At the moment, the 300 block of West Commerce Street is practically comatose.
Every building but one, the venerable Penner's men's clothing store, is vacant. Lifeless neon signs advertising "Texas State Optical" and "Golden 50's Greatest Cut," relics of Old San Antonio, jut from a historic two-story commercial building on the west bank of the massive San Pedro Creek restoration project, currently a muddy scene of heavy machinery and men in hardhats 18 feet below grade. The block gets a good amount of foot traffic, a lot of transients, as the main connector of inner downtown and the Market Square area.
Give it two years.
By then, if everything goes according to plan, this section of the San Pedro Creek project will be finished and pedestrians will stroll the tree- and mural-lined walkway, which will seamlessly connect the creek with West Commerce Street and the plaza in front of the new Texas Public Radio (TPR) building—all of it opposite a 250-foot-wide waterfall on the creek's east bank. Part of the $75 million phase, which is expected to be completed by April or May of 2021, included the demolition of the old Dollar General building, which now creates room for the gardens area at creek level. The San Antonio River Authority, the project's manager, purchased the building, which was a local landmark, according to city records, from Penner Brother's LLC in 2016 for an undisclosed price.
On Commerce Street, decoratively-paved sidewalks, newly-planted trees, dramatic lighting, and artistic benches and bus shelters will be installed, one of downtown's largest bond projects. The building carcasses of today will be revived with restaurants and bars, creating the downtown area's hippest culinary and nightlife destination.
In this section of downtown, multiple parties, both public and private, are converging to create what should become one of downtown's most unique pockets. Many decades ago, the area was considered San Antonio's West Side, when it was dense with homes and commercial buildings, before Urban Renewal and the construction of Interstate 35 wiped it nearly clean save for a few landmarks, such as San Francesco Di Paola Church, pushing the West Side's edge to Alazan Creek. On the vacant lots and in the vacant buildings are plans to build a new neighborhood, and West Commerce Street promises to be at the center of it all.
The possibilities were brought to light when renovation plans for the Kline's building, 337 W. Commerce St., were approved by the Historic and Design Review Commission on Wednesday. A portion of the building, which is owned by local developer James Lifshutz, will be demolished, creating a paseo connecting West Commerce to the TPR building, which will feature a blackbox theater, and the attached Alameda Theater facing Houston Street.
"As you know, for decades, the walk from City Hall to Market Square, even though it's not a long distance, it's been a lonely walk," said Lifshutz, who also serves on the TPR board of directors. "It's been a vacant, ugly, blighted stretch ... The idea of fixing up the streetscape and revitalizing that stretch has long been hoped for."
Lifshutz, the developer behind the Blue Star Arts Complex, said TPR employees are scheduled to move into their new digs "shortly," with a grand opening scheduled around May.
As for the Kline's building, which is a local landmark that dates back to at least 1958, Lifshutz said he wasn't sure how many tenants will fill the ground level and the second floor. The assumption is that a restaurant or bar will operate next to the paseo; Lifshutz said the tenant or tenants should "activate that space in an interesting and valuable way."
"It just adds visual interest and adds stickiness for pedestrians who are walking past or for whom that will be a destination," he said.
Across the street, spanning the entire block, stands the former Continental Hotel, a three-story city-owned structure that will be sold to a developer (most likely to local developer Weston Urban, as the only applicant of a solicitation process, the San Antonio Express-News reported last month) to renovate into mixed-income housing. Undoubtedly, Weston Urban will convert the ground-level into retail and restaurant spaces as to activate the street—a priority of Weston Urban and the city.
As the owner of roughly a dozen properties in this western half of downtown, Weston Urban intends to build multiple housing developments, all with retail on the ground level, totaling something like 1,000 new units.
Future housing and retail in this area, whether it comes from Weston Urban or Lifshutz or other property owners, will likely cater to the university demographic: students, faculty and staff alike. Part of the expansion of the University of Texas at San Antonio's downtown campus will manifest in these parts, in particular on Dolorosa street, a block south of West Commerce, where new buildings for its National Security Collaboration Center, the College of Business and the School of Data Science will go.
The building sandwiched between the Kline's and the creek, the one with the old neon signs at 331 W. Commerce St., is slated to be renovated and eventually house a food and beverage operator.
"Options could include space for special events and also a potential rooftop bar, which would have stunning views of the creek project," said Patrick Shearer, a local realtor.
Shearer represents the New Mexico-based owner, registered as 331 W Commerce LP, which has the same address as the owner of 1900 Broadway, the Stay Golden Social House property that's being sold and folded into the Jefferson Bank headquarters project.
"The focus will be on something that will appeal to locals, whether it’s UTSA students living nearby, families strolling along the creek, or people attending a special event at TPR or the Alameda," said Shearer, who declined to name the owner. "I think if you build it for the locals, tourists will love it, too."
Three or four years ago, the city ran a clinic from the Leeds building, 345 W. Commerce St., before vacating. The local ownership group is looking to sell the building, which stands opposite The Vistana apartment mid-rise, co-owner Curtis Gembler said.
Another notable building is the retail spot across from Penner's, which is also located next to the creek. Most recently, it served as an art gallery, and an upscale Mexican arts store before that—but it's been closed for a few years. In 2016, the Suneson family, which has ties to San Antonio, sold the two-story building to an entity called Am Yakes LLC of Aurora, Colorado, which could not be reached for comment.
At $15 million, the reconstruction of West Commerce is among the largest capital projects slated for downtown.
The first phase, from Santa Rosa to North St. Mary's streets, will include the block that includes San Pedro Creek. Eighteen months ago, construction of this segment supposed in January 2019. That work couldn't begin until utility work underneath San Pedro Creek could was finished. Now, construction is scheduled to begin this summer, and be completed by December 2021. Other portions of Commerce west of Santa Rosa, all the way to Colorado Street, have later completion dates.
[ Editor's Note: I realize one question that remains unanswered in this piece is this one: Why would the city allow a local landmark, the one which most recently housed the Dollar General, to be demolished? I will ask the city's Office of Historic Preservation that question next week, and will update this piece accordingly. ]