Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
More than five years in the making, the first major addition to the San Antonio skyline in the last quarter century is finally visible on the horizon – from miles away in all directions.
At 12 stories tall, with another 12 still to be built, the Frost Tower at 111 W. Houston St. is about two-thirds complete and on schedule to open early next year. More than 200 construction workers, dozens of contractors, and a nonstop line of beeping concrete mixers cycle through the site daily, overseen by Clark Construction Group.
During a hard-hat tour of the structure on Thursday, the Rivard Report got an early look at not only the construction in progress and 360-degree views of San Antonio, but also how the tower is taking its place in the city.
Frost Tower is the product of a public-private partnership, one of the largest such deals in San Antonio’s history, facilitated by Weston Urban with Frost Bank and the City of San Antonio, in 2014. At the time, the tower was expected to cost about $142 million; representatives declined to say whether that estimate is still accurate.
When completed in 2019, the 460,000-square-foot high-rise will serve as the new Cullen/Frost Bankers headquarters, which currently occupies the Frost Bank building one block east from the new tower. That 21-story building was completed in 1974 as the bank’s home after it outgrew the original 1922 Frost National Bank Building, now the Municipal Plaza Building.
Like landmarks of growth and prosperity, both building are clearly visible from the upper floors still under construction at the Frost Tower.
“So much of what makes San Antonio special is in this view,” said Weston Urban CEO Randy Smith as he peered out over the safety rails from the 11th floor and looked south beyond Houston Street at historic structures and new, and at construction cranes that herald projects coming soon. “This is my favorite spot to stand.”
Smith visits the site daily, and also keeps track of the progress on the time-lapse construction camera. “I don’t know if I’m working on it or it’s working on me, but this has been a tough project,” he said. Still, that hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm.
As he walked through the structure, Smith talked of how he set out to do something unique and described each feature of the building, designed by architects Pelli Clarke Pelli, as another favorite.
He pointed out the massive concrete pillars that emerge from the foundation and will eventually span the entire height of the tower, remaining exposed and visible within the building.
“They are made of a very special kind of concrete. Because the columns tilt a bit, the strength of them is incredibly important,” Smith said, explaining that the pillars are made of 10,000 pounds-per-square-inch concrete. “What’s more special about them is the forms we used. … The way they are able to make them that pretty is really an art.”
When complete, the tower will contain 396,790 square feet of concrete, or enough to fill a football field with 7-foot high walls.
With much of the concrete frame set for 12 floors, workers using cranes on the site began placing the glass facade in February, installing 35 to 40 panes a day. The concrete will be tapped out by late June, Smith said, and the glass will “chase” the concrete up the sides of the structure. The glass that surrounds the lobby is clear, letting in light and the views of the oak trees that surround the property.
Above that, the glass facade is a reflective, flat glass material, each pane uniquely sized and numbered – no two are alike. “We put a lot of thought into the glass,” Smith said, traveling with a team all across the country to find a glass that had the right color and shape. “We picked the one that we thought was consistently the most beautiful.”
There will be plenty of it. Frost Tower will be draped in 187,396 square feet of glass, enough to cover a basketball court 40 times.
As the glass goes up, a section will be left uncovered temporarily to allow for the construction elevator, or hoist, that hauls workers up and down the structure throughout the day. On the day of our tour, hoist operator Sylvester Luna shook his head when asked how many times a day he brings the hoist up or down, showing us a long list of workers’ calls to his cell phone.
In the lobby of the tower, there will be a retail bank, a restaurant, the vault door of the 1922 Frost Bank, and two sets of elevators – one for Frost employees and the other for tenants occupying the tower’s top eight floors. Using destination dispatch technology on pedestals positioned nearby, employees can swipe their badges to select an office floor; there will be no buttons in the elevator.
At the mezzanine level overlooking the lobby, plans call for a traditional conference room, and a very non-traditional break room, also known as a tenant lounge. “We’ve created a respite for our tenants,” Smith said, with a “kitchen to end all kitchens,” and “the most comfortable living room you can imagine. … It is the space I’m most proud of.”
A hoist ride up another few levels took our tour to the office space, where floor-to-ceiling glass will give tenants unobstructed, panoramic views of San Antonio. On this clear day, standing on the 11th floor with nothing but a safety rail between us and the edge, we could see as far as the South Texas Medical Center to the north. From this vantage, we could also see a winding stretch of the developing San Pedro Creek, where another construction crew is working toward the May 5 opening, as well as the soon-to-be overhauled Alameda Theater.
Looking east, we were at eye level with the topmost floors of Weston Urban’s historic Milam Building, which Smith said will undergo renovations starting this summer to update the 1928 structure and turn its castle-like turret into a stylish bar.
Moving up Frost Tower, eight corner points, or prisms, on each floor get bigger on each level, as do the views, and the concrete pillars lean slightly as the building twists its way to the sky.
Back at street level, a 950-space wraparound parking facility, which tucks under the first four floors and wraps the west side of the building, is already complete.
The tower’s ground floor is slated for retail and restaurants that open onto a tree-lined allée, or avenue. The original oak trees along Houston and Flores streets were saved, and another set will be transplanted to the spot in May, creating a natural canopy for pedestrians.
Though no food or retail purveyors have been named for the tower yet, Smith said there will be an emphasis on regional shops and flavors. At one corner restaurant space available for lease, diners could choose to be seated on the banks of San Pedro Creek.
Last month, 68 workers’ children and students from local schools were invited on another hard-hat tour coordinated by Weston Urban and KDC Real Investments. Donning gloves and neon vests, children laid a brick to commemorate their visit.
“A whole generation of San Antonians can someday tell their kids, ‘I helped build that,’” Smith said.