At the groundbreaking for the new Frost Bank Tower, widely considered a symbol of downtown San Antonio’s vibrant future, the tower’s developer spoke of the impact that transformative projects in the urban core can have on the entire city.
To the crowd of about 200 people gathered at the green space across from the current Frost Bank Tower on Houston Street, Graham Weston confessed that he initially had no intention of investing in downtown or participating in its resurgence in such a direct way. His mind changed after serving as a tri-chair for SA2020, an effort inspired by the vision of former Mayor Julián Castro.
Weston said he realized that large-scale, meaningful projects in the city’s urban core, such as the new tower, would help make Castro’s “Decade of Downtown” a reality.
“I realized that I could refocus on downtown, because downtown is more than just real estate to the city – it’s the heart of the city,” said Weston, the co-founder of Weston Urban.
Once completed in 2019, the 460,000 sq. ft. office tower will be the new Cullen/Frost Bankers Inc. headquarters, featuring 430,000 sq. ft. of office space, 20,000 sq. ft. of ground floor retail, 10,000 sq. ft. for other tenants, and a 400,000 sq. ft. wraparound parking facility at the base.
The idea is for the structure to ignite the surrounding area with pedestrian activity and commerce, bolster the burgeoning tech scene, and connect seamlessly to San Pedro Creek, which is currently undergoing restoration.
The tower will be the first major addition to San Antonio’s skyline in the last 25 years.
Wednesday’s ceremony was a who’s who of local city and business leaders, heralded in with a brass band to celebrate the momentous occasion. When attendees took their seats, they faced a stage with an enlarged image of the 23-story tower and the blue Texas sky behind it. It was the perfect spring day to imagine the tower incorporated into the downtown streetscape.
“The Frost Tower and the greenbelt around it is going to be a beautiful beacon to the development of the westside of downtown,” said Phil Green, Frost Bank board chair and CEO, “but it’s also going to be a great place for business people and visitors to just enjoy.”
Tom Frost Jr., 87, the great-grandson of the founder of Cullen/Frost Bankers Inc. and its chairman emeritus, recalled the company’s tremendous growth over the years, which has coincided with movement to new towers every 50 or so years.
The company started in the Municipal Plaza Building, before Frost Jr.’s time, moved to its existing tower 50 years later in 1975, and now is setting its sights on the new structure. Once completed, the tower will mark the celebration of Frost Bank’s 150th and San Antonio’s 300th anniversary.
“Every time we built a building – I started with the one where City Council meets now, to this one, to the one that will be up behind me – each and every one of them has shown impressive growth for each and every one of us in this community,” Frost said.
While Weston Urban is working with its Dallas partner KDC on the tower’s financing and construction, world-renowned design firm Pelli Clarke Pelli is leading the project’s design with local firm Alamo Architects. The tower’s project design received final approval from the Historic and Design Review Commission two weeks ago, with the addition of increased landscaping around the building’s base and a more inviting pedestrian experience.
The glass-faced structure reaches high into the sky, with blades at the top that shoot upward like a crown. Visitors below can take advantage of seating areas, restaurants, cafés, and shade from nearby trees, all contributing to the tower base’s feel as a “pavilion in the park,” as previously described by Pelli Clarke Pelli principal Bill Butler.
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“When we interviewed for the project, [Green] said that he wants a transformative building, an optimistic building, a building of the future. Frost is growing, Frost is changing, the building should … embody and symbolize the future of this extraordinary organization,” said Fred Clarke, Pelli Clarke Pelli co-founder. “So that was genuinely the inspiration for what we’ve done.”
The tower is the product of a public-private partnership, facilitated by Weston Urban with Frost Bank and the City of San Antonio, that began in 2014.
In exchange for the Municipal Plaza Building, San Fernando Gym, some vacant lots, and surface parking lots in western downtown, the City bought the old Frost Bank Tower and its 732-space parking garage. It will renovate the structure to become a workspace – complete with a wellness center and cafeteria – for 1,400 City administrative employees.
Streamlining City services into the old Frost Bank structure will relieve the City of leases it has in four spaces downtown, City Manager Sheryl Sculley said. It will not add new net costs to the City and will even produce savings over time. Meanwhile, the Municipal Plaza Building will become home to 265 new apartments on its upper floors, with the first floor – where City Council chambers and its B-session room are housed – remaining City property.
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Sculley pointed to a number of other projects underway downtown near the Frost Tower – the revival of the Alameda Theatre, the redevelopment of the historic Solo Serve building into a hotel and commercial space, the renovation of the Savoy building, the opening of the Maverick Apartments, and capital improvements for Alamo Plaza and Market Square.
“This economic activity is in addition to the multiple benefits of the transaction that we’re celebrating here today,” she said.
Bexar County also is playing a large role in the implementation of the new Frost Bank Tower, Judge Nelson Wolff said – namely as the main funder of the $175 million San Pedro Creek Improvements Project and as a contributor, along with the City, to the revival of the neighboring Alameda Theater.
“When you walk along that creek you’re going to know you’re in San Antonio, Texas,” he said. “… It’ll tell you the history [of] how we evolved, the cultures that have come together, the things that we have done over the years to make San Antonio a great city today.”
Several speakers Wednesday referred to big ideas like those of Weston and Castro – who was in office when the Frost Tower project was first proposed – as leading downtown’s growth and propelling it and all of San Antonio into a prosperous future.
Mayor Ivy Taylor filled Castro’s post when he left to serve as HUD Secretary in Washington D.C., and has worked for the past three years with various partners to lay the foundation for the landmark project. The significance of the project and future partnerships are not lost on her.
“Y’all have heard me talk about my vision for San Antonio being a globally competitive city with opportunity for everyone, and that means we have to support growing businesses, expand job opportunities, and make our urban core a strong and attractive destination, and this project does all of that,” she said. “… It’s not every day that we get to celebrate a project that addresses so many of the basics that must be in place to have a flourishing and vibrant downtown that is an anchor for our flourishing and vibrant city.”
Clarke said earlier in the program that “building a building is a sign of optimism,” and for San Antonio, the Frost Bank Tower is a sign of the future. Weston Urban CEO Randy Smith quoted Sir Winston Churchill, referring to the groundbreaking of the tower as an opening of doors to new opportunities.
“This is not the end, and this is not even the beginning of the end, but it may be the end of the beginning,” he said. “Today marks a milestone, four years into a project that I believe all San Antonians will be proud of.”