A developer who recently moved to San Antonio from Los Angeles has made his first downtown purchase: a historic two-story building that has long sat vacant a few doors down from the future path of the San Pedro Creek Culture Park.
After buying the Leeds building, 345 W. Commerce St., last month with a partner, Cory Stehr plans to spend $500,000 sprucing up its façade and renovating its interior, he said. The building will offer about 5,000 square feet of retail space on its ground floor, which he hopes to fill with a local restaurant. On the second floor there will be 4,800 square feet of flexible office space with month-to-month leases geared toward freelancers.
Stehr and his partner paid $900,000 for the building, its listing price, he said. The former owner was a local partnership that included members of the Gembler family. The city has declared the building a historic landmark.
After spending nearly a decade working in the real estate industry in southern California, Stehr moved his family to San Antonio about six months ago. He likes the city's Tex-Mex culture, and wants to take part in the "resurrection" of its downtown.
One of the things he finds appealing about San Antonio is that it is unique among major cities in having a downtown where development costs are low enough that investors can afford to lease space to small businesses, he said.
"To me, San Antonio's downtown is bar none the most underrated, underutilized downtown," he said. "I can still make money putting in a tenant that doesn't have as good of credit, but I can grow with them, I can help their business grow. I can start with them when no one's willing to take them, as long as they have a good product, and I can help them turn their business into something else."
Stehr made his first purchase in the local market in July, when he bought a warehouse at 414 Vera Cruz, just west of downtown, which was formerly a factory for the Finck Cigar Company. The warehouse is now home to Element Kombucha and Tio Pelon's Salsita, a company which makes gourmet salsa. He also invests in real estate in Austin.
The Leeds building, which was constructed in 1929, is in the middle of the whirlwind of development occurring in west downtown. Next door, James Lifshutz is renovating the Kline’s building into a restaurant space. On the other side of the block, facing Houston Street, Texas Public Radio has moved into its new headquarters inside the Alameda Theater, which is being renovated. Across the street from the Leeds, Weston Urban plans to rehabilitate the former Continental Hotel into a mixed-use development. The future site of UTSA's new downtown campus is under construction two blocks to the south.
And, of course, the rehabilitation of San Pedro Creek into a walking park similar to the River Walk will tie it all together. The creek runs about 80 yards east of the building, beside the Penner's department store.
"With that character, and with San Pedro Creek, it begs for someone to say, 'I'll put a cool concept there’," Stehr said of his building. "We might have to fill it with some tenants we're not thrilled to take in the short-term, just to carry it. But when the street builds up, I would look forward to seeing a great restaurant. I can see people taking their bikes right off of San Pedro Creek and saying 'Meet me for happy hour, meet me for dinner, meet me for lunch.' People walking around, people bustling."
The Leeds has sat vacant for years, its second-floor windows boarded-up. Stehr wants to replace its awning and remove some of the stucco on its exterior.
He plans to make further investments downtown. On Thursday morning, he said he was about to leave for an appointment to tour a building on the River Walk.
He rhapsodized about San Antonio's unique cultural character and the artistry on view in its historic architecture—and lamented that so many downtown buildings have become blighted.
"Downtown San Antonio has all this character, but it's gone," he said. "I see the potential here, being from L.A.—not to tout myself, and say I know better than the Texans. I just think that when it's your own, you get complacent. When you see the same thing, you don't appreciate its beauty. Someone who lives in Bali and lives on the beach might say, 'Eh, it's a body of blue water, what do you mean, man? It's not that special.' Someone who comes from a polluted beach might say, 'It's pretty special.'"
» UTSA has started building its data science school, national security center on Dolorosa (Jan. 31, 2021)
» Continental Hotel sold to Weston Urban for mixed-use project (June 9, 2020)
» West Commerce likely to become San Antonio’s next nightlife destination (Jan. 18, 2020)
Richard Webner is a freelance journalist covering Austin and San Antonio, and a former San Antonio Express-News business reporter. Follow him at @RWebner on Twitter