It took Frost Bank, a 149-year-old hometown financial institution, to bring San Antonio its first downtown skyscraper in almost 30 years.
The 32-story Weston Centre, completed in 1988 and later purchased by Weston Urban, represented that last major addition of a skyline that was almost frozen in time, while other Texas metropolises kept construction cranes swinging.
San Antonio developers have been content building corporate campuses on the outskirts. Downtown development didn’t experience an uptick until after 2000 when it became clear that City Hall politicos would commit resources to expand the Riverwalk.
Residential development took off, particularly after the 2007-2009 recession. Still, development in the office market was limited to an occasional remodel of the many historic buildings available.
Weston Urban had ambitions of becoming the dominant developer of downtown’s northwest quadrant. It has purchased several historic office buildings on or near Houston Street. Among them are the Savoy Building, the Rand Building, and the Milam Building. But the deal to develop a new headquarters for Frost Bank is to date the company’s crowning achievement.
Last week, the Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) gave final conceptual approval and granted the Certificate of Appropriateness for the tower designs created by New Haven, Connecticut-based Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects.
This sets in motion the building permit process and puts Weston Urban in position to join the construction symphony taking place around it. While site work begins later this spring on Frost Tower, the San Antonio River Authority is rebuilding San Pedro Creek. A simple concrete-lined drainage channel, the River Authority and co-financial backer Bexar County have grand plans to convert it into a sister to the Riverwalk, replete with broad walks, landscaping, a steady stream, water works, public art and even an amphitheater that will be across Cameron Street from the western skirt of Frost Tower.
Even as Weston Urban is preparing the foundation, Merritt Development Group will be going vertical on a nine-story hotel less than two blocks to the southeast.
The fly in the ointment to Weston Urban’s success has been the building height. After so many years of waiting, downtowners had been hoping the next skyscraper would at least rival Weston Centre, and the HDRC commissioners said as much when the project was first introduced last year.
At 23 stories and 385 feet, critics find the tower underwhelming. Commissioner Daniel Lazarine recalled Weston Urban CEO Randy Smith’s claim that the project would be transformative and asked him to explain that.
Smith said that statement was never just about the tower. The tower will be the linchpin to a larger revitalization that will occur as a result of Weston Urban’s long-term vision–a vision that includes 20 acres of real estate his company has acquired in the northwest quadrant.
As for the height of the tower, Smith made no apologies.
“I wish (Spurs guard) Kawhi Leonard was 6-foot 11. We all wish things were a little bit taller, but we think the building fits perfectly in that spot,” Smith said.
The scale of the building was designed with Frost Bank’s needs in mind. Starting with that benchmark, Weston Urban estimated what demand there could be for other office tenants.
“We may be skewing on the small end of what you would see in Houston,” Smith said, but the floor plates will be about 20,000 square feet and the total building area will be 460,000 square feet, or 60,000 square feet larger than originally planned.
In addition, the architects focused much of their attention to enhancing the storied Houston Street by widening the sidewalk into a grand retail-lined promenade that would lead pedestrians right up to San Pedro Creek.
To avoid unnecessarily interrupting the pedestrian experience, tenant parking and service truck loading will take place on the north side on Travis Street, with Cameron being used as a secondary “rush hour” entrance for cars.
Pelli did a wonderful job of coordinating traffic flow and the San Pedro Creek designs to make the streetscape transition seamless, said Irby Hightower, a principle at Alamo Architects and Pelli’s local collaborating architect.
Hightower also noted that the parking garage, which extends west of the tower itself, will be 50 percent open and screened with a pattern made of channel glass.
“One of the things that makes it a nice garage to use is that you have good lighting. Particularly from the retail standpoint, women feel uncomfortable in garages that are too enclosed,” Hightower said.