At St. Paul Square, developers working to build a San Antonio nightlife district

December 8, 2021
Richard Webner
My San Antonio

San Antonio’s dance clubs are scattered far and wide. There’s Bonham Exchange in the middle of downtown and the Brass Monkey on the St. Mary’s Strip. Hotel Discotheque and DZĪR are miles apart on the far North Side.

Local builder David Adelman and his partners Michael Jersin and Don Thomas think San Antonio should have a nightlife district like those in Nashville and Miami and so many other cities. So they’re working to create it, in St. Paul Square, a historic neighborhood just east of downtown that has defied past efforts at revival.

In 2017, the partners became the neighborhood’s dominant landowner when they purchased more than a dozen buildings from Zachry Corp., including the Sunset Station rail depot with its iconic high-vaulted ceiling. They went on to convert it into the Espee, a venue that’s home to the 1902 Nightclub, with a Prohibition-era design scheme and state-of-the-art lighting and sound equipment.

They have recruited entrepreneurs to open new bars and restaurants such as Cuishe Cocina Mexicana and Toro Kitchen + Bar with the speakeasy Cellar Mixology in its basement.

“San Antonio is a great city, yet we don’t have a nightlife district, per se,” Adelman said. “There are pretty cool restaurants outside, pretty cool bars outside, but people don’t know they exist. It’s kind of a collaborative effort between all the tenants to transform this.”

St. Paul Square benefits from its abundance of historic architecture and proximity to downtown and the Alamodome and Convention Center. The partners’ vision owes much to the construction executive Bartell Zachry, who passed last year. Decades ago, he saw the potential for an entertainment district there.

“He just might have been a little bit early,” Adelman said, pointing to the recent growth of the downtown housing market. “But I think his vision was great. So now what we’re trying to do is to perfect that vision and take it to the next level.”

Adelman and Jersin recently discussed their plans for the district, their methods of finding the right retail tenants and their thoughts on City Council’s housing policies. They were joined by Moris Saide, a partner with the 1902 Entertainment Group that operates the 1902 Nightclub. The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: Do you think there’s an appetite in San Antonio for a nightlife district?

Moris: Let’s go to the economics of this formula. What we’re saying is what if we can accomplish getting tourists to spend one more night in San Antonio? Picture the Ubers, the meals, the lodging, everything they would spend if they spent one more night. So we’re trying to give them that excuse — here at 1902, and all around St. Paul Square.

San Diego, New Orleans, Nashville — all these cities have a nightlife or entertainment street. San Antonio doesn’t have it. We need it.

David: I’ve been a believer that if we execute properly on all the property here that what the Pearl is to food, what Blue Star is to art, I think the St. Paul Square Historic District can be to entertainment and experience. With the food and beverage experience it’s not just the food that you eat, it’s how you enjoy that food. It’s the experience of dining. If you go to Cuishe, it’s got a good energy to it. And Toro has a great energy and vibe.

Q: Apart from 1902, what else do you have planned?

David: We’re talking to a number of tenants. We’re considering the possibility of doing a private club, like a Diamond Club, in one of our buildings. We’re seeing that the private dining club is starting to take off around the country, definitely for a younger set. There are private dining clubs in San Antonio for the older crowd, but there’s nothing for the young professional crowd, and we think that may have a place down here. We’re exploring a wine bar right now, a more casual type place.

We’ve actually engaged the CE Group. They did a lot of all the original planning and activations at the Pearl. They’re engaged with us, starting to think about what type of activations could we do property-wide that would also attract people down to this place. It could be a small-scale music festival, or it could be a food-oriented festival.

Q: Do you expect the hospitality and convention industries to come back to the strength they had before COVID?

David: What I’m hearing through my sources is that the leisure business was up so tremendously that it almost replaced the corporate travel loss. The convention business, I believe, will come back entirely. I attended my first convention in the fall — I went to Chicago for the (Urban Land Institute) conference. I wouldn’t pay one penny for a virtual conference. I’m in the camp for a 100 percent return to convention business. I think that corporate travel in general will be impinged. I think a lot of people have been able to displace some of their travel with Zoom meetings, virtual meetings and the like, but I think a lot of that corporate travel will come back. Leisure travel is what’s really up big — primarily because a lot of international travel is down so people are forced to travel domestically, and San Antonio benefited from that.

Q: How do you go about filling the retail spaces?

Michael: Having complementary businesses is really important. We believe in success with numbers, so having multiple entertainment concepts where you can go to two or three venues every time you visit to experience something different is important. We’re looking for unique opportunities, best-in-class operators. Even groups from out of town that are looking to come into town. A couple of our prospects are from out of town that recognize this to be a really unique, interesting opportunity.

Q: Do you make an effort to get to know the business owner?

Michael: Yeah, absolutely. Kind of understanding their thought process. When we did this fill (of Toro), this is their second restaurant. These guys did an outstanding job with a tapas restaurant and they’re in a bar downstairs. So we were like, “We’d love to have one of your other concepts.” They came in and they built the space out themselves and did a tremendous job with their creativity. They’ve got the Midas touch with what they do.

David: I’d say there’s a difference between what we’re doing here, which is hyperlocal, versus what you see in the suburbs, where typically you’re going to get more chains. Consequently, that idea of knowing those customers and picking the right horses is really important. And I’ve picked some bad horses in my experience. You hopefully learn from some of those mistakes.

It’s definitely been difficult. I can’t tell you how many people have said, “Yeah, but it never really worked. It was on the wrong side of the highway. You’re just going to be another failed effort.” I’ve heard that so many times. But what you’re seeing now is a next generation coming in. I think that Bartell Zachry, whose original vision it was to restore this and create an entertainment and nightlife district 30 years ago, was on the right track. He just might have been a little bit early.

Q: What makes you think that this is the right time?

David: The migration back into the central core. It used to be that the only thing you had in downtown was that they were central business districts. They didn’t have housing, almost exclusively. Now you start to see the housing moving in. We don’t have enough, we don’t have nearly enough. We need so much more. But we’re definitely on track. Since Julian (Castro) became mayor up to now, we probably added 10,000 residents in the greater downtown area.

Michael: I think the other thing to mention is that we’re creating a district, and there’s not a whole lot of districts in San Antonio with unique offerings like what we’ve got. The Pearl has done a tremendous job of creating a district; Southtown has. This is going to have music, it’s going to have entertainment. We have a discotheque, we’ve got venues. I think people today want to experience things differently versus just in the suburbs.

David: At the end of the day, it’s about creating a vibrant 18-hour sustainable city. We’re trying to be competitive, frankly, with some of the other cities out there that are on a roll, like Denver and Nashville, Miami, places like that. My great hope for San Antonio is that at some point the word gets out. I’m not sure people understand how great it is here. We do! I’m not even sure some of the people living in San Antonio know how great

Q: We have a new City Council with members who are critical of the city’s practice of giving incentives for market-rate housing. Does that worry you?

David: Yes, I’m worried about it. It’s being portrayed as an either/or when it should be both/and. They’re conflating affordable housing with market-rate housing; we need more of both. One doesn’t come at the expense of the other.

Q: They might argue that when you build market-rate housing, new residents move in and the neighborhood becomes more expensive, driving the prior residents out.

David: That’s the basic gentrification argument. The answer is the most sustainable neighborhoods are mixed-income neighborhoods. You want to do affordable projects and market-rate projects in those neighborhoods. The people who own their homes, they’re actually great, they are actually benefited financially. Now, culturally, there can be some challenges to gentrification. We could probably go for about 10 hours on this. It’s super complicated and super contextual to the neighborhood.

I’m of the opinion that I’d rather see a city progress in terms of investment and renovation of those neighborhoods, rather than trying to restore them through subsidized housing. There’s just not enough money in the public sector to do that. And that’s usually the purview of the federal government, not local. So if all local government has the capacity to do is limit development, through regulatory environment or lack of incentives, then all they’re going to get is more of nothing. That’s what I worry about.

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Historic St. Paul Square offers a variety of parking options, including self and valet parking in four surface lots and the Baldwin Garage, in addition to street parking.

Valet Parking is available Thursday and Friday Evenings, Saturdays and special event days.

TEXT/SCAN to Park Rates
• 0 to 30min = FREE
• 31min to 1hr = $2.00
• 1 to 2hrs = $4.00
• 2 to 4hrs = $6.00
• 4 to 10hrs = $10.00

Baldwin Garage Rates
• 0 to 1hr = $2.00
• 1 to 2hrs = $4.00
• 2 to 4hrs = $6.00
• 4 to 10hrs = $10.00
• 10 to 24hrs = $20.00
• First 2hrs Free with Validation**

*Rates subject to change on event day
**Validations available at the following SPS establishments:
Beauty Haus, Cellar Mixology, Cuishe, Francis Bogside, Lilly’s Greenville, Suck It Kitchen Toro Kitchen + Bar, Vice Versa.

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