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The two-year-long endeavor to breathe life back into the long-vacant Light Building at 420 Broadway St. is nearly complete, and developers say move-in day for the historic structure’s first tenant is imminent.
The timeline for GrayStreet Partner’s $47 million transformation of the former newspaper building into mixed-use office and retail space, initially set for spring 2019, is finally winding down as the developer undertakes another major project, Broadway East San Antonio.
In December 2016, GrayStreet Partners purchased the former San Antonio Light newspaper building, a 1931 Spanish Colonial Revival structure, the Print Building, and adjacent parking lots. The Hearst Corporation shuttered the 112-year-old newspaper in 1993 but used the buildings to house San Antonio Express-News staff until 2012. They have been vacant since then.
GrayStreet’s redevelopment plans call for the entire project, when complete, to offer a total of 140,000 square feet of retail and Class A office space.
But construction challenges posed by the historic Print Building and a new connector building between it and the main Light building, have slowed the overall project, said Kevin Covey, GrayStreet managing partner.
Thus, even as the Broadway-facing Light Building opens to tenants in the coming weeks or months, construction crews will remain on site working to complete the adjoining Print Building which housed the Light’s printing presses and newsprint storage facility. A street-level floor and two additional rooftop levels are being added to the structure as well as underground parking.
“The Light Building itself … has been of ‘normal’ difficulty [to renovate],” said Peter French, GrayStreet development director, during a recent hard-hat tour for the Rivard Report. “The Print Building … had we been able to raze that to the ground and start from scratch, that would have been a whole lot easier.”
While the ornate façade, interior columns, and other historic details inside the Light Building remain in place, a solid plaster and windowless south-facing wall of the four-story building was stripped away and replaced with glass. On the opposite, north-facing wall, the original windows have been preserved.
During the recent tour, workers were putting the finishing touches on the entry, mezzanine, and first-floor spaces. That section will house the architect-of-record for the Light Building, Ford, Powell & Carson, also soon to be the first tenant.
Principal Adam Reed said the 81-year-old San Antonio architecture firm will have 14,000 square feet of open-plan space for its 30 employees. The former historic lobby is being turned into the firm’s library, conference rooms with double-height bookshelves, and a new catwalk for storing models and artifacts. “That room is intended to be for when we have visitors and clients coming in, we can take them down through that space, and it feels a little bit more Old World,” Reed said.
The location puts the firm within walking distance of some of its ongoing projects, he added, including the redevelopment of City Hall, Frost Bank, area churches, and new infill commercial spaces along Broadway.
In contrast to the Light Building, the more industrial Print Building, built in phases starting in 1969, is far from complete. With floors that didn’t meet, requiring leveling and adding concrete and new structural columns, the entire structure is being nearly rebuilt. GrayStreet also added flooring at street level where there wasn’t any before. The massive printing presses had occupied two levels below ground with space above.
Facing such a transformation early on, the developers considered other uses for the building that would have been easier and less costly to implement, including a movie theater or another kind of entertainment space such as a bowling alley. But those options didn’t make economic sense, French said, given the building’s proximity to Rivercenter Mall’s theater and the lack of multifamily housing nearby.
In 2018, GrayStreet entered into an agreement with the City for $2.5 million in economic development incentives in the form of special tax district funding to address public improvements and infrastructure work related to the site. GrayStreet is planning some low-impact development features on the property, including rainwater capture and gardens.
During demolition of the Print Building, crews discovered stacks of old newspapers wedged between dividing walls as well as anti-Hearst graffiti scrawled on another wall.
Construction is ongoing, and for now, the building is a concrete shell with workers on ladders installing the two new floors yet to come. French declined to predict when the Print Building would be completed.
Covey said the other two potential tenants lined up for the buildings have asked GrayStreet not to disclose their names until they make their own announcements. “But one is a retail user [and] the other one is an office user in the cybersecurity industry,” he said.
The architect-of-record for redevelopment of the Print Building and the connecting structure is the San Antonio office of Gensler, a global architecture firm that first began putting down roots in San Antonio in 2017, then finished out its own permanent office space at 229 E. Houston St. last year.
Meanwhile, Gensler is also designing an even larger GrayStreet project further north on Broadway, which French said has been an “odyssey of a redesign.”
Broadway East San Antonio, or BESA as GrayStreet is now calling it, will be a mixed-use development that includes residential, office, retail, and food and beverage space, planned for 23 acres of land directly across Broadway Street from the Pearl. GrayStreet began buying up property there in 2014.
Breaking ground on the first phase of BESA has been delayed by a long process of consulting experts to come up with the right mix of use and design, and attracting potential retail tenants, French said.
In contrast to the Pearl, where food and beverage is the draw, the emphasis at BESA will be on retail with other high-density uses including office and multi-family. He compared it to The Domain development in Austin and Legacy West in Plano.
Early design plans that appeared on a no-longer-online GrayStreet website showed pedestrian walkways and public spaces between buildings of various heights. The existing 1950s-era retail building at 1706 Broadway St. is situated at the entry to the development, and current plans call for keeping the façade and developing a courtyard space behind, said Gensler’s Jim Shelton, managing director and design director.
Final design plans for the development, which take into account a retail-first use as well as the adjacent neighborhood, Government Hill, Shelton said, will be unveiled in the coming weeks.
“We’re continuing Pearl Parkway all the way through to Austin Street,” he said. “Most of that, 15 acres, was the bus barn of the school district which was kind of a super block. Now that that’s coming out, we’re reconnecting the urban fabric of the streets. So we’re actually making it more of a livable community.”
The development will ramp downward in height as it gets closer to the existing homes, he said, and they plan to address drainage and traffic patterns as well. “Obviously, there will be more vehicular traffic, but [we are] trying to resolve some of the conflicts now to make it so [that] even though there’s more traffic, it will flow through better.”
The working name for the project, BESA, stuck as GrayStreet began to recognize the Pearl District has been such a magnet for people and development that there was no need to give it a competing brand, nor try to duplicate the Pearl. Hence, they are planning more retail space at BESA than is currently at the Pearl.
So far, the project has attracted interest from a number of major retailers and luxury brands, French said, some of which he can’t name in keeping with contract obligations. “But the response has been really remarkable,” he said. “If you’d asked me two years ago would it be at all possible for that retailer to think about San Antonio, I’d say, ‘No, that’s silly.’”
However, the uses that will be developed in the second phase of BESA are less defined because it’s important, Shelton said, to allow flexibility for future needs.
In the meantime, even though GrayStreet is “almost settled” on what the first phase will look like, which will encompass about half the total site, French said, no date has been set for reviews by City officials, and no schematic drawings have been created.
As for breaking ground, he added, “I don’t think it’s [starting in] 2020, or if it is, it’s going to be … fourth quarter and that would be for the Broadway-fronting property.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated the length of time the former San Antonio Light buildings have been vacant. They have not been occupied since 2012.
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