River Walk Hotel Developers Go Back to the Drawing Board

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North elevation view of the proposed hotel on Soledad Street. Rendering courtesy of Overland Partners.

North elevation view of the proposed hotel on Soledad Street. Rendering courtesy of Overland Partners.

The preliminary design for a 21-story, 252-room hotel in downtown San Antonio will be revised over the next two weeks as the developer considers pointed feedback from the Historic Design and Review Commission (HDRC). While the commission is impressed by the design, its members had lingering questions.

The proposed AC Hotel by Marriott would mean demolishing the former Solo Serve building save for the River Walk-facing wall, and maintaining the facades of next-door structures collectively known as the Clegg Company Building along the 100 block of Soledad Street. The historic red-brick Book Building on East Houston Street that overlooks the San Antonio River would be “rehabilitated” to become the hotel’s main pedestrian entrance.

A view of the Book Building and hotel tower from the River Walk. Rendering courtesy of Overland Partners.

A view of the Book Building and hotel tower from the River Walk. Rendering courtesy of Overland Partners.

The AC Hotel line is Marriott’s answer to a growing demand for an authentic urban experience, “geared towards the design conscious travelers looking for a cosmopolitan hotel located within a great city location,” according to its website. The hotel would include 12 levels of hotel rooms, eight levels of above-ground parking, and about 10,000 sq. ft. of street and river-level restaurant and retail space.

The project would essentially demolish and gut a large portion of the blighted downtown city block on the southeast corner of Soledad and Houston streets. The River Walk flanks the project on the east – prime real estate that has been vacant for many years. The historic Rand Building at 110 East Houston Street is now owned by Weston Urban and is currently undergoing interior and exterior work. Frost Bank employees moved out last week, clearing the way for accelerated redevelopment.

Meanwhile, Mayor Ivy Taylor disclosed at the Rivard Report’s ‘Pints & Politics’ mayoral forum at the Pearl on Tuesday that City Council was to receive a briefing today in closed executive session on the City’s continuing negotiations with Weston Urban and Frost Bank on construction of a new office tower a few blocks farther west that would become the new corporate headquarters of Frost Bank. The tower would be the first new office tower added to the downtown skyline in 25 years and serve as the centerpiece of several blocks of associated redevelopment by Weston Urban and its partners.

The particular stretch of Soledad Street that is home to Solo Serve is a major pedestrian artery to Main Plaza. It’s a popular panhandling spot and a place to sleep at night for the homeless. The space requires frequent sanitation cleanings by city crews because the homeless there have no access to toilets. While the 1906 Book Building has had sporadic tenants, the Solo Serve and Clegg buildings have been vacant for about 20 years.

Site map of the proposed River Walk hotel courtesy of Woodbine Development Corporation.

Site map of the proposed River Walk hotel courtesy of Woodbine Development Corporation.

The Solo Serve Building off of Soledad Street. Photo by Scott Ball.

The Solo Serve Building off of Soledad Street. Photo by Scott Ball.

The hotel’s developers from the highly-regarded Woodbine Development Corporation in Dallas asked for the two-week continuance after hearing from commissioners that  the current proposal would not receive approval. Though HDRC approval is not required for a project to move forward, Overland Partners Principal Timothy Blonkvist implied there would be no deal without it. The project would be unlikely to win City Council approval without HDRC approving it first.

“Would you buy (the property) if it doesn’t get approved?” he asked rhetorically after the meeting.

The properties, currently owned by Austin-based Service Lloyd Insurance Co., are under contract for Woodbine’s purchase pending design approval. In order to demolish, developers have to prove economic hardship or historical insignificance.

Commissioners lauded the hotel’s respect for preservation evident in the design by Overland Partners, but said it is missing a critical detail: what happens to the vacant lot once the Solo Serve building is demolished? About 60% of the building’s surface area is portrayed as an empty lot in project renderings.

Unified Development Code requires that demolition plans be accompanied by development plans for the property, explained Commissioner Michael Conner. It doesn’t have to be a building or even permanent. “Put grass on it and call it a temporary public park, but do something,” he said.

Anything but vacant property or a parking lot would be acceptable, said commissioners, reinforcing the Office of Historic Preservation’s recommendations, especially on property that fronts the River Walk.

Kristopher L. Harman, Woodbine vice president, said he and his team will have to consult with property owners and come up with a plan for the southern portion of the Solo Serve building. That may involve demolishing only a portion of the building until Woodbine can come up with development plans, Harman said.

Another “sticking point” may be the complete demolition of the century-old Clegg Building, said Michael Guarino, commission chair.

In order to host a ballroom large enough to be competitive with other downtown event space, Harman said the Clegg building must be demolished. The hotel’s design team looked into ways to make it work in other parts of the site plan, but other options would be too small and/or mean concrete columns would have to be placed in the middle of the ballroom.

“If we’re forced to use the Clegg Building, then the project is over,” Blonkvist said. 

The corner of Soledad and Houston streets. The building on the corner (left) will remain as it's not part of the hotel development site. Photo by Scott Ball.

The corner of Soledad and Houston streets. The building on the corner (left) will remain as it’s not part of the hotel development site. Photo by Scott Ball.

The Clegg Building, a portion of which overlooks the River Walk, includes structures known as the Veramendi Palace, Kennedy Building, and the San Antonio Print Building – it has a long history of changing hands and uses. The San Antonio Conservation Society is “adamantly opposed” to the demolition of the Clegg Building and its storied past.

But due to the “cacophony of additions (to the building) over time,” Blonkvist said, the building itself doesn’t – and can’t – tell a story, but a new project could include elements that does and bring the building back into the River Walk landscape.

“I’ve learned my lesson about the evolution of that site,” said Commissioner Tim Cone in support of allowing developers to demolish the Clegg Building. “I’m less concerned about preserving one point in history … what that site is about (now) is its continued evolution.”

However, Cone added, the developer has not given enough consideration to preserving the Book Building. While the exterior walls and archways will be maintained, most of the interior will be changed and another floor will be added – removing the roof.

“This is a vitally important building,” Cone said. “I would expect an interior that relates to the rest of the building, not a gutted interior.”

But Cone “draws a line in the sand” when it comes to the Book building.

As for pursuing federal and state historic tax credits, Harman said, “It’s something we will pursue, but it’s not something we can count on.”


*Featured/top image: A conceptual design of an interior courtyard at 815 Avenue B. Courtesy of Overland Partners.

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19 thoughts on “River Walk Hotel Developers Go Back to the Drawing Board

  1. Before you know it, the design will be 4 stories, beige/stucco, unattractive, and look like some Stone Oak cookie cutter monstrosity. Or, the HDRC and city council will give the developer such a hard time that they’ll withdraw their proposal and leave the city.

  2. Another example of “historic conservation” doing their best to keep San Antonio from moving forward.

  3. If San Antonio keeps rejecting these awesome design projects for downtown, it’s going to dissuade developers from ever wanting to even try to embark on new developments. These buildings they are trying to “preserve” really have no historical significance. The city is keeping itself mired in the past by turning all these proposals down. SMH at the city.

  4. Goodness! What negativity… I don’t always agree with HDRC, but I, for one, am glad that we have a system of review. Should we automatically accept every building project a developer proposes without some form of community input? Seems shortsighted.

    Besides, according to the article, it seems HDRC is willing to work with the developers: “While the commission is impressed by the design, its members had lingering questions.” I wasn’t at the meeting but that seems reasonable.

    Also, we have interesting buildings in our city. Wasn’t the Solo Serve an old jail from the 19th century? Anybody know its history?

  5. I am a progressive. I am in favor of this. Good for business and adding jobs to the local economy.. I just hope this time no nincompoop bitches about the Height overshadowing the Alamo. Really people? What a lame excuse to stop the other development over the old joskes bldg. take a look at what is being built there now. As if it was really needed. Btw stay out of it sa conservation society. Try not to be so anti growth and business. I agree with both of you Matt and Kevin.

    • If you “stay out of sa conservation society” you lose any influence. you are exactly the type they need to get involved with them so that your voice is added to theirs to reach a consensus about what can be and is conversed, and why and how. Groups only do what they think is the consensus. Add your voice to the mix instead of staying away. Make it better, not worse.

  6. The Conservation Society is the reason why most of downtown was not turned into a parking lot in the 1970’s . Before that, they are the reason why the city chose to develop the river in the 30’s into a linear park (i.e. the Riverwalk) instead of turning it into a covered drainage ditch. Their work is largely why San Antonio appreciates (and profits) so much off its own history. The Conservation Society and HDRC can be sticklers about things and sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture, but on the whole they are doing really good work.

    The Marriott Hotel on the other hand is a whole other story. The downtown core already has two, maybe even three Marriott hotels. Do we really need another? The Clagg Building looks really interesting from the outside. Do we need to tear it down to build a hotel ballroom?

    I really love the beauty and charm of all these buildings along Houston and Soledad (except the Solo Serve building, that one is just fugly). They deserve better than to be turned into a facade for a hotel lobby. Development is great, but development toward what end? Do we want to create a downtown that is strictly for tourists? Or do we want to create a downtown for the use and enjoyment of San Antonians?

  7. I believe the stone, east wall of the Solo Serve was built-up to protect the building from flooding, although the iron bars in the windows make it look like a jail. That building sits just north of the 90-degree, easterly bend in the river which was a regular spot for terrible flooding. The riverbed was carved deeper from Houston Street going south to begin the current flood channel which goes straight south.

  8. I am willing to bet the HDRC will eventually kill the project! I know San Antonio is rich in history but does the need to preserve everything that was built in the early 1900’s. I agree with Arturo, San Antonio needs more modern buildings.

    • I agree, we need to go forward to accept the new proposals and stop looking backwards. Im sick and tired of the 7th largest city in the u.s to have small brown old fashion buildings. We need to be more willing to make our city skyline beautiful like Austin, Houston, and Dallas. Why should San Antonio be left out.

  9. OMG .. HDRc (which can’t see anything) needs to relax. First and foremost there are so may ugly buildings downtown and around the city. If the HDRc was so concerned about the historical aspect of these fallen buildings, why haven’t they done their part to preserve them on their own. They wait for an opportunity to turn down progress. I’m not saying let’s be an Austin but come on HDRc, wake up. Stop turning down progress because a building’s facade is old. I get saving some significant buildings (but whose to say what is relevant or not) but come on!! An example, the old piggly wiggly building on Broadway is now significant to the HDRC but for years and years they didn’t do anything about it. They allowed it to reach to the point of deterioration and now they want a prospective company willing to put money into the city to save their building. What a joke. Why doesn’t the HDRC fine the owners of these buildings until they are renovate them and do something with them. Why does the HDRc wait for progress to put up road blocks!!! Gotta Love S.A.

  10. With all hoopla over the new frost bank “first new office bldg downtown in 25 yrs” at 450k Sq ft and 24 flrs! I wonder what downtown would look like if USAA had built 4.3 million Sq ft headquarters downtown in the 70s, and why didn’t they? Now they are trying to make a presence downtown. I say we get rid of HDRC after all if there’s no one left that cares what’s the point in saving it vs lost jobs, revenue that come with progress. I can only imagine what we (San Antonio) must look like to the outside especially Amazon after Nelso Wolfe’s remark “we are not walking down the aisle unless we get the bride” really! Thousands of good jobs 5 billion in construction and in Seattle Amazon has generated 38 billion in revenue. At 2.5 million we are no longer Podunk as Charles Barkley referred to us, we are a major city and its time we start acting like one and get rid of the idiots holding us back because growth and prosperity is good for all of us. Austin is a perfect example I remember in 70s black and white bumper stickers that said “Austin No Vacancy” that’s where we are in the 70s maybe after Dallas Houston Austin and who’s next El Paso have all pushed us aside we will wake up! I’m done.

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