Developments like the Pearl and Frost Tower are responsible for reshaping the urban core of San Antonio. But San Antonio’s “placemakers,” local developers with a vision to build the city, aren’t stopping there.
Five men responsible for those key projects and others revealed Friday afternoon at a San Antonio Startup Week event their latest plans for downtown, which include sustainable office space, housing at various price points, and more creative workspaces.
It was a University of Texas at San Antonio official, the lone non-developer on the panel, and the only woman, who said the educational institution is “all in” for San Antonio.
Kimberly Espy, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at UTSA, said that while the university is not a developer, its plans for a $100 million data science center at the school’s downtown campus will bring what developers call “the backpack factor” to the growing tech hub and help build that ecosystem.
The panel event moderated by David Heard, CEO of Tech Bloc, was one event in a weeklong series spotlighting the local startup scene. It was hosted at Frost Tower, a Weston Urban project led by its president, Randy Smith.
The glitzy new 24-story tower, with its Class A++ office space and panoramic views, is only a tiny piece of the puzzle of a thriving community, Smith said. “I want to remind everyone why we’re here, and that’s Startup Week,” he said. “If you’re a startup, not one of you can be in this building. So what can we be doing as a community to help you thrive?”
He answered that question by saying Weston Urban is turning its focus to more residential projects, from traditional affordable housing and workforce housing to full-market rate products, as well as to office space priced for startups.
“Our company’s mission is turbo simple – we’re here to help create a city for our kids to come back to,” he said. “And my kids aren’t going to move back to San Antonio for a cool building or a complete street. My kids are going to move back to San Antonio for opportunity, and the fuel that has been poured all over the opportunity fire is UTSA.”
UTSA currently has 32,000 students between its two campuses, but the university plans to grow to 45,000 students, with many of those attending classes downtown, Espy said.
“To benefit our students, we want to be able to … take advantage of this ecosystem for more experiential learning opportunities so they are working hand-in-hand with you as you grow your businesses,” she said. “In turn, they grow the next businesses themselves. They are the next startup.”
Smith said students bring “unquantifiable” energy into an urban core, and that’s why Weston Urban is also partnering with UTSA on their development projects.
But panelists also pointed to the Pearl as a major catalyst for growth across downtown. Kevin Covey, managing partner of GrayStreet Partners, said his company’s goal is to connect developments to the Pearl.
In addition to rehabilitating the historic Light Building, which Covey called a real “beatdown,” even as it has attracted significant cybersecurity jobs to San Antonio, GrayStreet also has plans for a hotel, office space, apartments, and retail on the 24 acres it owns in the area.
Ten years from now, downtown San Antonio will be more lively and walkable, said John Beauchamp, chief investment officer at Hixon Properties, and nothing like a “soulless” Houston, because of the way developers are approaching projects.
Hixon currently owns 8.5 acres along Broadway, he said. “That’s a lot of property in the development world, which can support a lot of density and a lot of development,” he said. Hixon’s first project in the area is the 150,000-square-foot, timber-frame office building known as the Soto.
Area Real Estate Principal David Adelman, who has developed property throughout downtown – most recently The ’68 at Hemisfair – said the “housing first” strategy developers and the city adopted early on has paid off. Employers followed and downtown came back to life.
“The old saying in real estate is location, location, location, and yes, location is important,” Adelman said. “But I always tell people timing, timing, timing.” For instance, the vision that the original developers of Sunset Station had for an entertainment district 20 years ago, he said, was geared more toward visitors to San Antonio than residents.
“Our current plan is we will be announcing a rebrand and relaunch of Sunset Station as an event venue with live music and a potential destination,” he said. “We bought up a majority of the historic buildings in St. Paul’s Square … we have some really cool things happening in that location and we think it will cater to not only visitors who come to the city, but also to residents who live in the neighborhood.”
The Baldwin apartments, Adelman said, brought housing into that area and turned it into a neighborhood, and that’s an important development strategy for San Antonio. “You have to build a place where, if locals want to be there, then visitors do, too,” he said. “We have a thriving visitor economy and we should continue to welcome them.”
While both audience members and panelists expressed concern and offered various solutions for both residents and startups being priced out of the downtown scene, praise for the Pearl was unwavering. “The reason I moved back was because of the Pearl,” said one attendee.
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But the Pearl has been more than a catalyst for development, Adelman said. “It has raised the bar for all development. It has to be exceptional, and if it’s not, it’s second rate. The Pearl leads the way.”
“It’s the gift that keeps on giving,” Smith said.
It was 17 years ago that Bill Shown, managing director of Silver Ventures, advised Kit Goldsbury to “run not walk” away from the Pearl. “Two weeks later, he had put it under contract,” Shown said.
While today the redeveloped brewery is a magnet for growth in the lower Broadway corridor, generating development across downtown, Shown said Silver Ventures is changing the way it looks at future development even while it completes the Oxbow and other campus projects.
“We are in the plaza-making business. Our mission is to cultivate human connectedness,” he said. All future projects for Silver Ventures, such as the former school district property south of Hemisfair, will be approached in that way.