Guests wait in line to enter the Burns Building during the TechBloc holiday party.
Guests wait in line to enter the Burns Building during the TechBloc holiday party. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

A historic former department store that sat vacant for years has become an integral piece of San Antonio’s emerging tech district.

Built in 1919, the five-story Burns Building welcomed two tech tenants this year after David Adelman’s AREA Real Estate group redeveloped it.

Following an expansion of PricewaterhouseCoopers’ San Antonio footprint in June, web hosting company Cogeco Peer 1 in July moved from the Pearl to the 56,500-square-foot Houston Street facility.

On the ground floor, CommonWealth Coffeehouse is set to open in January with a light food menu alongside pastries, alcoholic beverages, and cigars. The coffee shop will later be joined by Devils River Whiskey, which is in the midst of building a distillery and tasting room. Traveler Barbershop has already kicked off its first brick-and-mortar enterprise at the renovated space.

On the sidewalk, AREA took a page out of Austin’s playbook by proposing to remove street parking in favor of “parklets,” 10-foot strips of public space featuring chairs, tables, and fixed planters.

“It’s unbelievable that we’re actually building a tech district in San Antonio,” Adelman said Friday at the tech community’s annual holiday party that drew more than 1,000 attendees. Tech Bloc, a nonprofit that advocates for the local tech sector, held its annual holiday party at the Burns Building, in part to showcase the space.

“Even just this little zone is blossoming with regard to places to have the full journey of live, work, and play,” Tech Bloc CEO David Heard said. “The tech district continues to fill out. It continues to evolve as a story. We’ve still got a long way to go.”

Across the street, Playland filled pizza order after pizza order as techies filed into the Burns Building’s 9,000-square-foot second floor. Attendees hopped in a Santa’s sleigh loaded with presents for photo opps and competed in an ugly sweater contest. Lines for libations, including whiskey by event vendor Devils River, snaked along the perimeter of the floor.

That floor was recently leased to PricewaterhouseCoopers, which will increase its footprint in the building after having leased the fourth floor. The office serves as PwC’s innovation hub with focuses on cybersecurity-managed services and cloud-enabled services for its clients.

“The transformation of downtown San Antonio has been incredible to witness,” PwC’s San Antonio managing partner Matt Duffey said in a statement. “What began as a few tech firms has grown and reshaped the city into a vital tech hub.”

That growth will be amplified by the downtown migration of USAA’s tech-focused workers. The financial services company moved just under 300 employees to the One Riverwalk Center building in the summer and has promised to bring at least 2,000 jobs to downtown under a $6 million economic development deal with the City.

Just steps away from the Burns Building sits the Kress Building, which is expected to house WeWork, an international co-working space company that caters to a more high-end clientele than the homegrown Geekdom situated in the Rand Building.

And by the time all of the space at the Burns Building fills out (just one space on the fifth floor remains available), as many as 75 people could be working on each floor, Adelman said.

“You’ll get over 400 people working in that building,” he said. “That’s the kind of density that creates a sustainable downtown.”

An empty floor of Burns building waits for a tenant.
An empty floor of Burns building awaits a tenant. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The real estate development firm also is exploring the idea of adding a rooftop bar, Adelman said.

Moving downtown has upped the tempo for Cogeco Peer 1’s 55 employees, Director of Sales Aaron Delagarza said, a welcome change of pace after experiencing the Pearl’s more “leisurely, casual vibe.”

He credited entrepreneur Graham Weston and Lorenzo Gomez, chairman of Geekdom and Weston’s 80/20 Foundation, with envisioning and investing in what the tech district could become.

“It’s starting to take on a life of its own as you see names like ours popping up,” he said.

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez is a columnist at the San Antonio Report. A former reporter and editor at the SA Report, he currently works as a project manager for New York City-based Advance Local.