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.
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.
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 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.