Page Graham for the Rivard Report
After the flight of AT&T headquarters to Dallas in 2008, downtown San Antonio commercial real estate remained stagnant. That makes it all the more significant that insurance and financial giant USAA makes a strategic move into the urban core.
In 2013, USAA Real Estate Company acquired One Riverwalk Place, 700 N. St. Mary’s St. – located on the River Walk just a few blocks from the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. Most of the building remains occupied by existing tenants, but room was made for the first wave of USAA employees to set up shop early in 2015.
For anyone who lives, works, or passes through downtown, it's been all impossible in recent weeks to not notice the trademark USAA name that has been placed atop the office tower, easily visible from several points on the compass well beyond the downtown footprint.
This week, the vanguard of USAA employees migrating from the near-northwest corporate headquarters shifted to new offices in the downtown tower. The competition for downtown assignments must have been fierce: Employees assigned to downtown come from an array of departments, including Enterprise Affairs, the General Counsel's office, Member Experience, Information Technology, and the Chief Administration Office. Ultimately, about 150 employees will be working downtown by the end of March.
It would be an interesting experiment for USAA to survey its 17,000-plus member workforce in San Antono and ask one simple question: How many of you would prefer to work downtown? The answer undoubtedly would excite downtown developers and urbanists, and probably result in a number of volunteers who would easily fill One Riverwalk Place were it eventually vacated by its other tenants.
Most young professionals would prefer to live and work in an environment that does not involve daily highway commutes, one that places them in walkable communities where there is no real separation of workplace and lifestyle amenities.
“This move is centered on workplace flexibility,” stated Scott Syamken, vice president of Corporate Services Strategy and Planning in an online news release. “This is an opportunity to further develop our distributed work model. It also further solidifies us as an employer of choice.”
The employees located in One Riverwalk Place are "non-member facing," so there are no USAA customer service facilities planned.
“USAA Real Estate Company is always watching for excellent investment opportunities, and the company felt that One Riverwalk Place offered a great office investment opportunity in an urban environment – downtown San Antonio,” said Rebecca Hirsch, USAA Public Affairs Director, in a statement.
In the near-term, USAA will occupy three floors of the 18-story building downtown. The remaining floors are leased to law firms, investment companies, and other tenants. The 261,633 sq. ft. building is currently 100% leased and occupied.
The building is easy to miss because of its nondescript black glass exterior, a popular design in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The most striking feature of the building is its ground floor space that reaches toward the river, which formerly housed a restaurant. Today, the first floor is occupied by Jeanie Wyatt's South Texas Money Management, a highly successful money management and investment firm with a notable collection of Mexican art adoring its walls.
For USAA, renowned for its secure, pentagon-like headquarters off I-10 West, the move of some employees to downtown is a move back to its early roots.
“In 1922, USAA got its start in downtown San Antonio, so it only makes sense that we have a presence in the historic heart of this great city where it all began,” said Harriet Dominique, senior vice president of Corporate Responsibility and Community Affairs. “With this beautiful new River Walk location, we’re also happy to be even closer to our community partners who do so much to serve the military, veterans, and our friends and neighbors.”
Ask USAA what's next and the answer is there are no plans to move additional employees to this location or to any other locations throughout the city. Time will tell if a groundswell of employees convince management otherwise.
On a broader scale, the USAA tower purchase and downtown presence is a promising development for the downtown commercial office market. It raises hope that others will follow suit.
*Featured/top image: One Riverwalk Place (left) is just north of the Bank of America Plaza. Photo by Page Graham.
This story was originally published on Saturday, Jan. 17, 2015.