal of creating a “persona” for St. Paul Square, Saide said, similar to how the Pearl has built an identity around food and dining. 

St. Paul Square is home to restaurants, bars and businesses including Cuishe Cocina Mexicana, Lily's Greenville and Beauty House San Antonio.
St. Paul Square is home to restaurants, bars and businesses, including Cuishe Cocina Mexicana, Lily’s Greenville and Beauty Haus SA. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

In 2018, the owners of Spanish tapas restaurant Toro Kitchen + Bar opened their second location in St. Paul Square, and in November 2020, a Mexican restaurant, Cuishe Cocina Mexicana. Toro also has a speakeasy bar, Cellar Mixology, in its basement.

Gerardo De Anda, founder and owner of the Gusto Group that owns both restaurants, chose the space in St. Paul Square to expand after considering opening a restaurant in Southtown. “What we fell in love with was the history behind St. Paul Square and the buildings themselves,” De Anda said. His customers are both tourists and area residents.

Openings and closings

The spot has worked so well, the group is planning a new concept two doors down from Toro on Commerce Street that will feature an upscale mixology bar upstairs and, on the ground level, a nostalgic pizza-by-the-slice store also featuring vintage vinyl and clothing for sale. Known as Stylus, that space is set to open later this year, De Anda said.

Vinh Hoang, owner of Suck It Restaurant in the South Texas Medical Center area, also recently opened a new place in St. Paul Square, Suck It Kitchen and Bar, on the north side of the street, at 1163 E. Commerce St.

But those grand openings come on the heels of closures during the pandemic, including the University of Houston’s College of Hospitality campus. While the owners of Smoke BBQ + Brew closed and relocated outside St. Paul Square in summer 2020, and more recently, the vegan grocer Lucy’s Bodega also closed, Thomas said interest among potential tenants for ground-floor space in the district is returning. 

“I’m kind of cautiously optimistic that we’ll find a good fit [for those spaces],” he said.

Meanwhile, two hotels in the district also are being revamped. 

The former Best Western Plus at 1103 E. Commerce St., bought by an investor group in February 2019, is undergoing renovations to increase the number of rooms to 79 and add a fifth floor, a bar and a coffee shop.

The new Aiden Hotel will be a design-heavy property, said Chris Hagee, CEO of the Hagee Hospitality Group, who is overseeing the project for the Weinritter Group. The hotel is set to open in July.

Across from the nightclub and steps from the Alamodome, the 11-story Staybridge Suites hotel at 123 Hoefgen Ave., is also making changes. In January, the investor group made up of Thomas, Jersin and Adelman also acquired the hotel with local hotelier Charles Leddy. Built in 2007, it is the one building in the square that isn’t historic.

They are working with Leddy, CEO of Presidian Hotels and Resorts, which recently completed renovations on The Estancia, to turn the 138-room Staybridge into a boutique hotel property.

More residential options planned 

While the hotels keep the lights on for short-term visitors and convention-goers attracted to the district, two multifamily properties — Vidorra, built in 2009, and The Baldwin, in 2018 — provide a steady population of customers for St. Paul Square tenants.  

Another five-story multifamily development with 340 units and a parking garage is planned just east of the railroad tracks, at 1220 E. Commerce St. 

Fort Worth-based developers Vaquero Ventures announced in January they were in talks to buy the 5 acres from Quadrant Investment Properties and released plans for the property in a request that was approved by the Historic and Design Review Commission.

Thomas said that while his group owns about 75% of the district, mostly south of Commerce, with most of that under lease, other parts of St. Paul Square are under different ownership and also not fully occupied.

“Now with the hotel and the partnership with [1902], and getting the other restaurants and bars activated, we’ve created a district that has enough businesses and operations that give people more reasons to come down here and participate,” he said. “We’ve still got a lot of dark storefronts. … I think once we get it leased up, we’ll start to see a whole lot more activity.”

Disclosure: The San Antonio Report is a tenant at St. Paul Square.

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.