San Antonio’s River Walk Hits New Heights
By Jeffrey Brown, FAIA, founding principal and CEO, Powers Brown Architecture
San Antonio, with its 1.5 million residents, occupies an enigmatic identity, flying under the radar as the second-largest city in Texas and the seventh-largest city in the nation. Located between the south and central regions of the Lone Star State, San Antonio’s economy is fueled by tourism, military, financial services, energy and healthcare providers. Its lower-than-average cost of living and high quality of life make the “Alamo City” attractive for development.
There is no mystery about San Antonio’s steady growth among locals, including developers, several of whom have created exciting new hyper-urban mega-developments in Central Business District (CBD)-adjacent locations. The recent announcement of Riverplace by Universal Services Group, part of the development team behind the recently completed Thompson Hotel and Arts Residences, reached an agreement last December with the City of San Antonio that paves the way for a $400 million development in the center city.
Anchored by the Dream Hotel, Riverplace is the newest bookend to the various new projects and developments in the CBD, with the oldest bookend being the Pearl District, one of the original CBD-adjacent efforts. Riverplace and the Pearl District make up either end of a stretch of the San Antonio River known as the “Museum Reach,” as it provides access from the main river loop to now several museums.
It goes without saying that San Antonio has bragging rights as a premier tourist and convention destination thanks to the River Walk, the Alamo and other historic missions, and its proximity to the Texas Hill Country and resorts. While the city’s $15 billion leisure and hospitality industries suffered due to the pandemic in 2020, they have started to rebound this year. In fact, “Visit San Antonio” reports a June 2021 hotel occupancy rate of 69 percent for local rooms, compared to 73 percent in June of 2019.
Just north of the CBD, the city’s nonprofit Brackenridge Park Conservancy recently announced that it plans to revive the neo-classical 1930-era Sunken Garden Theater at its historic 349-acre park, often dubbed San Antonio’s “Central Park.” This undertaking involves a $62 million public-private plan that will incorporate architectural elements such as its Roman stone columns and provide “first-class amenities for artists and patrons,” according to the San Antonio Express News.
The expanded venue, which in its heyday hosted such premier acts as Bob Dylan and Carlos Santana, will feature 5,900 reserved seats and lawn seating for 1,100, further enhancing the city’s cultural arts scene with live music and outdoor performances. Completion of this project is slated for 2024.
A stunning new addition to the San Antonio River Walk is the city’s newest Museum Reach landmark, the Thompson San Antonio and The Arts Residences at The Thompson. Designed by Powers Brown Architecture, the property is equidistant from the previously mentioned Riverplace and the Pearl District developments on Lexington Street and directly across the river from the Tobin Center for the Arts. The dual hotel/condominium tower marks a groundbreaking development among groundbreaking San Antonio developments, combining a luxury hotel with condominiums in this prime location.
The uniqueness of this project, however, involves more than just the location, which is river-facing and accessible, and the program of the building, which delivered in conjunction with a world-class 162-room Thompson Hotel. The kicker is that the development brings 59 new condominiums to the downtown market.
This represents the first new downtown high-rise residences to hit the market in a generation. As of this writing, all of the units have sold out, mostly to local buyers. This represents a minor coup given the headwinds and naysayers at the outset of the now-completed project that started with sketches in mid-2015 and opened for move-ins during the pandemic.
The synergy of the well-known, high-service Thompson-branded hotel and the in-town living experience is fueled by a rich ensemble of amenities that give the building a kind of single-building urbanism experience to both tourists and residents. The architecture is a unique interpretation of the “expected” Hill Country-style that prefigures many Alamo City buildings; it can trend toward the historic or the “Hill Country” extremes, both hard to apply to a 20-story tower in the CBD. With the architects working closely with the city’s Historic and Design Review Commission, the architecture emerged out of looking at the individual elements of the aforementioned styles and abstracting them at various scales on the project from the base of the building to the tower.
Thompson Hotel amenities include the nearly 8,000-square-foot restaurant Landrace led by Chef Steve McHugh; a 6,000-square-foot ballroom/meeting facility with food service; a mid-roof-level outdoor pool and kitchen/bar area; adjacent 4,000-square-foot spa and the now already well-known Instagram moment; and the rooftop bar and kitchen on the roof of the 20th floor with full downtown views. While the site is within easy walking distance via the River Walk or street to a full array of small businesses, these onsite amenities add flexibility to the downtown living experience that other developments do not.
Many of the interstitial development sites along the Museum Reach of the River Walk, particularly upstream from the Arts site, have begun gentrification with multifamily housing and mixed-use conversions of industrial buildings and do not offer extensive in-building amenities.
CBD San Antonio has become a great source of creativity and inspiration given the presumed constraints and the potential possibilities, including ongoing preliminary roles in the recently announced Midway Development on the Mission Reach part of the river and pre-pandemic work on another hotel near the convention center.
The diversity we’ve experienced in the greater San Antonio market is reflected by such projects as an Embassy Suites Hotel in Northwest San Antonio; a 100,000-square-foot, three-story office building at Sentry Gateway; an 850,000-square-foot Carrier manufacturing facility in South San Antonio; and a 370,000-square-foot UPS Distribution Center plus its expansion in East San Antonio.
Just as you would expect in the second largest city in Texas.
Powers Brown Architecture, a professional services firm with seven offices in North America, maintains a diverse architecture design, space planning and urban design practice that includes both regional and international projects. This article originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of Texas Real Estate Business magazine.