An upper story view of the plaza, the focal point of the mixed use concept for Essex Modern City.

With the exception of Pearl, developers looking to do downtown-centric urban infill projects have focused within the Central Business District or the neighborhoods to the south.

Most of these projects have followed the same formula, and that is to market their project as riverfront property or within walking distance to the San Antonio River.  They either follow the Museum Reach stretch of the River Walk north of the central business district, or the Mission Reach stretch south of the CBD.

Essex Modern City does not follow the trend of downtown urban fill developments.

Other major Texas cities have more than one asset at their disposal. In addition to waterways such as the Colorado River in Austin or Turtle Creek in Dallas, developers can market high-density residential and mixed-use projects as “transit-oriented development” by utilizing real estate within walking distance of light-rail lines.

The only rail in San Antonio is freight, which is considered more of an impediment to urban infill. That’s what makes Essex Modern City such an anomaly. It is not along the river and it is literally on the other side of the tracks.

“We do have some challenges, such as the railroad tracks and a freeway close by. However, looking at the site from a geographic standpoint, it is within one mile of the River Walk, Hemisfair and walking distance to the booming Southtown,” the developers said in a March 2 announcement.

It should also be noted that the project’s “main street” will be Carolina Street. From there, the development is within two blocks of an Interstate 37 exit ramp. Parallel to Carolina, residents would have direct connectivity to Southtown, King William and the river via Florida Street.

The statement was circulated to reveal architectural illustrations produced by Creo, a San Antonio architectural firm.

San Antonio developer Efraim Varga of Varga Endeavors and Sacramento, California-based Harris Bay unveiled the architectural drawings to attract investors.

“We are offering some unique residential options like walk-up row homes that you might find in New York City,” stated Anton Bayer, the partner of Jake Harris and half of the Harris Bay team.

The Essex and Cherry streets intersection, as envisioned by Varga Endeavors calls for multi-story retail.

Referring to early investors as “Insiders,” Harris Bay claims they have buyers that want to lock up units through presales. Insiders get early information on the project and invites to special events.

Varga said Insiders will get pre-market access to pricing before the prices are released. Cost for the total project is estimated at $150 million.

Essex Modern City has been described as a true mixed-use project, with Phase One featuring vertical farming, a central plaza, and 248 rental apartments. Residential units to be sold include 160 condominiums and 80 live/work modern row houses.

A 22,000-square-foot Mercado and 65,000 square feet of commercial store front account for the retail/restaurant component, and 80,000 square feet is being reserved for office space.

The site plan shows an 8-acre project to be done in phases, and reliance on Carolina Street as the main access road to the city.

Site work is scheduled to start in late 2017, and structures will rise upon their foundations in 2018.

Throughout the 20th century, the 8-acre site has served industrial uses. Varga obtained zoning changes and closed on eight lots in 2016. At the time, he said his hopes were to create something like a mini Pearl. However, the Pearl was endowed with many historic structures that were suitable for adaptive reuse.

Most of Varga’s site is vacant land used by various enterprises to park things-piles of pallets at Atlas Pallets, trailers at Unique Semi, and disabled cars at a corner auto mechanic shop. Most of the buildings that do exist, are not historically significant and can be demolished with minimal red tape.

However, the site remains undeniably industrial, with warehouses across Essex Street to the south and west, and a freight rail line just a stone’s throw to the west. The Denver Heights neighborhood to the north and east stands in jarring contrast to the Creo vision in the pretty pictures.

Varga Endeavor’s property as seen from the corner of Essex and Cherry today. It is an industrial zone next to a low income neighborhood.

Denver Heights has been a working class inner city neighborhood since the early 20th century. Considering its isolation and the disparity of incomes that will result between Essex residents and the Denver Heights natives, Varga and his California partners realize the community will have to be innovative in ways that other urban infill developments did not require.

Continuing with their teaser campaign, Harris Bay and Varga Endeavors believe San Antonio does not need a new Pearl, it needs something new and different.

“With features like vertical farming, local craftsmen retailers, smart garage parking, self-driving vehicles, rock-climbing walls in the plaza and a higher level of connection to the community- Essex is that new project that can drive innovation in a city primed for cutting edge design.”

Quoted at a recent Bisnow panel,  Harris said, “If Pearl is the Culinary Institute of America project, Essex will be the James Beard award winning taco trailer with a wicked cool startup app.”


  1. Sean Wood

    This is an exciting project. It requires pioneers to step outside the comfort zone of consultants and put a stake in the ground — literally. AT&T Center has not been the promised catalyst to new development. But the revitalization and energy of Southtown has grown to a level that reaches the other side of 281.
    Here’s hoping for nothing but success for Essex Modern City.

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