The “very preliminary” renderings – as architects reminded reporters after the meeting – illustrate a contemporary structure unlike any in San Antonio. The 197-room hotel has the potential to dramatically transform a long-neglected downtown street corner and narrow sidewalk taken over by a crowded VIA bus stop on South St. Mary’s Street.
“I feel San Antonio is ready for an architecturally significant hotel (like this),” said HDRC member Betty Feldmen.
The Commission’s decision was two-fold: it unanimously approved the demolition of the 1950s MIC building on the corner of South St. Mary’s and East Commerce Streets, and it approved the hotel’s general design concept, which incorporates and preserves the historic 1860s limestone building right next to the Esquire.
The design also includes a widened street-level sidewalk that allows buses to safely pull over – consistent with the type of “complete street” the City already plans to do downtown.
Property owner and developer Chris Hill, who also owns the Esquire and various restaurants and residential projects downtown, is working with commercial real estate developer Crockett Urban Ventures and two architectural firms; Lake/Flato Architects and the Austin office of Gensler, which has offices around the world. Hill was initially interested in building residential units downtown, but found that this particular property was too narrow and lacked that classic urban shortcoming: parking.
“Parking is the biggest challenge on this project,” said Lake/Flato Principal David Lake after the meeting. “It is valet parking only, it’s why this site doesn’t work for housing … there are a variety of parking opportunities, but it will still be a challenge to valet park at (public) garages.”
Hill and his team will return to the HDRC in several months with a more specific design and a possible parking plan.
City staff recommended avoidance of demolition, but the financial burden of preserving the MIC building would be too great, developers said. The Commission agreed. Members also unanimously agreed that the historical relevance of the MIC building, with the exception of the limestone cistern on the River Walk level, is next to nil.
“What really strikes me about his plan is there is really an exceptional consideration of this historic building. You guys see the great value of this building as part of your new hotel,” said HDRC Chair Tim Cone.
That’s what makes San Antonio unique, he said, “the preservation of these little jewels.”
The cistern can be incorporated as an archeological element in the public space the design creates with a 26-foot set back from the River Walk, Lake said.
Sue Ann Pemberton, president of the San Antonio Conservation Society, sent a letter to the Commission that was read aloud by a colleague. In the letter, Pemberton states that the hotel “calls too much attention to itself,” with “awkward” appendages that extend over the River Walk. The MIC building, though not as historic as the Fish Market building, contributes to the downtown’s character, she said.
At first glance, one could perceive that the hotel is projecting far over the property line over the river, Lake said. “That is not the case.”
The 4th-7th floors are flush with the property line near the edge of the River Walk, the hotel then “steps back” in sections of several floors at a time.
“What’s unique is we’re carving back … creating this great River Walk porch that is open to the public – not necessarily controlled by the restaurant or the hotel,” Lake said.
Patrick Shearer, president of Crockett Urban Venture, explained that while the entire, two-building property has a zoning designation of “historic exceptional,” the documentation makes clear that it’s “the portions that they considered exceptional were the cistern and the older (fish market) building and there was no specific designation given to the newer (MIC) building.”
According to numbers obtained by Centro San Antonio from the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau in Spring 2014, there are 13,649 downtown hotel rooms.
“This (will be) considered more of a unique, boutique hotel,” Lake said. “It has (a small conferencing level) but it’s not trying to compete with the Hyatt and the Marriotts – we’re trying to be more of a creative class, family boutique hotel and less catering to the conference crowd.”
Hill plans on offering an array of room types from small studio room, to standard double-queen, to possibly a penthouse at the very top.
And it wouldn’t be a Texan hotel without a pool. This hotel would have a pool hovering level over the Esquire for guests to take a dip.
There are 10 members currently serving on the HDRC, each appointed by a district Council member and the mayor. The District 2 position is vacant.
This article was originally published on Jan. 22, 2015.