San Antonio's Skyline Is Getting A Glassy New Addition

Jul 29, 2016

The architects and developers behind Frost Bank’s proposed downtown San Antonio headquarters say the Alamo City skyline is lacking pizzazz, but their 400-foot, 23-story glass skyscraper could change that.

“It’s time for something new,” says Bill Butler, of Pelli Clarke Pelli architects. “The skyline is beautiful as it is--and as iconic a handful of very strong buildings make it, cities are at their best where they evolve and grow over time.”

There hasn’t been an office high-rise added to the cityscape in nearly 30 years.

“It’s pretty dull,” says Irby Hightower, of Alamo Architects. “I’m much more concerned about what happens at street level than what happens in a skyline, but a skyline is still something that sort of symbolizes the city.”

San Antonio’s silhouette can be found printed on postcards and T-shirts—or even tattooed on locals. But the skyline in the biggest tourist town in Texas draws mixed reactions from downtown pedestrians—boring to some, beloved by others.

“It’s always had a unique presence with the needle and everything like that,” says Jimmy Melinder, visiting from Houston for a convention.

“It represents the city,” says local Ryan Tidwell. “It’s our trademark.”

“It sucks,” says Mike Holmes. “They need to tear all these old buildings down and build something nice and glassy.”

Thanks to developer Weston Urban, something nice and glassy is on the way.

“A skyline can be synonymous with a city’s brand,” says Weston Urban President Randy Smith. “While ours hasn’t changed in awhile, it’s very strong. Our intent was not to radically change that, it was to renew it, to add something exciting to it.”

Smith says the design for the new Frost Tower is modeled after the Emily Morgan Hotel--formerly the Medical Arts Building--and the copper-topped Tower Life Building. The project aims to honor the city’s architectural history while pushing boundaries. Smith says it needed to stand out from a sea of stonework.

“You don’t have to look at it very long to figure out that our downtown is beige,” says Smith. “This has to be a very forward-looking building, and beige just didn’t seem to fit that descriptor for us.”

Frost Bank, Weston Urban and the city are all involved in the complicated real estate deal that they hope will be a hallmark of the so-called ‘decade of downtown’ and a catalyst for more development.   

“When I look at the skyline and see this new building, I’m going to think about what this one building did for all of downtown San Antonio,” says Assistant City Manager Lori Houston.

The new tower will be built just as the city develops the nearby San Pedro Creek. Houston says it will bring more parking, retail and housing downtown, as well as  keep one of San Antonio’s largest and oldest employers here for years to come. Houston says the tower is futuristic, but won’t overpower existing landmarks.

“What I love about downtown San Antonio is you can look at any building like the Milam, which was early 1900s. Then you have the IBC Tower, which is a totally different generation,” says Houston. “Then you have this new building. Our architecture transcends different timelines, and so I think this will just be another addition that shows we are a progressive city.”

Chicago has its soaring steel skyscrapers, Seattle its iconic space needle and Dallas its LED lights. But those skylines alone don’t necessarily mean more tourism or action downtown.

“People don’t go to Paris or London for the postcard view,” says Dallas architect and urban planner Patrick Kennedy. “They’re going there for the history, the culture, the street life--or for business of course, too. The skyline is really just the proxy for the density and the demand to be in a place, to do business in a place or live in a place.”

Skylines matter for marketing and maybe civic pride, but for architects and urban planners, it’s all about what’s happening hundreds of feet below.

“When issues of skyscrapers come up, the most important thing is always how does it meet the street and how does it engage with the public realm on the street?,” Kennedy says.

The new Frost tower will be made of reflective glass that becomes more see-through as the sun goes down. At street level, the glass will be fully transparent, revealing a Frost retail bank and other vendors inside.

While some San Antonians worry a shiny new building will disrupt the city’s historic feel, many are excited. The project got preliminary approval from the city’s historic design and review commission, but commissioners did make some suggestions.

“I think the building could be a little bit better if it was a little bit taller,” Historic and Design Review Commissioner Michael Connor told developers. “And I would encourage Frost and Weston to think about just how much risk they’re willing to take and perhaps they could take a little bit more.”

If built according to plan, the glass skyscraper at Houston and Flores Streets would be the sixth tallest building in San Antonio—staking its place on the city’s skyline by the end of 2018.