In early April, I wrote in this series about a waterfront development project in New Orleans that, despite some progress, was facing roadblocks. The city had launched a $300 million plan called “Reinventing The Crescent,” which was meant to create a continuous walkway along 4.5 miles of city waterfront facing the Mississippi River. Only a fraction of the project was complete after 8 years, however, thanks to government misguidance. The New Orleans riverfront was regulated by 26 different local and state agencies, many of which had competing interests. Even worse, the city had not leveraged the private sector in its plan, neglecting value capture methods and actually downzoning adjacent properties.
Not long afterwards, I moved to San Antonio, and was able to see an even more ambitious waterfront reclamation attempt, called the San Antonio River Improvements Project. But this project was completed and actually works, showing the distinction between governments that are pro-growth and pragmatic, rather than anti-growth and bureaucratic. In just over a decade—and during only 2 years of actual construction—the city renovated a whopping 15 miles of waterfront, in a project that required far more engineering complexity. And because the San Antonio government worked with the private sector, the riverfront is more accessible for pedestrians than in New Orleans, spawning multiple urbanist developments. Foremost among these is the Pearl Brewery, a mixed-use, master-planned community revived by the company Silver Ventures.
This river improvement project is known locally as the “River Walk Extension.” Readers are likely aware of the circular portion of San Antonio’s River Walk that flows downtown, and is lined with restaurants. They may not realize that it is part of an actual river—the San Antonio River—that runs north-to-south from downtown. Throughout the 20th century, as the River Walk was blossoming into a world-renowned public space, this other portion had flooding problems, and was heavily altered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The flooding continued late into the 20th century, before the city decided to do something.
In 1998, it organized a committee focused on extending this River Walk beyond just downtown, with the goals of natural preservation, flood control, and economic development. The project cost $384 million, through a combination of city, county and federal funds. By 2006, the final design was submitted, and the project was complete in spring of 2009. The extension features 15 miles that run from the San Antonio Zoo, just north of downtown, through the Central Business District and the Alamo, and south past San Antonio’s 4 other historic Spanish Missions. Most of the extension consists of biking and walking trails flanked by nature preserves. But the urban portions are narrower, and are flanked by a mix of stand-alone high-rises and mixed-use developments.
Foremost among these is the Pearl Brewery, a 22-acre former industrial site that is north of downtown. “The Pearl” is now viewed by locals as San Antonio’s leading urbanist destination—as opposed to the touristy downtown—but it wasn’t always this way.
The old brick warehouse neighborhood first opened as a brewery in 1883, and by 1916 had become the biggest one in Texas, pumping out the golden lager known as Pearl Beer. It thrived as one of the city’s leading employers in the following decades, even surviving Prohibition by diversifying its uses.
But the facility was declining by the early 1980s, along with other parts of central San Antonio. It was bought around then by Pabst Brewing Co., who didn’t end up using its dated machinery for much actual brewing. In 2002, the entire 22-acre plot was sold to Silver Ventures, a private equity and development firm owned by local billionaire Kit Goldsbury, former president of Pace Foods. At that point, both the neighborhood and the river were utterly dilapidated, according to Bill Shown, who developed the Pearl for Silver Ventures, and still manages it.
“14 years ago when we started, [the area] was a bunch of closed businesses, some kind of clinging on, automobile dealerships that had long closed down, with big vacant lots,” said Shown. “The river at the time…was an unimproved creek, and it was literally full of homeless people. We walked it all the way from Pearl to downtown, and came across 9 little homeless encampments, some of them with children. There was a hot sheet hotel across the river…we were in the flood plain, so every time it rained heavy, that whole section of Grayson out there on the north end of the property would go underwater.”
But the land, with its historic buildings and waterfront proximity, was viewed both by the firm and the city as a grand redevelopment opportunity. During the planning of the River Walk extension, city officials talked regularly with Shown about how a revitalized Pearl might fit with their goals–a collaboration that hasn’t happened in New Orleans. As you may recall, the developer I interviewed there was a politically-connected and widely-respected local architect named Sean Cummings. Cummings had already renovated one historic warehouse near the waterfront promenade, and wanted to restore another. But the New Orleans government, caving to neighborhood resistance, actually downzoned his properties, meaning the later development couldn’t exceed 55’, thus limiting the number of households that would have daily waterfront access, and the uses that might draw outsiders.
Not so in San Antonio, where the city made multiple moves to assist the Pearl’s revitalization. It changed the area’s zoning to Infill Development Zone, meaning Silver Ventures would be exempt from the city’s typical parking minimums, setback requirements and height limitations. The city also got a nearby parking lot that it was leasing from TxDOT to be leased instead to Silver Ventures, which prevented them from having to disrupt their project design with excessive on-site parking. The city allowed Silver Ventures to privately manage its internal roadways, thus avoiding suburbanized design standards. And the city reduced the impact fees, under the premise that the Pearl would, as an infill project, require less new infrastructure.
Why did San Antonio’s government prove so much more cooperative? Shown, along with the Pearl’s chief marketing officer, Elizabeth Fauerso, cited several reasons. One was that the development had, at purchase time, few nearby neighbors, which meant there was minimal NIMBY resistance. Another factor is that the city establishment itself is pro-development, particularly for dense infill, a mentality encouraged by recent mayors like Phil Hardberger and Julian Castro. A third factor, stated Fauerso, might have been the different governing structures that separated Louisiana and Texas, with the former being “byzantine”, and the latter more results-oriented.
But whatever the reason, the permissiveness was there, enabling Shown and co. to get to work after their 2002 purchase. The first 2 years were dedicated to clearing the property of outdated equipment and restoring historic structures. Then they began planning how to build a space that would be both financially viable and aesthetically transformative for San Antonio. Goldsbury had spent part of his upbringing in Mexico, and wanted a development that echoed the design sensibilities south of the border. So the project’s centerpiece—still yet to be built—will be a large public plaza. Currently, the Pearl’s main public space is what Fauerso described as a “parkito,” a.k.a. a pocket park that sits along the main corridor. Surrounding this section is a combination of restaurants, bars, coffee shops, offices, mid-rise apartments, and even a culinary school. The actual Pearl Brewery is no longer there; the building that once housed it has become the Hotel Emma, a 5-star hotel that is now the development’s leading amenity.
The project’s aesthetics, while diverse, could be summarized as historic brick warehouses that have modern design features built in, and that are surrounded by tasteful promenades, parks and landscaping. In this respect, the Pearl is similar to the warehouse revitalization district in Portland, which happens also to be called The Pearl. But Portland’s district is more expansive, and has been integrated into the street grid. San Antonio’s district, while imitating a grid model, is cut off from automobiles, making it feel more enclosed, like a town unto itself. Silver Ventures has bolstered this community feel by holding regular public events, from biweekly farmers’ markets to free concerts.
Pearl Brewery is not complete yet, with plans for the public plaza, a residential high-rise tower, and additional retail. It is nonetheless already commanding some of the highest premiums in San Antonio, and is not the only redevelopment along the River Walk extension. To the south of downtown is the Blue Star District, a handful of condos and bars that sit on the river. The Hemisfair Park project, also to the south, is a public-private initiative to build a grand central park and mixed-use complex around the convention center. And further south along the river is the Lone Star Brewery area, also under construction. It’s only fitting that so much development would emerge around a body of water that’s central to San Antonio, and that has been targeted for investment. But in order for development to happen, a local government has to want it–and be willing to allow it.